Inn at Easton serves a taste of Australia

Chef / proprietor Andrew Evans 'blown away' by national acclaim for tasteful, seven-bedroom haven and restaurant.

Short Hop

September 01, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

Tucked away in small-town Easton is a tiny inn that's poised to conquer the hearts (and stomachs) of food lovers in the mid-Atlantic.

From a cozy kitchen in a 1790s red brick house, a New York native with an Australian obsession has been quietly offering up dishes that meld Down Under flavors with Chesapeake delights.

Soft-shell crabs are served with a Vietnamese-inspired caramelized coconut jus infused with lemon grass. Australian "bay bugs" (slipper lobsters) are grilled and paired with a green papaya salad and yellow bean dipping sauce. And the signature dessert is an Aussie classic -- a warm, sticky fig and ginger pudding that comes with caramel sauce and English cream.

The Inn at Easton may have opened only two years ago, but chef / proprietor Andrew Evans has already begun making waves across the country.

In Food & Wine magazine's recent "America's Top 50 Hotel Restaurants" issue, the Inn at Easton was the only mention from Maryland. Publications from National Geographic Traveler to Southern Living have heaped kudos on the inn. And the murmurs have begun that Maryland finally may have its version of that gastronomic landmark across the state line in Virginia, the Inn at Little Washington.

All of which, in Evans' words, has him and his wife, Liz, "totally blown away."

"We didn't know what to expect," Evans said, chuckling as he remembered their opening day in June 2000. "A lot of people would have had a marketing plan in place. ... But on the day we opened, I literally dropped my screwdriver -- I was putting in bathroom fixtures -- and started cooking. We didn't know what we were doing. We just thought, 'Oh, the inn looks really pretty. Hopefully, people will come.' "

Like, totally unplanned

Evans' boyish demeanor, surfer-dude lingo ("like" and "totally" are favorites with him) and seemingly blase approach to the inn belie the ambitious chef and businessman he is.

From the time Evans, 37, and his wife set their hearts on opening an inn, they've had a clear sense of how they wanted the plan to unfold.

With six years of cooking in upscale Vietnamese, contemporary Australian and French and Italian restaurants in Brisbane under his belt, Evans knew he wanted to showcase his expertise in the kitchen. To complement her husband's food, Liz wanted the inn to have a modern flavor that reflected the fusion of bright colors she loved in her native Australia.

Together, they created a seven-bedroom haven that has the feel of a trendy W Hotel, with walls splashed with bright yellow or calming sage, $1,500 shower systems in a few bathrooms and furniture that ranges from Pottery Barn fare to lovely, hand-painted bureaus. For the added Australian touch, a boxing kangaroo flag hangs from the inn next to a Maryland flag.

There is pampering to be had -- luxurious, 600-count sheets on the beds and Aveda products in the bathrooms. And the inn has the added comfort of feeling like a home. Evans' University of Virginia diploma hangs on a wall, and pictures of the couple's daughters, Gabby, 4, and Lilly, 12 weeks, are prominent fixtures in the parlor.

"All along, the inspiration for me was the Inn at Little Washington," Evans said on a recent Monday while taking a break from a painting project. "It was like, how can we do something like that -- be off the beaten path but still produce great food and have great service and be a unique inn?"

Evans says the reason for his success so far lies in the inn's unusual offerings.

"For Liz and I to do contemporary Australian cuisine in Easton, Md., it's, like, bizarre," he said. "But people have been really pleased to see creative cooking that tastes good and isn't gimmicky. I guess that's why we've gotten attention."

An idea, and a baby

Evans was drawn to Australia as a teen-ager when he became pen pals with an Aussie exchange student. He then spent five months backpacking through Australia before college and fell in love with the warm, laid-back culture. He developed his love for cooking in a similarly accidental fashion. After graduating in 1989 with a degree in comparative religion and no job on the horizon, he began working as a cook at a tavern in Richmond.

"I was flipping burgers, drinking beers, having a great time," he said.

Then one day a roommate suggested he consider enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America. Evans took the advice and, after graduation, returned to Australia.

"I was very lucky because I worked in Brisbane during a restaurant revolution," he said. "It was kind of what America had in the mid-'80s. It was an exciting time because a lot of restaurants were opening and people were doing exciting things with food." He grew to love the fusion of tastes from Asia, France and England that made up Australian cuisine.

The couple moved to Arlington, Va., where his mother lived, after Liz became pregnant.

"We landed on my mom's doorstep in Arlington with four suitcases and a 5-month-old baby with this idea that we were going to open an inn," he said, laughing.

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