Chapter 2: Mmmmm, Good

DINING OUT

February 14, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Westminster Inn, 5 S. Center St., Westminster, (410) 876-2893. Major credit cards. Open for lunch and dinner Wednesdays to Fridays, open for dinner only Saturdays and Sundays. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: first courses, $3.75-$8.95, entrees, $16.95-$29.95.

When my predecessor reviewed the Westminster Inn, the headline read "Chapter 1: Flawed But Promising"; and she urged readers to give it a couple of months because it was new and ambitious. I ended up giving it four years. It was definitely time for a return visit.

Unlike some restaurants that call themselves country inns, the Westminster Inn really is one, with 13 guest rooms. It was originally a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse, though, not a house hotel. And come to think of it, the Westminster Inn isn't exactly a country inn. It's located right in Westminster.

So it will come as no great surprise to find that this country inn doesn't serve corn fritters and ham. What it does offer is contemporary American food, the kind that's quite expensive. Blackened redfish with crab meat and creme fraiche. Tournedos and fried green tomatoes. Quail stuffed with wild rice and sun-dried cranberries. That sort of thing.

Now sun-dried cranberries don't come cheap; but if price isn't a consideration, you can have a fine, even elegant meal in one of the inn's two handsome dining rooms. There's the Botany Room -- a pretty, glassed-in room, full of plants, where smokers are relegated. The non-smoking dining room is the Library, with built-in shelves of books along one wall, brocade-backed chairs, a crystal chandelier, thick carpeting and deep burgundy walls.

Almost everything we ordered was good; the only general criticism I have is that some things were unexpectedly sweetened (not always successfully). The smoked corn chowder, with sugar added, worked; the honey-poppy seed house dressing didn't. Or take the sweet fruit muffins that are served along with the other homemade breads; they don't go very well with this kind of meal.

Each of the dishes on the menu comes with a suggestion for a wine. And that's good. Given some of the combinations of ingredients, people may need some help choosing a wine. What, for instance, would you serve with tenderloin tips sauteed with fresh ginger and accompanied by sesame noodles and snow peas -- especially if you're eating them with a banana muffin?

Most of these combinations, by the way, seem overly clever only until you taste them. Then you approve. Take the boneless slices of duck breast, served medium rare with a sun-dried cranberry, fresh ginger and brandy sauce. Lovely. If I hadn't read the menu, I wouldn't have known the rice dish included barley and rye; but I would have noted the interesting texture. With this pretty plate came just-tender green beans sprinkled with a bit of red pepper confetti.

An inch-thick pork chop with polenta had a deeply flavorful, rich brown sauce of wild mushrooms, shallots, cilantro and bourbon. Accompanied by a mixture of slowly cooked dried beans, the dish was a sort of nouvelle cassoulet. The surprise, and I still can't decide whether it worked, was tender-crisp asparagus tips mixed in with the beans.

Best of all our main courses was fresh tuna flavored gently with soy and ginger and grilled medium rare. Roasted red peppers, crisp snow peas and water chestnuts and rice completed a gorgeous-looking as well as -tasting plate.

First courses were equally good. The inn smokes its own salmon over mesquite and serves it with crisp toast, creme fraiche, fresh dill, capers, a bit of caviar and chopped red onion. It's garnished with asparagus, and could easily be split. A first-course crab cake in a pool of mustard butter sauce had real lump crab meat. I haven't run into a crab cake this good for a while. A delicate smoked corn chowder had a garnish of dried corn, which added a delightful bit of pizazz. (The kitchen should heat the bowl it comes in, though.)

Such good food made the few slips, like that cold soup bowl, all the more surprising. An elegantly simple salad of greens had a too-vinegary vinaigrette. (Or you could have the overly sweet house dressing.) Tri-flavor tortellini came in a too-thick, too-salty sauce. And desserts, while good, weren't as inventive as the rest of the meal. (They were the usual extraordinarily rich or extraordinarily chocolate choices.)

All in all, though, we were pleased with the food. And throughout the meal, the service, while not formal, was good, too. Until the very end, that is. When you're paying around $50 a person, you don't expect to be rushed, so I was surprised that at around 9:30 the busperson removed the flowers from all the tables -- including ours while we waited for the check.

Next: Sfuzzi

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