Wise men say change is inevitable. If we're lucky, the change is for the better.

We're in luck, folks -- there has been a change for the better.

Longtime residents in the area may remember a little local establishment called the College Inn. Located on Jones Station Road -- a road that was abbreviated when Anne Arundel Community College was created -- the College Inn was strictly a low-brow, neighborhood type of place.

Everything has changed! New owners, a face lift, a new attitude, a new name. Simply put, the new restaurant qualifies for the fine dining category. The name: Hidden Cove. The location: 22 Jones Station Road, just off Ritchie Highway.

Open since the middle of August, Hidden Cove is destined to become a restaurant you will choose for special occasions. What makes it special? Answer: the combination of food, wine, atmosphere and personality.

Start with atmosphere. Located off the beaten track in a secluded area, you leave the bustle behind when you drive into the parking lot. The restaurant is not large; it's a single dining room separated from a small bar. Tastefully decorated in soft mauve, the mauve and forest green table linens provide just the right accent.

Combine the atmosphere with personality in the form of nice people. Head of the nice people is chef and co-owner Michel Gabriel, who created the menu, prepares all the food and finds time to step out in the dining room to see if diners like the fruits of his labor.

Let me tell you a little about his handiwork. Hubby and I visited Hidden Cove on a weekday evening. Besides the many regular menu selections, Lynn, our friendly waitress, told us of four fresh-catch specials for the evening. Three of these were swordfish, tuna and grouper, which could be ordered broiled or blackened. I liked the fact that prices were given as the specials were named.

Michel's 20 years' experience is apparent in every course served. We started with appetizers. I selected escargot in puff pastry ($6.95). This appetizer is one of Michel's innovations that is truly inspired. Instead of serving the escargot in shells and then dipping them in butter, the escargot are prepared in butter, placed in a ramekin dish and capped with delicate puff pastry.

Michel's clams casino ($6.95) support his claim of "if I don't do it well, it's not on the menu." The appetizer was rich and flavorful in a traditional way, but with a unique accent. Cooked to perfection without chewiness or grit, both the clams casino and escargot appetizers made our own private "best" list.

Now it's time to talk about portions. Be hungry or be prepared to take home a doggie bag when you dine at Hidden Cove. The words "a la carte" do not appear on the menu. The price of the entree includes soup and salad, choice of baked potato, french fries, rice pilaf or linguine, and beautiful accents of fresh vegetables surrounding the entrees.

The name of the soup of the day, chicken noodle, was misleading. In place of noodles, pasta shells were a winning substitute. The clear broth was thick and rich with the flavor of chicken, enhanced by fresh celery and carrots.

Tossed salad would be another misnomer if used to describe the salad course at Hidden Cove. The huge salad, containing up to seven kinds of lettuce, is "assembled" rather than tossed. The grated carrots are carefully mounded next to fresh sliced mushrooms and garnished with a bright green pepper ring. Mine was drenched with bleu cheese dressing created by Michel. Warm rolls, mixed and baked daily in Hidden Cove's kitchen, accompany the salad course. My salad was so large I couldn't eat it all for fear I would not have room for my main course.

But even if I had skipped the salad entirely, I'm not sure I could have eaten all my Steak a la Hidden Cove ($18.95). The steak, another of Michel's originals, is nicknamed "lazy man's steak," created so he could eat steak and read a book simultaneously. The steak is grilled over charcoal, thinly sliced, served on a bed of sauteed onions and topped with french-fried onion rings.

The steak came surrounded by mounds of decorative fresh string beans, crisp and fresh from the blancher. The beans were the vegetable of the day; carrot medallions, crunchy and warm, and baby corn were added for color accent.

Besides looking pretty, the vegetables tasted great. Michel lets the natural flavor of the vegetables speak for itself, without embellishment of butter or spices. The presentation was beautiful, almost like nouvelle cuisine, only with larger portions. Did I mention the large and superb baked potato? Why did that plain old baked potato taste so good? Hubby's Cajun shrimp ($14.50) received the same vegetable garnish as my steak. He ordered french fries, russet-colored, thick and mealy, tasting just as good as my baked potato.

The Cajun shrimp were spicy hot, heavily coated with Cajun spices and sauteed in butter. Michel visited New Orleans in 1976, and by 1978 he was featuring blackened fish on his menus -- long before Cajun became trendy. He mixes his own Cajun spice and I must warn you, the spicy seasoning is not for the faint of heart. Rumor has it the blackened steak is spectacular.

Michel doesn't "do" his own desserts, but that doesn't mean they aren't important to him. He special-orders the desserts from a company called Country Apple Core, and they are a specialty item in the gourmet section of New York department stores.

Hubby and I split a slice of chocolate swirl cheesecake ($3.50). The cheesecake could have been better chilled, but even at room temperature it was divine.

Hidden Cove has a small but varied wine selection that includes California wines along with imported varieties. Prices vary from moderate to pricey. Hubby and I skipped the wines, but he did try a light beer from the bar.

Hidden Cove is open for dinner only, but offers banquet facilities for private lunch and dinner parties. This would be a good time to make reservations for that office Christmas party. Starting in October Hidden Cove will be open for Sunday brunch.

Smoking and non-smoking areas are available in the dining room, and the entire restaurant is accessible to the disabled. Major credit cards are accepted.

The continental and Cajun cuisine is available 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 6 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Happy hour, with hot hors d'oeuvres, is from 5 to 7 p.m.

Call 841-COVE to reserve the banquet facilities or for more information concerning Sunday brunch.

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