When old friends bought a 19th century house in Chestertown for weekends, they discovered they love the town, just about everybody in it, Washington College, the 18th century houses on Water Street, the Chester River, the quiet, and the autumn geese gaggles honking in the sky. Chestertown is an hour and a half from Baltimore. That's far enough from here to feel far, but near enough to make a weekend consist of not much driving and plenty of bicycling, bird-watching, walking, and sitting on a porch.
My own idea of happiness in Chestertown was eating at the Ironstone Cafe, but after a recent visit, I've added eating at the Imperial Hotel. Four years ago, the hotel's halls and dining rooms had the feel of something locally shunned and awkwardly managed, but a year ago September, Al and Carla Massoni, the new owners, changed that.
What's gone: surfeits of butter and cream, excessive prices for entrees, amateurish service and unease in the dining rooms. What's new: beautiful lettuces, light dressings, fresh vegetables and fruits, magical sweets, and a full room where people talk, laugh and enjoy themselves. Yet our meal this autumn, prepared by chef Daniel Turgeon, was not exceptionally expensive.
Four of us began with an interesting group of dishes: baked polenta with roasted tomatoes, grilled onions and jack cheese ($5.25), chicken and apple sausage ($6), a salad of seasonal greens ($4) and a medley of wild mushrooms, with roasted garlic, tomato and herb-crusted bread ($5.75).
The polenta preparation was the one ordinary dish of the evening. Though there was imagination in serving the cooked cornmeal in soft mounds, the tomato sauce all around reminded us of Tex-Mex, beer and steer fare, unsuitable to the menu's greater chic. That quibble aside, the story is all pleasure.
Chicken and apple sausage pointed up how different fresh, lightly stuffed sausages are from preserved and commercial ones. The poultry and fruit formed a delectable, firm, pebbled pudding in a vigorous sauce of veal jus, sherry wine, honey, mustard and thyme. My own favorite of our first courses was a scattering of intense, fungal, juicy mushrooms over two long shafts of oiled bread as broad as tropical leaves. Among the mushrooms nestled fragments of tomato and garlic, sensually juicy with broth.
The salad was an ideal one of its kind, mixing a variety of delicate lettuces with thin blades of yellow pepper, tomato, cucumber, carrot and radish, in a dressing as light as organza. We also liked a watercress salad ($5.50), peppery with the bite of watercress under chunks of goat cheese, crackling, walnuts and tomato.
Reading the menu, we conjectured glory would come in the appetizers. Wrong. Entrees were equally strong. The method for three of these was a cut of roast meat, sliced several times to open the pink center to the eye, and to make more surface area for the underlying sauces. At the side was a wonderful assortment of vegetables which varied from plate to plate, including a scattering of corn kernels, a few green beans, fresh spinach, red peppers, soft, pale crescents of cabbage, mushrooms and potato.
Each of the sauces was different and composed to charm flavors from its appointed meat. Lamb ($15.75) was complemented by a combination of mint, garlic and saffron. A mixture of dried fruits, predominantly plumped wild cherries, together with cut apricots, thyme, mustard and meat juices, sauced a cut of pork tenderloin ($16.50), while dark, boldly flavored medallions of venison ($24.50) took on further character from a sauce made up of venison jus, wild mushrooms, vegetables, herbs and red wine.
Perhaps our favorite dish, though, was a fillet of salmon ($17.50), firm at the edge, molten at the center, covered by shards of cabbage, carrot and onion, and lacquered in a quiet basil cream sauce brightened with particles of chive.
Desserts? Yes, the kitchen goes the distance, flags flying. An apple napoleon ($6) set fresh-baked apples between crisp, cookie-like squares of short crust, in a glorious sauce, part hot, part cold, part applejack custard, part caramel. For a raspberry gratin ($5.50), fresh raspberries and cut fresh strawberries were heated in a sour custard sauce, and finished with a topping of caramelized chunks of brown sugar. A fantasy of a chocolate pie ($5) filled a cookie-textured pie crust with a gentle, motherly chocolate pudding over a mocha anglaise sauce, capped by a swooping of chocolate meringue. Bliss, with pots of first-rate coffee.
It was excellent, imaginative food, served in intimate and pretty Victorian rooms by a comfortable, unfussy staff in a cordial and natural atmosphere. Now about their 1991 dinners, which offer three courses for $19.91: Next year, will they only cost an extra penny?.
Next: Old South Mountain Inn
208 High St., Chestertown, (410) 778-5000
Dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
ACCEPTS: MC, V
FEATURES: American cuisine
NO-SMOKING AREA: Yes
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes