Wonderful food, beautifully done Restaurant: Easton's Restaurant Columbia offers something for every eater, from the conservative to the daring. But you'd better dress warmly.

November 29, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

If you're going to travel all the way from Baltimore to Easton for dinner, it's nice to have four-star food at the end of your trip. And if you're traveling from Annapolis - well, the people I know there think nothing of going to Easton or St. Michaels for dinner at the drop of the hat. So they must be pleased to have another fine restaurant open up on the Eastern Shore.

The restaurant is the Restaurant Columbia. Its owner is Stephen Mangasarian, who moved from Vermont to renovate a late-18th-century house - formerly the Historical Society of Talbot County's consignment shop - and open a 28-seat restaurant there. He's not only the owner but also the chef, producing what he calls "innovative American cuisine," which he pairs with an all-American wine list.

The two dining rooms are a handsome, though minimalist, setting for wonderful food. (There is one serious problem: This is the coldest restaurant I've ever eaten in, and it's only November. Dress warmly.)

The freshly painted walls are off-white, the polished wood floors almost bare. One enormous gold-framed painting dominates the front dining room, which is where we sat.

Its traditional mantelpiece looks quite Zen-like, arranged with a simple bouquet and two found objects. The chairs are comfortable; the tables sparkle with white napery, gleaming flatware, glassware and candles in hurricane lamps.

"It looks like all the color missing from the dining room exploded into the ladies' room," one of my guests whispered. (The ladies room has yellow sponge-painted walls.)

The decoration for Restaurant Columbia's white and silver tables is the beautifully presented food. Grilled salmon, for instance, was sauced with blush pink mayonnaise, the plate strewn with a confetti of red and yellow pepper and a sprinkling of lentils. A delicious first course of crab and lobster cakes was decorated with a delicate, bright red leg or two.

The limited menu (six entrees) changes regularly. Right now the emphasis is on meats; salmon was the only main-course seafood. The restaurant's signature dish is a fabulous rack of lamb, pink and juicy and edged with crisp fat. A dusting of chopped pistachios added a bit of crunch, and a pool of raspberry sauce brought a pleasant tart-sweetness to the dish. Tiny swirls of nutmeg-scented potatoes dauphine were irresistible.

If beef is more to your taste, Columbia's thick, rosy fillet is very fine. And I love the fact that as much attention is paid to the go-withs as the centerpieces themselves. In this case, the beef was arranged next to a sauce of creamed leeks. Potatoes mashed with pumpkin added color and subtle flavor.

Columbia's quail were juicy little morsels, semi-boned and stuffed with wild rice and pecans. Luscious, although I could have done with a little less cranberry sauce (a mere quibble on my part).

As for first courses, Mangasarian is not above producing a comforting down-home soup like chicken and vegetables in a hot, flavorful broth fragrant with herbs. Equally heartwarming were the plump oysters and fresh spinach in a garlic-scented broth - not quite an oyster dish, not quite a soup, but somewhere in between.

For the more adventuresome, there's a baby pizza with a thin, almost crunchy crust and a fascinating topping of Gorgonzola, fresh figs and prosciutto.

With desserts, too, there is something for every eater, from the conservative to the daring. For the latter, homemade ginger ice cream in a spiky shell of crisp lemon phyllo. For the former, a classic chocolate mousse, suave and creamy. Other choices might be a traditional French napoleon, an apple tart or one of several other made-on-the-premises ice creams.

One of the great charms of Restaurant Columbia, in fact, is that everything is made on the premises. No review would be complete without a mention of the dinner rolls that arrived with our drinks: hot from the oven, feather-light and crisp-crusted.

Restaurant Columbia

Food: ****

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 28 S. Washington St., Easton

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $5-$8, main courses: $18-$26; major credit cards

Call: 410-770-5172

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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