Stone Manor, 5820 Carroll Boyer Road, Middletown; (301) 473-5454. Major credit cards. Open for dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sundays 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Prix-fixe menus, $45 and $55. ***
As we approached the fieldstone house, the door opened and a woman stood there beckoning us in. Behind her in the foyer two musicians were playing the last strains of "The Tennessee Waltz." It was unexpected, to say the least.
We had arrived at Stone Manor that Sunday for the last dinner seating at 6 p.m. The musicians, it turned out, were from that afternoon's "Harvest Tea" and dance. (Menu: curried pumpkin soup with creme fraiche, shrimp salad and chicken salad tea sandwiches, huckleberry scones with Devonshire cream and chocolate terrine with raspberry coulis.) So dinner isn't the only reason to trek 50 miles or so to this 114-acre farm in the Middletown Valley near Frederick.
But is any meal worth driving this far for -- and paying the $50 or so per person it will cost you? Only if you have money to burn and feel that a good meal is a work of art, worth spending a lot of time as well as a lot of money on. (It took us six hours if you count the drive.)
You won't be disappointed in the setting, an imposing structure set in the middle of rolling farmland. Inside, the rooms are tastefully appointed, not exactly luxurious but very handsome and beautifully kept up. The tables were charmingly set with white crocheted place mats, candles in hurricane lamps, a tiny topiary, a perfect miniature pumpkin and more knives and forks than most people know what to do with.
That's because the choice is between two prix-fixe menus, one five-course meal for $55, one of four courses for $45. Supposedly there are no choices with the five-course menu, and only a couple with each course of the other; but actually you can interchange the soups, salads and desserts if you want.
Each menu can be accompanied by a "wine package" -- a different glass of wine with each course, starting with champagne and ending with port. (The packages cost $28 and $22.50 respectively.) Of course, there's also a separate wine list, you can get wine by the glass.
The creative force behind these menus is John Walla, a graduate of the Baltimore Culinary Institute who most recently worked at the Radisson Lord Baltimore. His menus, which change every couple of weeks, make good use of seasonal foods and local produce.
Dinner started with a "chef's amuse," a decorative pink swirl of goat's cheese and red pepper puree on a homemade crouton. It was appealing, but a bit reminiscent of the pimento cheese that comes in those little jars.
The first course will be a soup, whichever menu you choose. The pumpkin soup with creme fraiche and a hint of curry was liquid silk. I would have liked it even better without the chicken quenelle, which made it more substantial that it should have been, given what was to come.
Speaking of substantial, lentil soup with confit of duck was the meal-in-itself sort, and a bit too salty. But the wild mushroom soup, a puree of mushrooms and cream and very little else, was astonishingly good -- its smoothness set off by the crunchy texture of a small wild rice pancake folded in the middle.
Next comes a salad or appetizer. Odd as the combination was, I loved the field greens with little quail legs, raspberries, dried corn (!) and miniature green beans. But we could also have chosen greens with goat cheese and pancetta in a warm vinaigrette or a couscous salad with terrine of tomato and eggplant (which just tastes like a little cold eggplant and some tomato pressed together).
At this point the demi entree arrived for the one of us who had felt he could handle five courses. It was two gorgeous chunks of sushi-grade tuna, seared and served rare, with rice noodles, black sesame seeds and a bit of fiery wasabi (the Japanese version of horseradish). There was an enormous amount of it, considering that a strip loin of beef was to follow.
It was wonderful beef, but it had been cooked a little past medium so it wasn't quite as wonderful as it could have been. But its peppercorn sauce was very fine, as were the autumnal vegetables -- acorn squash, carrots and onions.
Beef made its appearance on the four-course menu as well, but it had to be ordered for two. Otherwise the choice was between two fresh, thick fillets of tilefish (something like grouper) in a lovely, pale green parsley broth with more autumn vegetables, or my favorite, stuffed quail. Eating quail can be a lot of work with very little results, but not when it's boned and wrapped around a sensational crab stuffing, with an enticing wild mushroom glaze.
I love multi-course meals, but these were substantial courses -- both in the kind of food and the amount of it -- so it was hard to feel much enthusiasm by the time we reached dessert. Only something as sensational as the chocolate and amaretto cheesecake could have interested us at that point, but the apple crisp made with flavorful local apples and the homemade cinnamon ice cream came close. The essentially uninteresting pecan pie went uneaten.
Dinner wasn't flawless, by any means, but the evening as a whole transcended an oversalted soup here and an overcooked steak there. The service was excellent, although not as formal as you might expect, given the setting and cost. And the food at its best had imagination and verve.
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