Elegant, excellent dining in a little Eastern Shore town

Julia's is putting Centreville on the culinary map

Sunday Gourmet

October 24, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

I would like to be able to report that I was the first to discover Julia's in Centreville, but the truth is, I'm about the last. Open now for more than a year, this charming restaurant is thriving because of both local support and an infusion of customers from as far away as Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington.

Nothing drove this home to me better than when we called for reservations a week in advance and found that the choices were a 5:30 p.m. or an 8 p.m. seating. Everything else was taken. This at a restaurant in what I always thought of as a sleepy little Eastern Shore town -- a restaurant that isn't cheap, by any stretch of the imagination. (Entrees average around $25.)

Don't let the neon "cafe" sign over Julia's restored storefront fool you. It's a holdover from the Cafe on the Square that used to be there. Inside is a dining room that manages to be elegantly casual. The hardwood floors gleam, the high ceiling is retro pressed tin, and large-scale, edgy seascapes line the butter-yellow walls. The tables are set for fine dining with white linen, heavy flatware and sparkling crystal, but the bentwood chairs make the room seem less formal.

Almost everything here strikes the right note for the way affluent Americans like to eat out in the '00s. The servers are warm and friendly but not too chatty. If a waitress gets busy, other members of the staff pick up the slack. The small wine list is thoughtful and not too pricey. And the food is intriguing but not too offbeat, beautifully presented, and, most important, tastes great.

The surprising thing is that Julia's is the work of two comparative youngsters, David and Valerie Clark. David, 37, previously worked in the kitchens of 208 Talbot, Hemingway's, Tavern on the Bay and Kent Manor Inn on the Eastern Shore. His wife, Valerie, 33, was dining room manager at 208 Talbot. Both were raised in Centreville. The restaurant is named after their dog, a shepherd-chow mix, but with its culinary association, the name serves as a kind of metaphor for a combination of haute cuisine and down-home comfort.

The haute cuisine comes in the form of contemporary American with Asian accents. (David is of Korean descent.) He can do elaborate, but he's not above simplicity when it's called for. Case in point: the oyster stew, which may be the best I've ever had. The oysters were poached separately, so they were beautifully plump and sweetly juicy in their bath of perfectly seasoned cream and oyster liquor.

If you want more excitement (although why would you?), the crab summer rolls are fabulous, with their rice-paper wrappings bursting with shredded vegetables, rice noodles and lumps of crab meat with a sweet, set-your-hair-on-fire-spicy dipping sauce.

Somewhere between those two -- and almost equally wonderful -- fall the gambas al ajillo, fat shrimp that hold their own because they are perfectly sauteed with olive oil, lemon juice, herbs and, of course, garlic. A "pizza" made with a crunchy lavosh crust, mascarpone, gouda and fresh vegetables is elegant and full-flavored.

There's no letdown with the main courses. Rack of lamb chops, delicately pink, have a slight crust of toasted almonds. The meat is accentuated with faintly sweet and tart notes of balsamic vinegar and blueberry. The rest of the plate is classic with a twist: potatoes mashed with goat cheese and sauteed spinach.

Grilled lobster garnished with a couple of big shrimp is almost overplayed with a sweet blood orange butter sauce, but Clark's inventiveness pays off. Roasted fingerling potato halves and snow peas are arranged with geometrical precision around the shellfish, to great visual effect.

Nothing counters the pale richness of tender veal scallops and sweet shrimp tossed with pasta and cream, but that's not a complaint. The combination is a showstopper. Still, one dish is first among equals. The moist red snapper is set off by thrilling flavors and appealing colors: a julienne of fresh vegetables, mashed avocado, little wonton pillows stuffed with lobster and a sort of mayonnaise flavored with garlic, ginger, lime and Chinese mustard.

Desserts almost manage to avoid restaurant dessert cliches. I say almost because there is a creme brulee, but it's a winning pumpkin creme brulee, so all is forgiven. Chocolate bread pudding turns out to be a happy alternative to the regulation death-by-chocolate cake. And there are actually not one, but two, choices in a lighter vein -- blueberries with a tart lemon curd, and caramel ice cream studded with chocolate covered hazelnuts.

Julia's is one of those rare finds in the restaurant business, a labor of love that success hasn't spoiled. Of course, diners pay for their pleasure; quality doesn't come cheap. But who wouldn't be glad to pay for an experience this rewarding?


Food: ****

Service: ***1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 122 North Commerce St., Centreville

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Wednesday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$10; Entrees: $24-$29

Call: 410-758-0471

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