A Taste Of France In Ijamsville

DINING OUT

December 20, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Gabriel's French Provincial Inn, Ijamsville Road, Ijamsville, (301) 865-5500. Open Thursdays to Sundays for dinner only. MC, V. No smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: no.

Dining at Gabriel's French Provincial Inn is a trip, in all senses of the word. Ijamsville is a solid hour away from Baltimore, so you have to be in the mood for a good long drive in the country. (Actually a good long drive on Interstate 70 West and about five minutes in the country, but you know what I mean.)

I last ate at Gabriel's in 1975. In fact, I was amazed to learn it's still around; you never hear anything about it. What I found is that this ambitious French restaurant in the middle of nowhere is as strange now as it was then. You don't go for the food, which is OK at best. You go for the experience, and you get your money's worth.

You have to picture the evening we were there: a stormy, windypitch-black night. When we finally made our way up the winding driveway to the 19th-century farmhouse at the top of the hill, after getting lost a couple of times on deserted roads, we were 45 minutes late for our reservation. We went in the wrong door, the back entrance, and the first thing to catch my eye was a stuffed weasel sitting on an ancient radio. If that weren't unnerving enough, the lights were on and all three dining rooms were set up for dinner, but there wasn't anyone around -- not a customer, not a waiter. Spooky.

Then the polka music started and we felt better.

This is not the charming, prettily decorated country inn you may be imagining from the name. The furnishings are plain, the colors subdued. And to eat dinner looking at a stuffed fox on the mantel across from you is a little off-putting. As is eating in a deserted dining room. (Although one other customer ended up having dinner there that evening.) Wear warm clothes -- the dining rooms are drafty. But there's always the polka music to cheer you up.

What's interesting about Gabriel's food is that you get seven-course meal for the price of your main course. (You can order a la carte, but I doubt if many people do.) No matter what you think of the food, the experience is probably more authentically French than what you'll get anywhere else around here. In fact, a friend of mine took his kids there before a trip to France to give them a taste of what it would be like. That's how I heard Gabriel's was still open.

First you'll get hors d'oeuvres brought to the table in a series omini-courses. The waiter -- cheerful and efficient, but the only employee we saw that evening -- is owner Guy Gabriel's son. He brought us a relish tray of olives and sweet pickles, the kind that comes in a jar. You may want to skip them and wait for the mild country pate, the slices of salami, the beets and a kidney bean salad that follow. (I'm guessing the selection won't change, because looking back over my review of Gabriel's from 1975, I see that's what we were served almost 20 years ago. About the only change has been the prices: a seven-course meal with beef Wellington was $9.50. Now it's $18.95, still not exorbitant.)

The soup du jour was next, a decent enough potato and leeconcoction that had cooled off in the chilly air before it got to our table.

Then came our main courses, the best of which was a special that evening, duck with peaches ($17.95). It was a quarter of a duck, about all anyone could manage with the rest of the food. Crisp-skinned and not very fatty, it had a dark, mildly sweet sauce with a touch of peach liqueur. But another special, salmon and crab in puff pastry ($18.95), was dreadful. It tasted fishy; the pastry was undercooked and pasty; and the sauce was the texture of sausage gravy on chicken-fried steak.

Speaking of steak, sort of, our steak au poivre ($17.50) came off pretty well. The New York strip was large, flavorful and pink inside -- but it didn't need the thick, peppery gravy it was smothered in.

Vegetables count as a separate course. They arrivecountry-style on a platter for all to share. Those that didn't suffer from overcooking, like creamed cauliflower, were fine. The carrots and squash weren't.

Next came a nice, simple green leaf lettuce salad with an excellent mustardy vinaigrette. Closely following it was a cheese course that included havarti, Swiss, blue and brie. This was the high point of the meal as far as I was concerned.

For dessert you might as well stick to the ice cream or sherbet that's included in the price of the meal. We got rum cake and a slice of mint cheesecake, both $2.75, which simply weren't interesting enough to justify the extra cost. Peach melba ($2.75), ice cream with a peach half and raspberry sauce, tasted OK but was thrown together with no thought of how it might look.

As long as you're going to all the trouble to drive here for French meal, you might as well call a day in advance and order a souffle for two -- chocolate ($16), Grand Marnier ($18.50) or chestnut ($18.50). I don't know of another restaurant in the area that has souffles on the menu. That might really make the trip worthwhile.

Next: Mick's

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