A Homey Bit Of Haute By The Bay

February 28, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Kent Manor Inn, Routes 50 and 8, Stevensville, (410) 643-5757. Open every day for lunch and dinner, brunch Sundays. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: first courses, $4.75-$7.95; entrees, $14-$28.

The weather forecast was for freezing rain, sleet and snow. The night was very dark. It was one of those arrivals where you tumble out of your car and into the inn, glad to be there at all. You discover a fondness for braided rugs and wall sconces, and the fact that your cozy little dining room has a fireplace absolutely delights you.

Maybe we wouldn't have been so enchanted by the Kent Manor Inn if the weather hadn't been frightful -- so the pink and mauve walls, the ornamental plates on the marble mantel, the candles, the pink carnations on the tables, the crocheted tablecloths all seemed not kitschy but warm and homey and comforting.

This is a legitimate country inn, if age lends legitimacy. The original part of the building was constructed in 1820, with various additions since then. It's now a large, quite elegant building, completely renovated with 24 guest rooms and a restaurant with five dining rooms, including a glassed-in porch with a view of Thompson Creek.

Somehow country inn restaurants have become synonymous with something more than hearty, home-cooked meals. You expect to find roast duck, not fried chicken, on their menus. And if it's a country inn on the other side of the Bay Bridge, you expect crab cakes and crab imperial and rockfish as well.

The Kent Manor Inn lives up to these expectations, although the haute cuisine has some puzzling lapses and the service is more what you'd expect with a hearty, home-cooked meal. For instance: I asked for rolls while we waited for our food and was told that the rolls came with the salads -- somewhat startling to hear at a restaurant where my main course cost a cool $23. Just bring me the rolls. Water glasses were filled erratically. And a small point, but important: plastic doggie-bag containers full of leftovers were stacked on the table before our dessert and coffee arrived.

I have to admit those rolls were worth waiting for, baked until quite crusty brown, with a soft white inside, and served piping hot. And the house salad they came with was excellent, an arrangement of good lettuces, ripe red cherry tomatoes, and a spoonful of minced artichoke hearts and hearts of palm with a fine vinaigrette. The choice with dinner was that or a Caesar salad, so outrageously over-garlicky that it tasted bitter (one of those lapses I mentioned earlier).

Kent Manor has a delicious duck liver pate studded with bits of truffles for a first course. It has the proper accompaniments -- chopped onion, capers, toast points -- and some improper ones, like a strawberry nestled between the onion and capers, and various other pieces of fruit strewn around. (The same fruit turns up, more appropriately, on the baked brie plate.)

Cream of crab was the soup of the evening. I liked the smooth flavor and I liked the white lumps of crab. What I didn't like was the texture: The soup stood up in a mound on the spoon. It looked and tasted exactly like the "crab sauce" on the seafood crepes. It was too thick as soup and it was too thick as a sauce. Other than that, the crepes were fine, with plump scallops, tender bits of lobster and a few shrimp.

Seafood is the specialty -- no surprise, given a location so close to the water. Rockfish was a special that night, fresh-tasting, moist and piled high with a fine lump crab imperial. I would say the old-fashioned Eastern Shore dishes would be the best bet, but the kitchen did very well with two small filet mignons sauced with a delicate bearnaise and and equally engaging bordelaise sauce. Hard to believe these sauces came out of the same kitchen as the crab soup/sauce.

Vegetables were definitely not haute: a baked potato or sliced potatoes baked in chicken broth with onions; an uninteresting medley of squashes, carrots and onions.

But the desserts impressed us, all except a white chocolate pistachio cake. The cake was bright green, had no particular flavor of pistachios and was a little stale besides. Try instead a more-sophisticated-than-it-sounds peanut butter pie or the chocolate mousse cake.

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