The pluses and minuses of driving to Ijamsville

Restaurant: Gabriel's Inn offers rich French food drenched in wicked sauces, but don't look for fresh ideas about vegetables or salads.

April 30, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Eating at Gabriel's under the previous owners was a trip, in more than one sense of the word. The family who ran it were as nice as they could be, but the 19th-century farmhouse that housed the restaurant had fallen into disrepair. It was a little creepy, as though a French Provincial inn had been crossed with Bates Motel.

Now new owners, Sean and Shirl DeLawder, have spruced Gabriel's up and given it new life as a destination restaurant for Frederick and the environs. But if you live in Baltimore, is it worth driving an hour to have a meal there?

The answer is, as is so often the case, yes and no. The trip is about 90 percent superhighway (Interstate 70) and 10 percent country road, and the road is getting developed rapidly. So it's hardly a pleasant drive in the country. But once you get to Gabriel's, there's something very appealing about the freshly painted farmhouse, perched high on a hill and surrounded by spring flowers.

Keep in mind that Gabriel's isn't a chic French restaurant, it's farmhouse French -- with flowery country crockery and down-home friendly service. Eating here is one of the few chances you'll get locally to have a traditional French meal with hors d'oeuvre, a soup course, entree, salad after the main course, a cheese course and dessert.

It's a leisurely meal, so allow plenty of time to linger. (If that sounds like too much food, you can order a la carte, but then you're missing Gabriel's great draw.)

Chef-owner Sean DeLawder has kept much of the old Gabriel's menu and added some specialties of his own. I wish he would do more updating, but maybe he's afraid he'll alienate loyal customers. So, for instance, when the waitress brings around the hors d'oeuvre cart, it's the same collection of pickles and canned three-bean salad and olives I remember from my meal here almost a decade ago.

True, the selection is enlivened with a garlicky kidney bean salad that never saw the inside of a jar, stuffed eggs, salami and a country pate. And chunks of marinated tenderloin are a good if somewhat offbeat addition to the platter. But the pate is nondescript; and in this day and age, you feel the lack of fresh vegetables and freshly made salads.

And speaking of fresh vegetables, the green beans that come family style with the main course may not be canned, but they've been cooked so long it's hard to tell the difference.

The soup course is a hot potato and leek concoction that's serviceable but not something you'd bother going out to dinner for.

The simple green salad that follows the main course consists of impeccably fresh mesclun greens that cry out for a classic vinaigrette, not Gabriel's sweet honey-mustard dressing.

All this could be fixed up with minimal tweaking.

So what might make the trip worthwhile? Well, If you love rich French food drenched in wicked sauces you'll be in seventh heaven. Filet de boeuf Wellington is a fat chunk of beef cooked pink as ordered and wrapped with pate in buttery puff pastry. Its dark Madeira sauce gilds the lily -- no holding back here.

Escalopes de veau Normandy swim in a lake of cream sparked with Calvados brandy. Thin slices of apple add a fresh note that cuts the cloying richness.

We also ordered the fish du jour, salmon adriatica, a highly seasoned stew of fish fillet, shrimp and tomatoes. We got instead salmon coulibiac, salmon in pastry. That was a problem because it was a long wait till the right dish appeared, but I was impressed by how gracefully the owner, Shirl DeLawder, handled the mistake. She took the dinner off the bill, which was certainly above and beyond anything we expected.

Before you go to Gabriel's, you may want to know that there are certain classic French dishes on the menu that have to be ordered 24 hours in advance: chateau-briand for two, sweetbreads, duck a l'orange and souffles in flavors like chocolate and Grand Marnier.

If you haven't ordered a souffle in advance, you still have traditional dessert choices available, like a silky creme brulee with a crunchy golden crust and a fine chocolate cake iced with butter cream.

There's even oeufs a la neige, the French version of floating island. The poached "islands" of sweetened egg white were more dense than they should have been, but they floated in a delicate custard sauce that was absolutely flawless.

GABRIEL'S INN

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 4730 Ijamsville Road, Ijamsville

Hours: Open Wednesday through Sunday for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$10.75; main courses, $8.25-$21.95

Call: 301-865-5500

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

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