I've never been to a restaurant that illustrates the axiom "If you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford it" as well as Antrim 1844 does.
The graceful antebellum mansion, now an inn and restaurant, is particularly beautiful this time of year. The late afternoon sun streams into the elegantly appointed rooms, and a breeze stirs the newly green trees just outside the tall windows. Of course, the setting isn't quite as rural as it used to be. The former plantation is now surrounded by housing developments, which are -- luckily --mostly hidden by the magnificent trees and other plantings on the grounds of the inn.
The six-course dinner, served at 7 p.m., is a fixed price; it costs $62.50. But you may feel as though you're a guest of owners Dorothy and Richard Mollett when you arrive at 6:30 p.m. for hors d'oeuvres and drinks in the antiques-filled sitting rooms.
A waiter drifts past with a tray of baby new potato halves holding a dollop of chicken salad. Later he returns with hot puff pastry triangles filled with Roquefort and pistachios. Another waiter takes your drink order -- a glass of wine, perhaps, or a cocktail? How gauche to ask how much that glass of wine might cost, but be warned: It could be as much as $12. You'll never know till you get the bill at the end of the evening. Two bottles of spring water for the table? $15. With a drink before dinner and a bottle from Antrim's impressive wine list, plan to spend about $100 a person with taxes and tip.
Is it worth it? That depends. The food, from the kitchen of executive chef Michael Gettier, is very good; but we enjoyed his very good food when he was in Baltimore at perhaps half the price. At some point you stop buying a meal and start buying an experience; I would suggest that you're at that point and beyond at Antrim 1844.
For many people -- those who do have to ask how much it costs -- this sort of dinner happens on a special occasion, the kind of occasion I like marked with a certain formality. At Antrim, guests dress quite casually, perhaps because it's a self-styled country inn. When dinner is announced, guests are led from the beautiful sunny living rooms down a few stairs to the Smokehouse Restaurant. (The last Smokehouse Restaurant I ate at was in Monteagle, Tenn., where I had pinto beans, turnip greens and some very fine cornbread.)
The dining room has a casual, clubby look, with its dark green walls and bare brick floors. It's nice enough and looks recently renovated, but I yearn to be back upstairs. The tables are handsomely set and well spaced, but too small. When a dinner requires five forks and three wine glasses, I want a roomy table.
The wait staff manages just the right balance of warmth and professionalism, but it's a problem that all the guests are seated at the same time. We have long waits for our entrees and our check -- longer than they should be, even when as a diner you know you're in for many courses and a leisurely evening.
Our waiter brings us an amuse bouche -- a whimsical prelude to dinner. This evening it's a poached quail egg, about the size of a marble, served on a silver teaspoon with a spill of buttery sauce.
The spring menu offers a seafood appetizer with herb mayonnaise, shyly impressive and nicely varied -- from delicately smoky salmon and trout to plump mussels in a bit of vinaigrette and a few snowy lumps of crab.
Or we can start with golden-crusted oysters jauntily ar-ranged with mussels, also fried, and enhanced by a creamy sauce sparked with mustard. A slice of duck terrine, with the fine texture of foie gras, is a more sensual possibility, classically presented with cornichons and toast.
Starters are followed by a green salad that veers close to being too whimsical, nestled as it is in a crisp taco shell. The ingenious combination of greens, hearts of palm, fresh corn and a very fine vinaigrette saves it.
An obligatory spoonful of sorbet follows, in this case icy spiced tea.
There are three entrees to choose from -- not exactly cutting-edge stuff, but calculated to appeal to just about everyone: entrecote of beef, duck breast and seafood. The kitchen slices the tender beef and covers it with a dark, winey sauce edged with green peppercorns. Shards of crisp potatoes bring texture to the plate, and are flanked by a few fat asparagus spears.
As for the seafood choice, salmon adds verve to a traditional linguine with white clam sauce. (It's a truly fine white clam sauce to begin with.)
Gettier's flamboyant treatment of duck is a welcome departure from the usual fruit sauce, illustrating that the full-flavored slices of rare breast meat can stand up to spicy chunks of sausage, olives and sauteed mushrooms. A small square of buttery potatoes Anna is ambrosial.
Each pair of diners this evening shares a trio of desserts, which have always been Gettier's forte. It would be hard to choose among creme brulee made with fresh mango, a cream cheese brownie that is death by chocolate in humble disguise, and fat blackberries and raspberries layered with whipped cream between chocolate tuiles. Luckily, we don't have to choose.
There aren't many restaurants that Baltimoreans are willing to drive an hour to get to; Antrim is always mentioned as one of them. You might spend this much money in an upscale steakhouse, but this is so much more civilized. The staff makes sure you don't feel intimidated, and the food is very good. Now if ever the owners move the dining room to one of the rooms upstairs, the experience could be as luxe as it should be.
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 30 Trevanion Road, Taneytown
Hours: Dinner nightly
Fixed price: $62.50
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *