Have dinner at Northwoods, and you take a step back in time. Not the kind of step back you usually think of when you're talking about Annapolis -- the 18th-century-tavern, history-lesson kind. (For that, see the Treaty of Paris in the Maryland Inn.) But going back to an era when culinary paradise consisted of beef Wellington, veal Oscar and chocolate mousse with a large swirl of whipped cream on it.
Northwoods has a reputation for all the old-fashioned virtues: consistency, comfort, coziness and Continental cuisine. It's also quite expensive, and for that you may want something more, such as cutting-edge style, imaginative food or very formal service. But if not, regulars over the year will testify that you aren't going to find a more reliable place than Northwoods. I don't see it myself. When I ate there, what was good was very, very good, but much of it was uneven.
There's a certain disconnect between the customers and the dining room, which feels Special Occasion, put-on-a-jacket to me. The room is done in shades of cream and dusty pink, with flowery curtains, Impressionist art and tables set with linens, candles and fresh flowers. But because it's Annapolis, the dress is casual. The service, too, is casual but not in a bad way -- the staff manages to be both good-natured and professional.
The way to go here is prix fixe, which is available every night but Saturday for $32.95. It includes appetizer or soup, a house salad, an entree and dessert. The surprising part is that there are no limits on it: It's any appetizer on the menu, and any entree. Even the specials are included. So, for instance, you could start with fine fat scallops and tortellini fixed Mediterranean style with tomatoes, black olives and feta, followed by a handsome hunk of salmon topped delicately with havarti and broiled, then served with a buttery sauce -- plus salad and elaborate dessert.
Topping seafood with cheese seems to be a specialty, and the kitchen pulls it off by not overdoing the cheese part. Crab, shrimp, mussels and scallops luxuriated on a bed of spinach with a creamy sauce laced with Pernod and glazed with Swiss. This was Continental cuisine -- and Northwoods -- at its best. At its worse was the beef Wellington, which began with a beautiful piece of filet and a little pate, but was encased in a gummy puff pastry and drowned in a lake of brown gravy -- er, bordelaise sauce. There was nothing else on the plate.
If you hanker for a bit of this and a bit of that, the Northwoods Connection, which doesn't seem all that connected to me, offers a lovely if small filet mignon, an overdone scallop of veal in a dark wine sauce and a couple of plump shrimp with a silky bearnaise. Shrimp turn up again as an appetizer in a potently garlic, olive oil and lemon sauce.
You'll also find shrimp on an antipasti plate, along with several of the restaurant's most popular appetizers: a fat little escargot, an oyster baked Italian-style, beef carpaccio with so much vinaigrette I couldn't taste the raw beef, and ceviche, icy-cold marinated scallops that are citrusy and intense.
Northwoods also has soups to start. If you don't fancy seafood bisque or French onion, there's a soup of the day, this evening a surprisingly homey and pleasantly stick-to-the-ribs white bean and tomato. Salads are drenched in dressing, but it's a good Caesar-style salad with mushrooms and, for some reason, winter tomato wedges. Side dishes are somewhat formulaic for the price. Whatever you order, pretty much, you get a dish of potatoes, tomatoes and squash, heavily seasoned with Italian herbs -- at least the evening we were there.
Pastries from the dessert trolley aren't made in-house, but there's a good local baker who supplies Northwoods with temptations like a Snickers pie and chocolate mousse cake. Desserts from the kitchen include a zuppa inglese, with sponge cake, strawberries, custard and too much whipped cream (yes, there is such a thing), a chocolate mousse, and, my personal favorite, a modest little creme caramel.
Northwoods is an enormously likable restaurant. It's a pretty place, with good service, and I can see how regulars could get very fond of it: They know what to order and what to avoid. Of course, with entrees hovering around $24, how many of us can afford to become regulars? But that's another story.
Food: ** 1/2
Where: 609 Melvin Ave., Annapolis
Hours: Open for dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$8.95; main courses, $21-$26
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *