While there is no perfect meal, at the Inn at Perry Cabin, we ate a dinner as close to perfect as mortals' meals come. It was expensive, at $150 for two, before tax, but worth the cost.

I remember about five years ago a somewhat dreadful dinner athe Inn at Perry Cabin that caused me to dismiss the place as pretentious and overrated. Then, when the Laura Ashley company took it over last February, I didn't investigate, because small-flowered cotton prints and patchouli-scented rooms don't draw me. I should have. Chef Scott Hoyland's expertise and imagination are absolutely first-rate.

One realizes immediately that Mr. Hoyland's cuisine is exceptional. On sitting down in the informal dining room, we were brought a superbly sauced dish of shellfish, aromatics and puff pastry. Tasting it, we joked that we should leave, before being brought back to earth by the rest of the meal. It was an ignorant jest.

The menu offers two prix-fixe meals, one at $45 and one at $65, together with three alternate first courses, and three alternate entrees.

I ordered the $45 prix fixe. It listed, first, "seared rare New York State foie gras with glazed apples and port wine," then, "mussel and saffron soup," and finally, "roast loin of lamb with a tomato and winter squash galette and potted sweetbreads." Desserts were part of both prix-fixe dinners; a later, separate menu listed 11 of them.

The order of the $65 prix fixe was "a tartare of Maryland oysters with seasoned cucumbers," "game consomme with mushroom julienne and profiteroles," "seasonal green salad with fine herbs and balsamic vinaigrette," "grilled breast of duck with wild mushrooms and dauphinoise potatoes," and "goat's cheese baked in puff pastry with sweetened pears."

The difference? -- a salad course and a cheese course.

The $45 dinner began with a large, mahogany brown liver glistening at the center of a tawny, sweet and meaty sauce in which sat, all around, a necklace of barely cooked apple slices. A slice of hot, toasted brioche came separately. Inside, the liver was trembling and pink, the sauce complex and admirably suited to it.

Mussel and saffron soup had the flavors of a refined fish broth, delicately enriched with enough cream to create a silky finish without lending weight. At the center were two mussels in their shells, iridescent blue-gray against a blush of liquid. We both thought the flavor of orange peel in the broth too strong, but it was the only time our tastes differed from the chef's.

In the lamb creation, slices of tender roast loin of lamb, together with a bit of forcemeat, overlay gentle sweetbreads, soft and rich with sauce. Next to the paired meats were spoonfuls of French lentils cooked with bacon, and at the center, a circle of layered squash and tomato slices. Beautiful tastes and textures!

My husband's dinner began with three pretty, oyster-gray, mushroom-cap-sized hillocks. Each was a swirl of dressed cucumber, cut thin as grass blades, supporting chopped raw oyster and capers, with tiny pebbles of egg, onion and red pepper all around.

The clear, full-bodied, chestnut-brown consomme contained sliced mushrooms, diced tomato and a sliced, rolled crepe coated with a partly liver meat paste. And the salad! -- a miscellany of greens, with the tenderest and smallest in a bouquet, their white stems and roots looking just pulled from a garden.

In the next course, tender, pink-at-the-center duck slices lay in a circle, together with fingers of turnip and carrot, around an exquisite potato gratin that ennobled the humble potato to a position somewhere between puff paste and hearty ambrosia -- crusty on the top, molten within, its layers thin as paper. A warm, acidic goat cheese in puff pastry followed, ringed by barely cooked slices of pear.

We drank a $40 bottle of Mondavi pinot noir 1986 reserve. Often, wine is one of the best parts of our meals. On this occasion, it didn't match up.

My husband's dessert was a torte: Over a pale crust lay a layer of intense chocolate crowned with creme fraiche and sliced, fresh plums, and cast in cocoa dust, an amusing silhouette of a fork crossed the plate.

Mine, a "warm gateau of apricot crepes with nutmeg cream," was a 2-inch, sweet-sauced crepe cake thick with fruit, cream, and sugar flavors, paired with chips of homemade candied orange peel.

One observation: The meal took 3 1/2 hours, perhaps because every dish was prepared to order. One might consider staying overnight, or eating an a la carte dinner at midday. *

Next: Strapazza

Inn at Perry Cabin

308 Watkins Lane,

St. Michael's,

(301) 745-2200

Hours: Lunch noon to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily (Without reservations, patrons may find the dining room closed earlier.)

Accepts: All major credit cards

Features: European- influenced American cuisine

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