Chester River Inn, 205 Tackle Circle, Chester, (410) 643-3886. Open Wednesdays to Mondays for lunch, Wednesdays to Sundays for dinner. Major credit cards. No smoking area: yes. Appetizers: $5.75-$7.75, entrees: $14.50-$19.75. ****
I like to imagine the unsuspecting tourist who stops by the Chester River Inn for a quick supper on his way to the shore. He stands in the deserted foyer and waits, but no one comes. When he peers into the dining room, he sees that only a couple of tables are occupied.
He notices that the dining room is, well, frumpy. There's no other word for it. It's a large, open room that needs work to make it cozy. The only real decorating mistake, the red tablecloths, should be cheerful and somehow aren't. The old-fashioned wallpaper, the trim painted Williamsburg blue and the Tiffany-style stained-glass lamps don't help much.
In the summer the view is probably spectacular, but on a dark, chilly night the expanse of windows is daunting. All in all, it's the kind of dining room my tourist would probably expect. He'll plan to have the fried seafood platter and be on his way. Before the generic background music gets to him.
A fresh-faced waitress seats him and takes his order. She looklike a local youngster who wouldn't know a portobello mushroom from a breadbox. So my tourist is going to be stunned when, with perfect aplomb, the waitress reels off the names of various excellent wines by the glass.
But what I want to see is his face when his dinner is put before him. He'll think he's died and gone to heaven.
You see, Baltimoreans know who the owner-chef of the Chester rTC River Inn is. This summer, local culinary giant Mark Henry left the posh Milton Inn to open his own restaurant on the other side of the Bay Bridge. But nothing about the Chester River Inn itself indicates there's a super chef in the kitchen -- there's no trading on a well-known name.
Nothing, that is, until the food arrives at the table.
It might be a first course of sliced duck breast, slightly rare with an edge of crisp skin. The tender flesh makes a superb counterpoint for the crusty, fried grits cake and the crunch of mustard seed in the suave bit of winy sauce.
Or perhaps it's a modest-sounding crab and corn chowder, which was so good I had to restrain myself from wrenching it away from the friend who ordered it. Ivory-colored, creamy and perfectly seasoned, it's studded with big lumps of crab, fresh corn and a delicate dice of potatoes.
Maybe my tourist will start his meal with the pan-fried lobster ancorn cake. The kitchen places a gold-crusted square of lobster meat and corn on slivers of carrot and zucchini, then edges it with a sensational mustard-tinged sauce.
The main courses are limited and deceptively simple: a crab cake platter, several fish and shellfish, a few more meat dishes than you might expect at a restaurant on the water.
To say that I had lamb chops with mashed potatoes and green beans doesn't convey the sensuous thrill of those three baby chops, grilled just until pink, with their complex but delicate sauce, fragrant with sherry and fresh mint. I could write an ode to the fresh, buttery green beans alone, or the heavenly swirl of mashed Yukon Gold potatoes.
Order whatever fish is the special that evening, perhapsensationally fresh rockfish fillets with an superb hash of potatoes and crab meat and a zingy "Delmarva salsa" made with local corn and tomatoes.
Linger over the superbly cooked and seasoned broccoli florets before you start in on the baked swordfish they come with. They will be the best broccoli florets you've ever eaten, just as the green beans were the best green beans, and the mashed potatoes the best mashed potatoes. The swordfish is fresh and flavorful, stuffed with big lumps of crab blending effortlessly with a bit of melted mozzarella. Placed over angel-hair pasta with undertones of saffron, the fish has a subtle, buttery sauce.
Desserts are, of course, made in house. Yes, there are a couple of choices for chocolate fanatics, but there are also some lovely light confections, like a crisp meringue shell filled with lemon curd and fresh raspberries and a fine Key lime pie made with fresh lime juice. Only the homemade butterscotch pudding disappointed slightly. It was flavored with Johnny Walker scotch, which gave it a nice adult flavor; but it was a bit runny and the pecan pieces on top should have been toasted.
Throughout the meal, the service was absolutely superb; ouwaitress was barely noticeable but always there when we needed her. She was knowledgeable about the food and had the principles of formal service down pat without being inappropriately formal.
Fabulous food, excellent service, reasonable-for-the-qualitprices -- Mark Henry's new restaurant has everything but the setting this food deserves.
Some may not agree with me. My tourist, for instance, will probably be glad for the no-frills decor. He can, after all, stop by in a sports shirt and khakis for his seared scallops in curried mango sauce with mushroom couscous.