When you think about it, the Treaty of Paris kitchen has a lot of balls to keep in the air. This is a special-occasion restaurant, so if you're the chef, you'd better be able to produce some impressive big-ticket items like chateaubriand for two and beef Wellington. But the dining room of a 200-year-old inn is expected to have at least some food reminiscent of Colonial times -- popovers and corn sticks, for instance.
Customers will want traditional regional fish and shellfish dishes like crab imperial and seafood Norfolk. And you, as the chef, might decide to offer some game (in this case, antelope escalopes); it does seem appropriate for an inn.
If you're an imaginative chef, you'll also want to add dishes of your own to the menu, such as rockfish with shrimp paste, black and white sesame seeds and a lemon grass veloute.
It's a difficult balancing act, and the Treaty of Paris tries to do it all.
Where the kitchen succeeds best is with a dish like the twin crab and lobster cakes, a contemporary spin on an old favorite. Imagine the best quality lump crab meat combined with a bit of lobster (not, to be sure, a lot of lobster) and studded with what tastes like home-grown Silver Queen corn. It's formed into two large cakes, broiled perfectly and napped with a delectable, lemony beurre blanc. This is elegant fare that remains true to its regional roots.
The kitchen does well with traditional special-occasion food. The beef Wellington is the height of luxurious indulgence. A large piece of tenderloin, which a dinner knife slipped through like butter, was topped with pate and sauteed mushrooms and wrapped in flaky puff pastry. The meat was medium-rare as ordered, while the pastry was cooked through -- not an easy thing to do. Its fragrant bordelaise sauce had plenty of body and flavor.
And then there was the tuna steak, served rare as ordered. Its tomato coulis had such a strong, unpleasant, smoky taste it overwhelmed the fish, which didn't have much flavor of its own anyway. A roasted garlic confit was an unattractive bit of gray-yellow mush at one side, and the sauteed wild mushrooms seemed like an afterthought.
But perhaps we should begin at the beginning. The beginning was being seated at a table next to smokers after I had asked for the no-smoking section. When we balked, the maitre d'hotel said there was only one table left in no smoking. I almost said one was all we needed, but I restrained myself.
The table we were moved to felt like a punishment. It was jammed right next to another table for four -- which, luckily, no one ever sat at -- and right against the huge stone fireplace. (There was no fire, obviously.) With my back to it, I had a fine view of the basement dining room: exposed brick walls, sconces, candlelit tables and large faux magnolia blossoms -- an odd decorative touch, that last. It's a romantic setting, or it would be if you were sitting at one of the tables for two against the wall.
Our first courses were long in coming -- according to our waiter, because of the oysters a la creme. This was an elaborate concoction of oysters baked in a custard with leeks, pancetta and cheese on a brioche canape. The one oyster I tried had an odd metallic taste. Very unpleasant. When our good waiter noticed my guest hadn't eaten much of the dish, he whisked it away and returned with oysters on the half shell, which he said had just been shucked. I couldn't tell much about the new oysters because they were covered with what tasted like "TC sweet and sour piccalilli relish. It seemed a bit much to do to a nice raw oyster.
Slices of duck and cashew sausage were pleasant enough with thin pancakes of blue cornmeal, but they came with a too-large mound of cranberry-sauce-like relish. Of our first courses, only the lobster ravioli succeeded, in spite of the fact that I didn't notice any lobster in the chewy-tender little pastas, just minced porcini mushrooms and a little foie gras. Three of these dainty ravioli swam in a lake of silken butter sauce.
After a long wait, salads followed -- spinach salads with a sweet boiled dressing, egg and bacon. Not exactly what you'd expect after foie gras-, porcini mushroom- and maybe lobster-stuffed ravioli.
Accompaniments were uninteresting: rice or roast potatoes and those ubiquitous mixed vegetables. Even the regional breads didn't make me as happy as they should have. The corn sticks were very sweet and the popovers hard and dry, as if they had been reheated too long.
Desserts are made in house. According to our waiter, the pastry chef is a chocolate lover. I'm sure he's right; of the half-dozen or so choices, only the blueberry-apple pie wasn't chocolate. Served warm, the pie is a comforting dessert; but you might as well indulge in what a chef does best -- in this case, chocolate. If you want something satisfying but light, try the delicate caramel mousse cake on a thin layer of chocolate cake with a chocolate layer on top. If you want to indulge your fantasies completely, go for the chewy rich chocolate pie with nuts and caramel and a thick layer of chocolate fudge.
Next: Da Mimmo
Treaty of Paris, Maryland Inn, Main Street and Church Circle, Annapolis, (410) 269-0990. Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $6.50-$8.95; entrees, $14.95-$21.95. HH