Lunch at Cafe at Ladew Gardens is on a par with its famed setting

May 13, 1994|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Not many places are prettier this time of year than Ladew, near Monkton, one of the country's best-known topiary gardens. The good news is that the food at the Cafe at Ladew Gardens, recently taken over by Jane Fallon Caterers, is worthy of the surroundings.

I'm not talking about the immediate surroundings. The cafe is located in what once must have been Harvey Smith Ladew's stables. They've been converted into a pleasant eating space with a low, whitewashed beamed ceiling and stone floor. But the cafe is very plain -- and, more importantly, cut off from the lush greenness outdoors. Entering the comparatively dark room on a glorious May day, you long for a garden cafe with tables on a terrace.

Once you've settled in, though, you find that the place has its own charm. A cat wandered in with a customer -- environmentally correct pest control, as one of my guests pointed out.

Have a glass of iced tea and study the menu, a happy combination of traditional favorites and inventive offerings. The food isn't perfectly done -- how did all this iceberg lettuce creep onto my sophisticated plate of grilled chicken, herb mayonnaise and fresh fruit? -- but most of it is very good indeed.

Start with the cafe's Maryland crab soup, full-bodied and fresh-tasting, with a perfect balance of vegetables to crab and spices. Other starters are a bit iffy, like the just OK pate with cucumber slices instead of the promised cornichons, and a cheese plate with "seasonal fruits" that turned out to be a bunch of grapes.

You could have a salad for lunch, like the spectacular house salad with baby lettuces, chopped red and yellow peppers, sliced plum tomatoes, feta cheese and a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette -- tart with an edge of sweetness. Plates are decorated with a purple or yellow pansy, just to remind you that you are at the area's most spectacular gardens.

Lunches come with good breads from the Stone Mill Bakery. No, not quite all of them -- an otherwise fine club sandwich was made with toasted white cotton bread. If you don't want a salad or a sandwich, there are a few entrees, all in the $8 or $9 range except for "The Ladew Tradition," crab imperial, which is market priced. You might want to ask what the market price is -- we nearly fell over when we looked at the bill and discovered the crab had cost us $17. It is great crab imperial, with enormous lumps of backfin lightly bound with mayonnaise and seasoned beautifully. But ask first.

Desserts are worth saving a bit of room for. We were sorry to learn that the kitchen had run out of lemon roulade; but we loved the bittersweet chocolate genoise and handsome pear tart. The cafe's homemade chocolate cookies are as good as you'll find anywhere. But the star of the show was a modest-looking piece of cheesecake -- no fruit coulis, no strawberry topping. Just incredibly creamy richness, as fresh tasting as if it had been baked that morning.

Cafe at Ladew Gardens

Where: 3535 Jarrettsville Pike

Hours: Tuesday to Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon-4 p.m.

Credit cards accepted: No

Features: Lunch

Non-smoking section? No smoking allowed

Call: (410) 557-9466

Prices: $2.50-$17

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