Simple crab houses, friends' back yards and decks of boats aside, where are the good, interesting places to eat on the Eastern Shore? In St. Michaels, the Inn at Perry Cabin is superb; in Chestertown, there's the Ironstone Cafe; in Easton, Cecile's; in Princess Anne, the idiosyncratic Washington Hotel Inn; in Salisbury, the homey Basil. In Oxford? Asking around, I heard praise for the Robert Morris Inn. More than four years ago, a meal there had been pleasant but unremarkable. We went back to see whether anything had changed.
The view from the front porch had its past, grand potential, but on a winter night, it consisted mostly of dark sky and a glow from the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis. Inside, the inn feels significantly different from an 18th century set of rooms. The ceiling is fiberboard; the chandeliers look Warner Brothers 1920.
We chose a table in the first dining room to the right of the front hall, where we saw tablecloths, and a sign that forbade the use of pipes and cigars there. Had we been willing to dine at a bare table, we might have chosen the non-smoking area of the second dining room, where a large fire burned in the hearth. The second room was hands down the favorite of locals.
The inn's menu seemed peculiarly busy with extraneous remarks. James Michener's opinion of the inn's crab cakes was quoted -- 9.2 out of 10. Ellen Brown of Bon Appetit says, "The dining room serves ethereally light version of crab cakes and features equally deft handling of other Chesapeake Fish" [odd sentence, that]. "Quality Is Our Tradition." "For many years, the inn has received Travel Holidays' Recommended Fine Dining Award." We realized, we would have preferred to discover for ourselves most of what it said.
Promotions aside, suggestions included, for "lite fare," an oyster sandwich, a crab cake sandwich, an English burger (with Cheddar cheese and bacon) and a steak sandwich. Appetizers were mostly oysters and crabs; entrees were mostly oysters and crabs, with the addition of lamb chops, filet mignon and prime ribs.
Four of us began with oysters ala Gino ($4.95), a cup of the soup of the day (pea, $1.95) and a cup of tomato-based crab soup ($5, but we were charged $3.95). It didn't take long to perceive, whoever commanded the kitchen had a basic competence but no sophisticated food training. Gino's two scrawny and dry oysters wore, over the top, an unpalatable gummy mixture of crab in an oddly pasty bechamel spiced with what tasted like Old Bay.
The pea soup had some of the flavors of packet soups; perhaps it was made in part with potato powder. Happily, the soup took life from numerous chunky squares of ham. The crab soup, best of the three, offered whole chunks of crab, not the threads of crab such soups so often contain, and vegetables with real vegetable shapes -- green bean, corn, celery, carrot and tomato.
In the course of the evening, the kitchen's most solid success was an entree special of the day -- a glorious, simple cut of rockfish ($16.95), thick as a male fist and silky and moist all through. The menu said it was broiled, but we thought it likely that it had been poached or microwaved (not necessarily a bad thing when done to a fresh piece of fish), and then run under a broiler briefly, to melt the surface paprika into the oils.
Our other entrees were quite as plain, suggesting "plain" was the inn's culinary passion. A plate of scallops ($14) was a plate of unsauced scallops -- no play of any kind. Oh, there was a dusting of paprika, but nothing to suggest the chef might ever run wild and go French. Surf and turf ($22.95) consisted of four simple poached oysters draped over a 6-ounce cut of flavorful but marginally mealy filet mignon. A crab cake platter ($18.50) boasted two kinds of crab cake, one "the Oxford Way" (house specialty), and the other, a crab cake Morris (house specialty). The differences were subtle. Morris was unbreaded, and had less binder and more crab.
Accompanying each entree was a slice of battered, deep-fried green pepper, yellow squash and onions in custard, steamed broccoli and a delicious portion of oiled rice with chopped nuts.
TC Forgettable desserts included a strawberry pie ($3.50) made with flavorful strawberries but a grim bit of rubbery red gelatin, a proletarian chocolate cake with chocolate chips in the icing ($3.50) and, best of the three, a triangle of creamy cheesecake ($3).
We ate our past meal to Mozart -- Mozart Muzak, I wrote in my notes. We ate to Mozart this time, too; the second movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 is not for making the meat and vegetables go down. *
Next: Leilani of Hawaii
Robert Morris Inn, 314 Morris St., Oxford, (301) 226-5111
Hours: Lunch Wednesdays to Sundays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Wednesdays to Saturdays 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Accepts: VISA and MASTERCARD
Features: Maryland seafood