Tradition wins at Williamsburg Inn

Restaurant: The inn scores with its traditional Maryland dishes, but other offerings aren't so successful. SUNDAY GOURMET

September 10, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The Williamsburg Inn is a Maryland restaurant from another era, when crab imperial was king and when the size of the Manhattans was more important than the vintage of the wines. At such restaurants, port wine cheddar comes in little plastic cups in the bread basket, and desserts will include rice pudding but probably not creme brulee or tiramisu. The waitress calls the house salad dressing "pepper parm."

So many of these places have closed up shop that perhaps we ought to designate this one a historical landmark, so future generations can see how Baltimoreans used to eat out. Why the Williamsburg Inn has survived when others have failed may have something to do with the fact that many of the eating places nearby are chains. Here you get nonchain food (some of it very good, some of it not), a setting nice enough for a special occasion, and -- even when the tables are filled and the music is on -- relative quiet.

Like the original Obrycki's -- remember it? -- the Williamsburg Inn has been decorated to look like a Colonial house, for no real reason except that it's a pleasant place to eat. (The food itself is Maryland with a smidgen of Continental.)

The dining rooms are divided into a series of smaller areas with old oak beams, clay tiles on the floor, 18th-century-style wallpaper and other period appointments. The lack of noise surprised me, given those tiles and the absence of major fabric in the rooms. But the clientele here tends to be older, and with age comes the realization that if everybody talks quietly no one will have to shout.

It's the kind of place where you expect the waitresses to be personable and the service good. To some degree that was true of our waitress, but we waited a long time between courses, longer than we should have. That may have been the kitchen's fault, of course.

It's hard to generalize about the food. The meal started off well, at least for most of us. Fat, beautifully seasoned little crab balls made us wish we had ordered crab cakes as a main course. Baked brie came baked in a small round loaf of bread, a happy inspiration. We cut it in wedges and with each mouthful got soft, warm cheese and good, chewy bread. We balanced the richness of the cheese with the bunch of juicy-sweet red grapes on the side.

We loved the flavorful shrimp cocktail, each shrimp monstrously big but not at all tough. But forget the clams casino; the plump clams were lost under their oddly seasoned, heavy coating of breadcrumbs and cheese. A spicy Maryland crab soup was otherwise uninteresting, and contained a minimum of crab meat.

Our main courses were just as uneven. Our waitress served a mouth-watering slab of prime rib to the man at the table next to us -- a specialty of the house -- and then had to inform us that was the last of it. After an envious look at my neighbor's plate I settled for steak a la nicoise, a special that evening. It began with a fine New York strip, pan fried to a juicy pink. But the lake of thick, highly seasoned brown sauce with tomatoes overwhelmed it.

Breast of chicken Hawaiian with pineapple and mushrooms, which was supposed to come with a teriyaki sauce, instead sported maraschino cherries and a cream sauce. Salmon, broiled with lemon butter sauce, had the virtue of simplicity but wasn't as fresh as it could have been.

More successful were the traditional Maryland seafood dishes. Lobster and crab imperial had generous lumps of shellfish in a buttery, mayonnaisey, deliciously wicked imperial sauce -- by far the best of our choices. But soft-shelled crabs generously stuffed with crab weren't far behind.

Dinners come with two vegetables, or a vegetable and an iceberg lettuce salad. Order mashed potatoes with your lobster and crab imperial and it may come, as ours did, with brown gravy. Vegetables are cooked old style -- to death. Ours were succotash, broccoli with cheese and fried eggplant.

I ordered the homemade apple pie warm with a scoop of ice cream, and it was out of this world: flavorful apples, just the right spices, and wonderfully short pastry. But the peach pie was icy cold, straight from the fridge. Peanut butter pie, rice pudding and bread pudding were decent enough without being anywhere nearly as exciting as the apple pie.

A mighty uneven meal. If you know what to order at the Williamsburg Inn (crab cakes, seafood imperial, prime rib and apple pie) you can have a fine dinner. What you have to keep in mind is that there are pitfalls.

WILLIAMSBURG INN

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 11131 Pulaski Highway

Hours: Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$10.95; main courses, $13.95-$25.95

Call: 410-335-3172

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

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