Mount Airy Plantation is a restaurant in a large, old house down a long tree-lined drive. George Washington ate in the house and slept there when his stepson, the child of Martha Custis Washington, married. Nearby, in Upper Marlboro, spring tobacco auctions mark the old Maryland, whose woods and horse pastures are being lost to commuters' housing developments.
In the past, Mount Airy Plantation served some of Maryland's finer meals, but after expensive improvements led to a bankruptcy, the restaurant was leased to new management who brought in a new chef, Janet Terry, from the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. On a recent visit, we concluded the changes have made things better, not worse, than a year and a half ago. Our dinner, while not without flaws, was fashionable, interesting and urbane.
Four of us began an evening with a bowl of lobster consomme ($10.75), lemon tortellini ($9.95), a salad of breast of pigeon ($9.95), and three duck in phyllo ($1195). The lobster consomme was Japanese in delicacy of conception - a hillock of pale onion, white lobster and white crab in a white bowl, transformed by ladlings into it of blush red consomme.
We expected to be surprised by lemon tortellini stuffed with carrot puree. Instead, we wrote off five tough, chewy yellow pockets filled with carrots as craziness at $10 and one of the evening's few culinary gaffes. There was significant style to the pigeon salad, by contrast, which positioned the vigor of bitter arugula and twigs of tender infant green beans, both dressed with walnut oil, against deep-pink, medium-rare fanned slices of pigeon.
The duck appetizer, too, was exceptionally imaginative, consisting of a teacup-sized pillow of pale phyllo cut open to reveal a stuffing with three textures and tastes. Layers of duck forcemeat, sliced rare duck, and duck liver were mixed with soft bits of cabbage and pistachios. An excellent, clear, faintly syrupy demiglace lay beneath the enfolded duck.
Though service was generally rocky, the meal's most monumental flaw was the wait of close the hour between appetizers and entrees. We had the pleasure of munching on an exquisite, light, butter-rich house brioche, shaped like sandwich bread. Then we made valiant efforts to ignore the hiatus by staring at Oriental details in the room - a large Chinese that held a small autumn maple; Chinese-style pictures and chairs; a verdigris vase on the table containing a bouquet of thyme and small fuchsia snapdragons, and pale, greened copper walls. Finally, finding ourselves driven to sardonic comments on a Vivaldi tape, we knew the wait had gone on too long.
Yet when our main courses came, only one, a breast of chicken ($16.95), disappointed us. The dish read well on the menu: "breast of chicken with artichock and lardons of bacon, in a black olive fumet." In reality, the salty strident bacon overrode and canceled the tastes of the other ingredients.
Ah, but a plate of sliced, fanned blood-red venison ($23.50), in a demiglace composed in part of venison juices, and strewn with sliced wil mushrooms, was glorious. A breast of duck ($17.95), medium rare, red, sliced and fanned, was similar in design. However, in addition to the mushrooms, there were thin discs of fig, contributing density of texture, matte-dark coloration and a exuberant fruitness.
Most surprising was a fillet of roasted salmon ($18), set on a bed of cabbage under a cloud of "Leek crisps" - shreds of leek briefly deep-fried, to edge their onion sweetness toward caramel. The combination of salmon, leek and cabernet butter sauce was delicious.
Still, we missed vegetables. We missed starches - brioche doesn't quite qualify. The elegance of meat and clear demiglaces persuaded us we were enjoying a rarefied dinner, but still, one lacking in the contrast and the affectionate, intrinsic warmth of grains and roots.
Desserts were less boldly innovative and high style than previous dishes. I ordered "a plate of cookies and a bowlful of berries," with sauce citron and creme fraiche ($6.25). The fresh raspberries were impeccable, the fresh strawberries, pale and less right; the sauce citron was really lemon curd, the creme fraiche essentially sour cream, and the cookies tasted a day or two older and damper than perfect ones.
La Caprese ($6) was a square of firm, slightly dry, nutty chocolate cake, set in a raspberry sauce, next to a spoon of creamy Bavarian called a chestnut mousse. None of us could taste chestnut. Nor, in a dessert of three creme brulees - ginger, hazelnut and orange - could any of us distinguish definite flavors, though all three were sweet, creamy and soothing, under hard thin, crackly sheets of melted, cooled sugar.
MOUNT AIRY PLANTATION
8714 Rosaryville Road, Upper Marlboro, (301) 856-1860
Hours: Lunch Tuesdays to Fridays, noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday brunch noon to 2:30 p.m.
Freatures: Cuisine courant