Tucked away in small-town Easton is a tiny inn that's poised to conquer the hearts (and stomachs) of food lovers in the mid-Atlantic.
From a cozy kitchen in a 1790s red brick house, a New York native with an Australian obsession has been quietly offering up dishes that meld Down Under flavors with Chesapeake delights.
Soft-shell crabs are served with a Vietnamese-inspired caramelized coconut jus infused with lemon grass. Australian "bay bugs" (slipper lobsters) are grilled and paired with a green papaya salad and yellow bean dipping sauce. And the signature dessert is an Aussie classic -- a warm, sticky fig and ginger pudding that comes with caramel sauce and English cream.
The Inn at Easton may have opened only two years ago, but chef / proprietor Andrew Evans has already begun making waves across the country.
In Food & Wine magazine's recent "America's Top 50 Hotel Restaurants" issue, the Inn at Easton was the only mention from Maryland. Publications from National Geographic Traveler to Southern Living have heaped kudos on the inn. And the murmurs have begun that Maryland finally may have its version of that gastronomic landmark across the state line in Virginia, the Inn at Little Washington.
All of which, in Evans' words, has him and his wife, Liz, "totally blown away."
"We didn't know what to expect," Evans said, chuckling as he remembered their opening day in June 2000. "A lot of people would have had a marketing plan in place. ... But on the day we opened, I literally dropped my screwdriver -- I was putting in bathroom fixtures -- and started cooking. We didn't know what we were doing. We just thought, 'Oh, the inn looks really pretty. Hopefully, people will come.' "
Like, totally unplanned
Evans' boyish demeanor, surfer-dude lingo ("like" and "totally" are favorites with him) and seemingly blase approach to the inn belie the ambitious chef and businessman he is.
From the time Evans, 37, and his wife set their hearts on opening an inn, they've had a clear sense of how they wanted the plan to unfold.
With six years of cooking in upscale Vietnamese, contemporary Australian and French and Italian restaurants in Brisbane under his belt, Evans knew he wanted to showcase his expertise in the kitchen. To complement her husband's food, Liz wanted the inn to have a modern flavor that reflected the fusion of bright colors she loved in her native Australia.
Together, they created a seven-bedroom haven that has the feel of a trendy W Hotel, with walls splashed with bright yellow or calming sage, $1,500 shower systems in a few bathrooms and furniture that ranges from Pottery Barn fare to lovely, hand-painted bureaus. For the added Australian touch, a boxing kangaroo flag hangs from the inn next to a Maryland flag.
There is pampering to be had -- luxurious, 600-count sheets on the beds and Aveda products in the bathrooms. And the inn has the added comfort of feeling like a home. Evans' University of Virginia diploma hangs on a wall, and pictures of the couple's daughters, Gabby, 4, and Lilly, 12 weeks, are prominent fixtures in the parlor.
"All along, the inspiration for me was the Inn at Little Washington," Evans said on a recent Monday while taking a break from a painting project. "It was like, how can we do something like that -- be off the beaten path but still produce great food and have great service and be a unique inn?"
Evans says the reason for his success so far lies in the inn's unusual offerings.
"For Liz and I to do contemporary Australian cuisine in Easton, Md., it's, like, bizarre," he said. "But people have been really pleased to see creative cooking that tastes good and isn't gimmicky. I guess that's why we've gotten attention."
An idea, and a baby
Evans was drawn to Australia as a teen-ager when he became pen pals with an Aussie exchange student. He then spent five months backpacking through Australia before college and fell in love with the warm, laid-back culture. He developed his love for cooking in a similarly accidental fashion. After graduating in 1989 with a degree in comparative religion and no job on the horizon, he began working as a cook at a tavern in Richmond.
"I was flipping burgers, drinking beers, having a great time," he said.
Then one day a roommate suggested he consider enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America. Evans took the advice and, after graduation, returned to Australia.
"I was very lucky because I worked in Brisbane during a restaurant revolution," he said. "It was kind of what America had in the mid-'80s. It was an exciting time because a lot of restaurants were opening and people were doing exciting things with food." He grew to love the fusion of tastes from Asia, France and England that made up Australian cuisine.
The couple moved to Arlington, Va., where his mother lived, after Liz became pregnant.
"We landed on my mom's doorstep in Arlington with four suitcases and a 5-month-old baby with this idea that we were going to open an inn," he said, laughing.
They spent the next year borrowing Evans' mother's car to explore towns like Leesburg and Warrenton, Va., and Ches-tertown before they happened upon Easton.
By February 1999, they'd signed the contract on an old house with two large porches that had been split into five apartments. Fifteen months later, they opened.
On par with New York
Today, the business has grown so much through word of mouth that their regulars include the staff of the Australian Embassy and guests from New York who vacation in nearby St. Michaels. The restaurant is packed on weekends with locals and tourists who don't book early enough to stay at the inn.
"It used to be that people would be like, 'Oh, St. Michaels is booked, let's stay here,' " Evans said. "But this is our third summer, and people are coming to us now."
Melody Di Piazza, a New York interior designer who is building a second home in Easton, said she has stayed at the inn at least twice a month for the past year because of the food and comfort.
"We travel a lot and stay at a lot of very nice places," said Di Piazza, whose husband, Sam, is an executive at Price Water-house Cooper. "But I can't think of another place we've stayed at that's as well-kept. And food-wise, it's great. When we tell people about [the inn] we tell them Andrew could make it in New York."
Evans has known all along that his food may be the inn's ticket to success. And it's something that drives him when he thinks of wanting people to see his inn as Maryland's very own culinary landmark.
"I'm a slave to flavor," Evans said. "Flavor is everything. After the presentation is destroyed with the first mouthful and the contraption's toppled, all you have left is flavor. So if you miss the flavor, you've lost."
Five Australian wines to give a try
Andrew Evans loves hearty Australian wines so much he's packed his list with several Down Under favorites that you'll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Here are Evans' five must-try wines:
* Shiraz "Vixen," Fox Creek Wines in McLaren Vale, South Australia. This is an unusual, sparkling wine because it's red. A blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, it makes for an intriguing pre-dinner drink.
* Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc (2000), Cape Mentelle, Western Australia. A light, crisp white wine that Evans suggested pairing with his char-grilled baby octopus appetizer.
* Chardonnay (1998), Howard Park, Western Australia. "A classic Australian chardonnay because it's really buttery and oaked," Evans said. He suggested pairing it with his grilled Australian Moreton Bay bugs (slipper lobsters).
* Shiraz "Basket Press" (1998), Rockford, Barossa Valley. A great complement for the braised short ribs, grilled lamb chop and chorizo sausage entree. "A mellow, balanced wine with lots of fruit," Evans said.
* Shiraz-Viognier (1999), Yalumba, South Australia. "Viognier is a white grape, which dilutes the shiraz and makes it very smooth and great for warm weather," Evans said. He recommended pairing it with the slow-cooked lamb sirloin with a Dijon herb crust.
When you go
Getting there: From the Bay Bridge, stay on Route 50 east after Routes 50 and 301 split. In Easton, turn right on Goldsborough Street. At the second stoplight, turn left on Harrison Street. The inn is two blocks down on the left.
The Inn at Easton 28 Harrison St., Easton, MD 21601. 888-800-8091 www.theinnateaston.com
* The restaurant is open Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30 p.m. Last seating is at 9:30 p.m. Entrees are $22 to $30, and on Fridays and Saturdays, there is a prix fixe menu for $49. Reservations are recommended.
* Prices for the four suites and three rooms at the inn range from $140 to $350 during peak season (May 1 to Nov. 30) and $130 to $290 the rest of the year. Rates include a continental breakfast. There is a two-night minimum stay on weekends. No pets or children under age 9.
Information: For more information about lodging, dining and events in Easton, go to www.eastonmd.org.