Discovering a star in Calvert County

Eating: Vera's is an eccentric jewel, but don't let the fun setting fool you. The food is seriously good.

July 26, 1999|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN COLUMNIST

Vera's restaurant is a jolt of eccentricity and exotica amid a staid subdivision in Calvert County. It looks like it's right out of a movie set for "South Pacific."

Banana trees line the bamboo-covered entrance. Polynesian wood carvings and Easter Island statues fill the restaurant. And the bar, about as long as an outrigger canoe, is covered with leopard-skin prints.

The owner, Vera Freeman, is even more dramatic than the decor. With her flowing gowns, pearl headbands and diamond rings the size of oyster shells, she looks like she swept into town from Hollywood.

She did -- several years ago.

I meet Vera on the first stop of my eating journey through Southern Maryland. She is a vision in glittering green silk. She does not tell me her age. But in a soft, breathy voice, she tells me her life story.

As an aspiring actress, she met her husband, E.M. "Doc" Freeman, "optometrist to the stars," in Hollywood. The couple eventually moved East and bought several hundred acres in Lusby in then-rural Calvert County.

Some of the land was turned into housing developments. But Vera and her husband kept several acres along a scenic spot, where St. Leonard Creek flows into the Patuxent River. They hauled in white sand for a beach and built Vera's White Sands Restaurant and Marina.

That was 40 years ago. Vera still keeps the business going. In an emotional voice, she tells me that her husband died in 1980, and, 11 years later, she lost her friend and associate George Wood.

Wood used to whip up dishes for the restaurant and play piano in the bar. He eventually moved into a wing of Vera's mansion. Their living quarters were separated by a large oval swimming pool that dominates the living room.

From spring to fall, Vera presides over the restaurant and marina. When cold weather hits, she moves the banana trees inside, closes up the operation and travels around the world. During her treks, she collects items, such as a wooden giraffe from Kenya, for the restaurant.

This year, she hired William Taylor, a local chef who has a masterful way with Maryland seafood as well as a talent for dramatic dishes, to take over the kitchen. "I thought, `Why not, it would be fun,' " Vera says.

In a corner of the bar, I enjoy the food and flair as I sit in a wicker chair that resembles a throne and survey the sweeping vista of forest-lined banks along the water.

I start with moist pieces of chicken dipped in a spicy peanut sauce and served on a skewer. I devour the soup, a colorful gazpacho with local tomatoes and a delicious mound of fresh crab meat in the middle.

I zip through the seven-boy chicken curry, a dish that is served with seven condiments -- scallions, cashews, chili paste, bananas, mango chutney, coconut and cucumber. In India, the dish was carried to the table by seven boys, hence the name. Mine arrives in seven decorative bowls carried by one waiter.

By the end of the evening, I'm swept up in the spirit of Vera's. I think of grandiose ways to order dessert with lines like, "I'm ready for my close-up and coconut ice cream now." I resist. But I do get two scoops of ice cream.

The next day I smell my lunch before I see it. The powerful perfume of barbecued meat hits me as I roll along Route 5 through Callaway in St. Mary's County.

I stop, as every man should, to smell the barbecue.

The savory smoke is coming from a simple one-story building that has picnic tables in front. A sign says "Bear Creek" on top and "fresh bait" on the bottom. It makes me wonder exactly what is cooking inside.

Owner Curtis Shreve, the pit man who cooks the meat at Bear Creek Open Pit Bar-B-Q, sets me straight.

His fire is hickory and oak. His meat is top-round beef, boneless butt pork and pork ribs. The fresh bait on the sign refers to his sporting goods shop, also called Bear Creek, next door.

The pit is impressive, an imposing 8-by-8-foot brick structure with logs crackling in the bottom and fragrant hunks of meat resting on a thick metal grate. Shreve says he built the pit himself with the help of several buddies.

He sells an array of barbecue, sliced beef, pulled or minced pork, chicken and ribs. Occasionally, to break the routine, he cooks something unusual. Today, the special is grilled frog legs.

I opt for a rib sandwich. He tells me the ribs are cooked in the Memphis dry-rub style, which means they have been coated with spicy seasonings and then cooked over the fire. Although I am a wet-rib, Kansas-City style of cook who bastes my ribs with a vinegary sauce, I like the flavor of Shreve's ribs.

Shreve, who has been in the barbecue business two years with his wife, Angla, says he's picked up a few tricks. Every afternoon, he fires up the pit just as the road starts filling up with commuters on their way home from work. The smoke is a lure.

"I lay that smoke right out there on Route 5," he says with laugh, "so when they sit in that traffic, all folks want to do is eat barbecue for supper."

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