Minor Sauces Marred Main Dishes, But Service Was Super


January 29, 1995|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Peerce's Plantation, 12460 Dulaney Valley Road, Phoenix, (410) 252-3100. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards accepted. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $5.75- entrees, $16.95-$24.95. **1/2

During the holiday season, Peerce's Plantation was beautifully decorated. You stepped from the dark bar into a multi-level dining room that was warm, cheerful and full of light.

The white wrought-iron trellis work, which gives the dining room a porchlike feel all year-round, was woven with white fairy lights. Poinsettias were placed everywhere, both red and the variegated peach and white. Although you wouldn't expect it, small red poinsettias at each table looked great against pale pink tablecloths. The smell of smoke from a wood fire was in the air, and yule logs and miniature gingerbread houses added to the holiday cheer.

I was struck by how cozy and warm the dining room seemed, even with its expanse of windows and even on a cold, wintry night. And from the moment we were seated, the staff made us feel cozy and warm. They pampered us -- no hovering, but lots of attention to details and prompt, courteous service.

All of this is no more than you might expect when your main course is likely to cost between $20 and $25. But it was nice just the same.

I hadn't been to Peerce's in a long while, and I hadn't heard anyone talking about it lately, so I wasn't sure what to expect. The restaurant has been around since 1941 -- one of those Maryland landmarks. A nice drive in the country, a pretty setting, a country-inn sort of feel to the evening.

A perusal of Peerce's menu showed that it was still classic Continental fare, with pasta and Swiss cheese turning up as ingredients more than you might expect. The chef isn't breaking any culinary ground, but I'm sure his clientele doesn't want him to. (Yes, there is a portobello mushroom or two, but there are also a lot of dishes along the lines of French onion soup and veal Oscar.) This is the kind of restaurant where you expect traditional dishes properly prepared with top-notch ingredients.

And that's the problem. That's not what we got.

Things went along smoothly for a while. Peerce's smoked salmon was presentable enough and had the requisite capers, chopped onion and toast points.

I liked the portobello mushroom stuffed with crab meat and cheese surrounded by a delicate puff pastry and a rich tomato-butter sauce. A seafood strudel along the same lines -- phyllo pastry rolled around crab, lobster, shrimp and Swiss cheese -- was excellent and incredibly filling, with a sauce indistinguishable from lobster bisque.

An appealing hunter salad featured slices of smoked duck breast arranged with apple slices, walnuts, watercress and radicchio and a fruity vinaigrette.

So far, so good.

But then came our main courses. Tuna tropical wasn't as fresh as it should have been, and it was overcooked as well. The fish and fresh mango slices were combined in an oddly bland, translucent sauce with chopped red and green pepper in it. Accompanying vegetables were carrots and overcooked sugar snap peas with the strings still on. If you wanted a potato, like the twice-baked stuffed one we ordered, it cost extra.

Under "Specialties" on the menu were listed two chicken dishes, two seafood and chateaubriand for two. We decided on the chicken Baltimore, boneless breast of chicken with crab meat and linguine. Alas, the "sauce Riesling" and its confetti of red and green pepper made the dish taste very much like chicken a la king from the school cafeteria.

Now that I think about it, the problems with most of our meal lay in the sauces. Veal Emmenthal started with tender scallops of veal baked with Swiss cheese. Unfortunately it ended with a thick brown gravy.

Peerce's roast duck was the best of our main courses. It's nice to get half a roasted duck every once in a while. Not tres chic sliced rare breast of duck, but a fall-off-the-bone, tender-meated, crisp-skinned, bones-and-all half a duck.

I could live with the sauce, which was brown and unmemorable, with a few peppercorns scattered for good measure and a sprig of rosemary. And I liked the wild rice mixture with it. But for the money, you want to be able to do more than just live with the sauce.

On to dessert. The pastry tray held a beautiful buche de noel, but it was just for show. Still, we didn't go hungry for a sweet: An eclair the size of a small luxury liner was filled with white chocolate mousse (instead of the usual custard) and topped with lots of chocolate. It kept the most serious dessert eater among us quiet for a while. For our least serious dessert eater: a pretty little tart with a bit of custard cream and a sweet, short crust. And for those who feel they should limit themselves to fruit for dessert, how about a pear cored and stuffed with chocolate mousse with a thick chocolate shell all around it?

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