There are Easterners who put San Francisco an hour north of Los Angeles and Westerners who put Boston between New York and Washington, so I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad thinking Boonsboro's on the edge of West Virginia when really it's over the hills from Frederick. Not that the Old South Mountain Inn, which is supposed to be in Boonsboro, is. It's all by itself on a hill, and easily accessible from Baltimore, by way of Interstate 70 west, then Alternate Route 40 through Middletown and up the mountain.
This time of year, it can be cold standing under the evergreens in the wind, but indoors, the inn's atmosphere is warmly hospitable, particularly in the old inn proper, where ceilings are low and walls are stone. We were seated in a glassy, new addition, which must have attractive views by day in spring and fall, but a high noise level was distracting, and we were blinded periodically by the glaring headlights of parking cars.
The inn is obviously popular. At the full tables, we saw people in dressy, casual and in-between outfits enjoying what looked like family dinners, dates and birthday parties. Photographs of Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon over the maitre d's desk made us wonder whether we'd come on a specifically Republican hangout, but a photo of Lady Bird Johnson suggested otherwise, and the inn is, after all, a very old building ,, that entertained both Confederate and Union generals.
The menu offers dishes Americans are known to like, together with things meant for spark. We began dinner with three classics: lentil soup with ham ($2.25), oyster stew ($6.95) and pate maison ($5.95). A fourth we chose because we liked the sound of it -- pork sausage braised with Granny Smith apples, sweet onion, balsamic vinegar and demiglace ($5.95). We polished off all four with pleasure.
The lentil soup was simple comfort food -- lentils in a gentle broth with fresh vegetables. The stew, on the other hand, was a rich one: a liberal number of beautiful, fat, fresh oysters bathed in an abundance of cayenne-peppery, thickened heavy cream.
The pate maison, a fine-minced, glossy city pate, not a coarse, liverish country one, came with toast points and a sauce of sweetened lingonberries (a sort of Scandinavian cranberry) that cut the meat fats with fruity acid. We all liked the pork sausage xTC best of all. It was a chunky, Germanic-looking sausage forcefully seasoned and appealingly complemented by the sweetness of apples and onions and the sharp edge of vinegar.
Fresh but undistinguished house salads came between courses. Iceberg and leaf lettuce, shavings of carrot and radish, and rings of onion and green pepper tasted cold from the refrigerator. The house dressing seemed to be a mixture of mayonnaise, sour cream and curry powder; "oil and vinegar" meant a tasteless oil.
Though pleasant, main courses were less interesting, except for a fillet of fresh salmon wrapped in parchment ($20.95), which remained especially moist and picked up good flavors from the shallots and dill with which it was enclosed. The shrimp and rubbery scallops also in the package seemed incidental.
Having seen an ad in the Cumberland Valley Revue that touted it, I felt I had to order "Our Famous . . . Beef Wellington" ($24.95). Visually, it was impressive, a large piece of meat, laid in a piece of puff pastry that came up around its sides. The space between meat and pastry was packed with a mushroom duxelles mixed with pate and ham. A mushroom Madeira gravy covered the top. On the same plate were a baked potato and a plain branch of broccoli. The dish's only problem was mass-production tastes, e.g., an ordinary gravy and a ho-hum puff pastry.
Probably any kitchen that serves the numbers served at the inn can only do so much. A breast of chicken saltimbocca ($15.95) was tough and chewy, but some wildly garlicked fresh spinach to the side caught our attention. A fillet of wahoo ($14.95), which our waitress described as a Pacific Coast fish, was featureless, its raspberry nasturtium butter spare on raspberry particles, sparer on nasturtiums. Both overcooked entrees were served with rice that seemed to come from a steam table.
It's not a mistake to skip dessert. It struck me as odd to serve artificial whipped cream and a maraschino cherry on a slice of pecan pie ($3.95). A triple chocolate cheesecake ($3.95) lacked the sock of good chocolate and the silk of good cheesecake, while the inn's Key lime pie ($2.25) had much less panache than the real thing and much more air.
Service was conscientious, youthful and cheerful, though slow at the peak of the evening. We arrived at 6 o'clock, and weren't back outside until close to 10. Still, the western side of the state isn't strong on restaurants, which makes the inn worth keeping in mind. Ask to sit where the generals sat. Next: Roland Park Cafe
OLD SOUTH MOUNTAIN INN,
Alternate U.S. Route 40, Boonsboro, (301) 371-5400
Lunch Tuesdays to Saturdays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesdays to Fridays 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturdays 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays noon to 8 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
ACCEPTS: All major credit cards
FEATURES: Varied menu
NO-SMOKING AREA: Yes
& WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes