When you get to 208 Talbot, you've arrived

March 21, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Can a restaurant in a small town on the Eastern Shore charge $43 a person for a chic little prix-fixe dinner and stay in business, especially in the off-season? Yes, if the town is St. Michaels, the restaurant is 208 Talbot and the customers come from as far away as Washington and Philadelphia.

For Baltimoreans, a meal at 208 Talbot is probably going to be part of a weekend spent antiquing or relaxing by the water; the drive takes a little under two hours. But customers from Annapolis can and do easily make the round trip in an evening. The cozy rooms of the 125-year-old building are a pretty setting for a special occasion without being too fussy.

The food at 208 Talbot is not your typical shore dinner. Although the sign outside says "Casual Gourmet Dining," there's nothing casual about a napoleon of smoked salmon layered with crisp wontons on a pool of wasabi cream or seared yellowfin tuna with charred onions in a red wine butter sauce.

Chef Paul Milne is nothing if not au courant in his presentation: This is some of the finest tall food that you're going to find outside the pages of Bon Appetit. The juicy rib-eye steak, for instance, comes with the swirl of potato and celeriac puree on top, and on top of that a tower of crisply fried onions. Even the mix-of-greens salads are somehow arranged to be tall. If for some reason the ingredients don't lend themselves to towering, sprays of fresh dill or some other herb will give the dish height.

Some may think this is all in good fun, some that it's a bit silly; but the ingredients are fresh and of high quality, the sauces are seductive and the combinations work.

The fixed-price menu includes appetizer, a fine green salad or delicious ginger-orange sorbet, dinner and dessert. Would I recommend starting with the silky-spicy butternut squash soup with a swirl of thyme-flavored cream? Or the fabulous oysters baked with cream, slivers of prosciutto and pistachios? It's a tough choice.

I would follow with the flounder and spinach rather than the sea scallops because the scallops' wild mushroom sauce sparked with chardonnay was a bit salty. The flounder sounds wildly overdone, involving spinach, green grapes, bananas, almonds, "crispy leeks," and chardonnay sauce; but the reality was very fresh fish lightly sauteed with fresh spinach and a garnish of fried bananas and a few grapes and almonds. The leeks were nowhere in evidence, and the sauce was creamy and delicate.

Did I have any complaints other than a too-salty sauce? Only that the kitchen doesn't have much interest in vegetables. Except for the spinach layered with the flounder, the only vegetables in evidence were "crispy" fried garnishes.

If you have any room left, 208 Talbot's desserts are spectacular: a light, lemony cheesecake; a cake something like a fallen chocolate souffle with homemade vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce; light-as-a-feather tiramisu. But the dessert the restaurant is most famous for is its coffee Butterfinger crunch ice cream. The recipe is included in a cookbook called Great Chefs of the East.

208 Talbot

208 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels (410) 745-3838

Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, noon-2 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, 5 p.m.-9 p.m.

Credit cards: Major credit cards

Prices: Prix fixe dinner $43

Pub Date: 3/21/96

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