There's nothing wrong with the Ladew Cafe's dinner menu that serving it in November wouldn't fix.
Or here's an simpler solution: Offer the lunch menu at night.
Imagine this scenario. It's 90 degrees in Baltimore, so you drive out to Monkton to have supper in the lush greenness of Ladew Topiary Gardens. You've heard that the respected Brass Elephant Caterers has taken over Ladew's cafe, so how can it miss?
In spite of the heat, it's pleasant on the cafe's brick patio, what with the large, fragrant gardenia plant at its center, the perennials around the stone wall, the deep woods as backdrop. (You might as well eat outdoors because the cafe isn't air-conditioned.)
Not a breeze is stirring, but with a nice cold supper you'll be perfectly comfortable.
So what is the soup of the day? A spectacular cream of asparagus, silky against the tongue and a perfect pale green.
The only catch: It's served hot.
Feel like an entree salad? Sorry, it's available only at lunch.
At lunch the salmon comes with baby lettuces, apples, grapes, walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette. At dinner, unfortunately, we got two vegetables that not only were hot but looked hot on the plate: a timbale of bright yellow rice and highly seasoned chunks of zucchini cooked with tomatoes.
Portions are small here, which is fine - they are priced accordingly. Too bad the kitchen overcooked the thin fillet of salmon. Its raspberry sauce, a bit sweet for my taste, turned up again on both the baked Brie and our dessert plates; but at least the kitchen didn't drown the fish in it.
A crab cake was chock-full of lump crab meat and nicely seasoned, except that it was too salty. It had an excellent remoulade sauce, but the waitress had to be reminded twice to bring it. When it finally arrived, she apologized, saying, "So I brought enough for two." But since there was only one crab cake, the friend who ordered it wasn't impressed.
Saffron rice and zucchini wouldn't be my first choice to have with the crab cake. Much more appealing-sounding was what comes with it at lunchtime, a vegetable pasta salad. If you order the boneless chicken breast with a crust of Parmesan cheese at dinner, you get rice and vegetables; at lunch, it comes with Caesar salad.
The dinner menu is quite limited, and that's probably wise. If you don't want soup or salad, the only first course is warm Brie with caramelized almonds and raspberry sauce. It's not combination that appeals to me - to my mind it's an appetite killer, not an appetizer - but I did enjoy the softly melting cheese itself. The rest of the table liked Ladew's baked Brie once they had something to eat it with. I'm not talking about crackers or bread, although we had to ask for them at least twice. I mean knives and forks, which we got eventually - after the Brie and our salads had been put before us.
For a first course, you could order a salad of baby lettuces with raspberry vinaigrette, which tasted not unpleasantly like a lighter version of the raspberry sauce on the salmon. But I recommend the classic Caesar salad, with good, fresh romaine, lots of cheese, whole anchovies and a zingy dressing.
Follow it with farfalle pasta tossed with shiitakes, chevre, sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives and pine nuts, and you've got yourself a meal.
Save room for dessert, because it's the best part of supper. There are only three: strawberries on a warm, sweet biscuit covered with softly whipped cream; a suave chocolate mousse bombe; a creamy cheesecake with a fresh berry sauce. We ordered two coffees and an ice tea with dessert; but the waitress couldn't remember what we had wanted, she said, so she just brought an extra coffee.
On paper the service sounds dreadful (and I haven't even told you about the waiter who brought a second bottle of wine to the table and opened it without asking). But they were nice kids who seemed to be trying hard. Imagine that your teen-agers were helping out at a dinner party - that's what it felt like. The setting was casual and we were having a good time, so it was hard to get too upset that our water glasses weren't refilled.
Ladew Topiary Gardens Cafe
Where: 3535 Jarrettsville Pike, Monkton
Hours: Open for lunch every day, for dinner Thursdays only.
Prices: Appetizers: $4.75-$6.75, main courses: $9.75-$12.25. Major credit cards.
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *
Pub Date: 8/02/98