In The Heat Of Summer, A Fine Winter Meal


September 11, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Antrim 1844, 30 Trevanion Road, Taneytown, (410) 756-6812. Open every day for dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: $50 prix fixe. ** 1/2

Earlier this year the owners of Antrim 1844, one of the most elegant inns in the area, decided to open the doors of their restaurant to the public. I knew very little about it except that Dorothy and Richard Mollett had made two important hires: Sharon Ashburn, who had worked at the Pavilion and Tabrizi's, was the executive chef and Stewart Dearie, formerly of the Conservatory, was maitre d'hotel and general manager. The new restaurant's credentials sounded impeccable.

ZTC I was a bit surprised to learn that dinner would be a fixed price of $50 a person excluding drinks, taxes and tip. I'm not sure I've spent that at Baltimore's most expensive restaurants. And the setup is a little unusual: Hors d'oeuvres are served between 6:30 p.m. and the first seating, 7:30 p.m.

The drive from Baltimore takes about an hour, but it's an easy drive through rolling countryside. Alas, the former plantation is now in downtown Taneytown, Carroll County, behind a red and yellow Sheetz gas station; but you can only see the station out of certain windows. It's the kind of country inn that gets featured in the pages of Colonial Homes: The restoration is magnificent, with antiques everywhere, formal gardens, grass tennis courts, lawn bowling.

I was disconcerted when we first stepped into the inn's restaurant, once a smokehouse. It was small, dark and smelled of mildew. In the winter, the room, with its brick floors, large fireplaces and red plaid furnishings, might seem cozy. On a warm evening in August, I was delighted when the hostess led us through it to the back porch of the main house.

The porch overlooks the gardens, in magnificent flower this time of year. The formal table settings paired with white wicker porch furniture create a look at once elegant and comfortable. You sit and watch the sun setting slowly over the rolling acres.

There are only two problems.

It's hot.

And there are flies.

But it was still too early to be seated. The hostess led us into the house to a bar, served us drinks, urged us to wander wherever we pleased and then disappeared. We looked around for the hors d'oeuvres, and when none were forthcoming took a self-guided tour through the mansion, including its nine guest rooms. Each room is more beautifully appointed than the last.

When we got back downstairs, the hostess, who would soon turn into our waitress, had a plate of canapes: a bit of tenderloin and watercress mayonnaise on little rounds of French bread. When we had each taken one, she took the tray away and came back to seat us.

It was hot enough still that my appetite started to flag. Not to worry, the waitress appeared with three plates, each bearing only one cold mussel in its shell. A very fine mussel, to be sure, with a mayonnaise tasting vividly of cilantro. But still.

We were not to go hungry. The five-course dinner to follow would include more than enough food. It was beautifully prepared, each plate garnished with fresh herbs that must have come straight from the inn's gardens (three different varieties of basil, for instance). But it was a strangely inappropriate menu for a hot August night when the guests were eating without the benefit of air conditioning. It made little use of seasonal foods (except for some baby squash). This was a winter menu.

It began with coquilles St. Jacques, the fresh scallops perfectly cooked in their light cream sauce and cheesy topping. A hearts )) of palm salad followed, with a delicate vinaigrette, beautiful baby lettuces, a confetti of red pepper and orange segments. But to use canned hearts of palm and oranges in August instead of a gorgeous local tomato is just pure snobbishness. The intense flavors of the excellent rolls, with sun-dried tomato and oregano, weren't very summery either.

A bit of lemony homemade sorbet followed -- I would have been happy with it and nothing else at this point. But on to the main course; there were three choices so we got to sample everything.

The gaminess of the boneless quail with corn bread stuffing and garlic mashed potatoes would have been appealing in almost any other season. The fillet of beef was overcooked but still delicious with its intensely flavored, dark bourbon sauce and sauteed wild mushrooms. A superb potato torta accompanied it. The most summery-sounding of the choices was salmon with spinach, but it turned out to be wrapped in puff pastry with a

cream sauce. Delicious, but filling, especially with new potatoes charmingly carved in the shape of mushrooms.

I would have liked to finish with more of that sorbet. But the creme brulee with its cream custard and burnt-sugar topping was fabulous. A chocolate pecan pie with creme anglaise (custard sauce) dazzled us all. And for a lighter dessert (although that adjective isn't really in this kitchen's vocabulary), there were raspberries and strawberries in orange liqueur. If I had known about the creme anglaise in advance, I would have asked for it rather than the stiffly whipped cream on top of the fruit.

Our check for $150 for the food didn't exactly surprise me; after all, you know what the prix fixe is going in. But then you add $16 for drinks (one vodka on the rocks, one glass of California chardonnay and one glass of merlot). That's not much in the way of alcohol for three people. If you like a drink or two before dinner plus a bottle of wine, you're going to end up with a final bill that may take your breath away.

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