We spent a few hours wandering through the antiques shops in Havre de Grace before walking to the Vandiver Inn, a striking, green, Victorian mansion on Union Avenue. Robert and Sarah Scardina run the inn, which was built in 1886, and serve elegant meals on Friday and Saturday nights.
While we waited for friends to arrive, we took a few minutes to stroll through the quiet front parlor and some empty guest rooms the first floor, all appointed in period antiques. Our dining room, with six tables in front of a painted white fireplace, had an intimate, hushed ambience, charming floral wallpaper and lace curtains, and the polish of fresh flowers and fine china.
If you're hoping to eat at the Vandiver Inn, be sure to make reservations. Seating is limited. So is the menu. Serving dinner only on two evenings a week, chef Robert Scardina wisely keeps choices to three appetizers and entrees nightly.
Our meal got off to an impressive start. Tender, "flash fried" calamari were battered in the light-est of coatings and served with a citrus tartar sauce full of capers. Curried apple and carrot soup had wonderful taste and texture. The silkiness of pureed apples. The bite of diced carrots. The piquancy of ginger and spices. Even the garnish of dried apple slices was perfect.
Potato and goat-cheese tart turned out to be a layering of cooked red-bliss wedges and dollops of creamy, fresh goat cheese. There was no crust involved at all, just potatoes and cheese, accented with fresh raspberries and a splash of raspberry vinaigrette.
Our dinners came with a salad of tiny mesclun greens, grilled Roma tomatoes, artichoke hearts and crunchy strips of won ton. We had a choice of two homemade dressings, a simple pepper vinaigrette and a wonderful creamy mustard.
Scardina, who has a culinary degree from Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, S.C., seems to aim for simplicity rather than high drama with his entrees. We liked the stuffed chicken breast best. Inside, braised leeks infused the chicken with moistness and delicate onion flavor.
The pan-seared medallions of beef tenderloin were clearly overcooked, which marred what could have been a terrific dish. We liked the depth of flavor of the light merlot and wild mushroom sauce, though, and the homemade mashed potatoes. The potatoes were served plain with the stuffed chicken, but spiked with horseradish to complement the beef.
Yellow-fin tuna was handled in a straightforward way, grilled and placed on a pool of orange-butter sauce next to a ring of cumin-scented wild rice and sauteed spinach. It was fine, but not full of fireworks.
We had no complaints about dessert -- the smoothest creme brulee, served with fresh berries and a pistachio biscotti, and a parfait glass filled with trifle -- layers of whipped cream and Kahlua-soaked chocolate cake.
At $19 to $22 for an entree, dinner at the Vandiver can be expensive, especially when you consider that a 17 percent gratuity is added to all food and beverage charges, and that there are few bargains on the limited wine list.
Still, if an intimate meal in a Victorian inn appeals to you, dining here is worth the price.
Where: 301 S. Union Ave., Havre de Grace
Hours: Open for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays only
Prices: Appetizers, $4-$7; entrees, $19-$22; major credit cards
Pub Date: 4/12/98