This inn is not that far from perfection

February 29, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Some Eastern Shore towns may close up for the winter, but not St. Michaels. And certainly not the luxurious Inn at Perry Cabin. Just try getting a last-minute dinner reservation there on a Saturday night, even in February.

The Inn at Perry Cabin is one of a group of hotels owned by Sir Bernard Ashley and his wife, Laura. That's why it's decorated from tip to toe with those tiny floral prints Laura Ashley is famous for.

Most of us can't afford to stay there except for a very special occasion. (Rooms cost from $150 to $400 out of season.) But dinner is within the realm of possibility, especially when entrees with a salad are $20, as opposed to the prix fixe menu of $57.50 a person on Saturday night.

In spite of the prices, there's no grandeur here. You won't feel intimidated. It's a country home as opposed to a mansion -- with quietly luxurious rooms, to be sure, but still a country home. The dining rooms are fresh-looking and comfortable, with fireplaces and all the pretty charm of Laura Ashley interiors.

We couldn't talk the hostess into seating us by a fireplace, but other than that, the service was as good as I've had anywhere. I've heard the guest-to-staff ratio is 1-to-1 here. That may not be quite true in the dining room, but the service was certainly remarkable -- and remarkably unobtrusive.

The inn's wine list won the Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence last year.

As you can see, I've spent a long time getting to the food. That's not because it isn't very good, but because it isn't quite as good as you'd expect, given the perfection of everything else.

Nothing could make the seared foie gras, as delicate as a cloud, less than enticing. But the quantity of sweet peach and raisin chutney served on and around it and the "maple-scented jus" didn't add anything. Roast quail with wild mushroom polenta suffered a bit from the same problem. The sweetness of the very good poached fruits plus a fine cranberry sauce overshadowed the main event.

Salmon fillet (with shrimp rolls, asparagus and pickled onions) simply wasn't as gorgeously fresh as I would have expected, and it had been cooked a good long while.

Enough carping. A tender lamb shank had a dark, intensely flavorful sauce that elevated it from comfort food to haute cuisine. The presentation -- it was surrounded by ovals of carrots and other spring-like vegetables -- was elegant.

A first course of charred, very rare tuna with clever little chick pea fries was nearly its equal, as were thin, crisply fried eggplant slices layered with tahini and served with a garnish of sweet red peppers and olives.

The rolls alone (sourdough, cheese-herb or multigrain) would have won me over to the kitchen. They arrive at the table one by one so you always have a hot one.

But wait, there's more. A silky cappuccino mousse in the shape of an inverted cone. An individual pear tart with goat's cheese ice cream (unexpected and quite good). And my favorite of the desserts: an individual hot souffle, puffy and light and studded with dried cherries, with homemade chocolate kirsch ice cream on the side.

Inn at Perry Cabin

308 Watkins Lane, St. Michaels

(410) 745-2200

Open for breakfast 8 a.m.-10:30 a.m., lunch 12:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 6 p.m.-9:30 p.m.

Major credit cards

Prices: Prix fixe five-course meal $57.50 Saturday only, otherwise $20 for entree and salad through March

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