As you (should) know, we are currently at the Rotary Club’s District Conference at the Hyatt Chesapeake Bay Resort in Cambridge Maryland. The Eastern Shore is quite a pretty place so we were glad they chose this location. We’ve been on the eastern shore several times, but mostly to Easton. Great meals there (Bartlett Pear Inn, followed by Mason’s, Out of the Fire, Scossa, etc.). Sadly, it seems that every time we come there are more lights, chains, and cars down Rte. Fifty. Too bad. Quaint ain’t so much quaint anymore, at least on the main arteries.
Anyway, the “real” conference started Friday and since we arrived Thursday night there was only a little “formal” activity. So we decided to avoid that and try for a night in town. What was reasonably my only “kitchen pass” from banquet/hotel/production food turned out to be chosen well. I had done a little research on the restaurant choices here, and most of the “highly thought of” ones were clustered in their “historical district”. The top three places were (kind of in order) Bistro Poplar, Jimmie & Sook’s (for all you crab lovers), and High Spot, all located relatively close to each other. A they featured French Cuisine, we chose Bistro Poplar, and were joined by another couple here at the conference. Our friends who had arrived earlier in the day had lunch at Jimmie’s and had enjoyed it but were up for something a bit more upscale for dinner.
Once we finally (another story) got here and knew the time situation I called and reserved a table for four. After bouncing around a bit and finding a parking place we walked to the Bistro which turned out to be right next door to the J&S place. Their historical district is not as well developed as some, as there are several old, empty buildings around. There is alittle enclave of restaurants, a gallery here and there, but that’s about it. There may be a chocolatier, but not the restoration you might see in other older towns. A little red awning was over the door and the store front style revealed an inviting space inside, with white tablecloths, wine glasses and silver. We identified ourselves and were seated sort of near the door, a good spot for observation.
I have not been to a lot of Bistro’s in France but somehow the place was evocative of that (or at least my perception). Wooden floors, high ceilings, the walls in a warm yellow with large mirrors here and there, a couple of those French posters, and tables kind of scattered around. Somehow the room seemed to evoke the atmosphere of an old world room, it just sort of fit with the Bistro idea. Plus, it was in sort of a run down area. The bar was sort of plopped in the back, with a simple counter in front, and a relatively few amount of bottles. The staff was in white shirt and tux vest. When I say “staff” it appeared to be one server, a back waiter, and another who sort of bounced around. I figured (without asking) that he could be one of the owners or at least the manager. He didn’t seem to have a well defined task.
Natalie (whom we found out because of the Hi.. I’m speech) took a bit to get to our table as other diners came through the door and she apparently was also responsible for seating them. She returned, dropped the menus and was off again. Usually I comment on the service after the food, but it sort of fits here. She turned out to be a very friendly and accomplished server, answered very knowledgably about menu items, and generally attended to the table. It just seemed that she was behind the eight ball all evening, always sort of being in a rush. Since you could see the whole restaurant from our table she was always pretty much in sight. She took drink orders, went behind the bar and made them, served them, ran food and generally was on the go most of the evening. Not that she didn’t spend time at our table when she had to, just sort of set the pace for the place. Despite that, when we left, I would say the service was not a distraction. She remained bright and cheerful, adding comments about the lemon tart for dessert would be good for breakfast. Maybe consistent with a bistro (and yes, they did have the paper squares on the tables.
After corralling Natalie we were able to put in a cocktail order, and I have to admit they weren’t exactly up to what I wished. My DMOTRWAT showed up as an “up” Manhattan with sweet vermouth (which was replaced and repaired fairly quickly), and MFO’s Gimlet lacked a lime slice. These were created during a time when she was doing about five things simultaneously, so we kind of gave her a pass, although I think the concept of a dry manhattan was a bit new to her.
As to the food. No matter the level of service, the food overshadowed any nuances there. It was very, very good. The menu was a simple one page affair, nicely labeled “Dinner D’Hiver” indicating some level of seasonal attention. It consisted on choices of ten starters and nine mains, something you could easily deal with. For Starters, there was a nice mix of expected items, French Onion Soup (Onion Soup Gratinée); Duck Confit; salads (Bibb Lettuce with roquefort, tarragon vinaigrette; Haricots Verts & Marble Potato Salad - walnuts, radishes, sherry vinaigrette), along with some not so expected: Sautéed Sweetbread with glazed oyster mushrooms, dill; Beer Battered Brandade with tomato tartare. We did ask after the Brandade (hey, I don’t know everything!) and Natalie explained it was a French winter staple of an emulsion of salt cod, olive oil and potatoes. I was a bit surprised there was no offering of a Charcruterie plate. Mains also had a nice variation available, with our old friend Steak Frites, a Bourguinon of… Bison, Leg of Lamb, a pork shoulder, and from the sea Roasted Salmon, seared Scallops, and a not so familiar Pan-Roasted Monkfish Amandine. Pretty pleasant menu. They also had a nice selection of wines by the glass on another one pager.
After a bit of thrashing, we settled on starters of the soup, the bibb lettuce, the Haricots Verts, and I went for the sautéed sweetbreads. Mains were two orders of the scallops (based on a recommendation from Natalie when compared to salmon) a roasted quail, and I, after discussion regarding the Veal Escalope, went with the leg of lamb.
Like the menu, each dish had a nice little twist to it. MFO’s Haricots were a nice stack of good flavored beans, some lovely walnuts and the radishes came in form of little matchsticks complete with red tops, the soup didn’t have a covering of melted cheese on a huge crouton as is fairly common. What for me was the dish of the night was the sautéed sweetbreads. Sometimes you get them sort of diced and fried, but this was several little slices of yes, the thymus gland. Sauteed (seared almost) provided a nice little caramel crunch hiding the sweet meat below. They were served over a lovely bed of caramelized mushrooms good in their own right. Don’t be put off by what it is, just enjoy how it is in the mouth! Bibb lettuce with gorgonzola was a delightful stack of lovely green lettuce.
Okay, this is getting long so we’ll contract. All the main courses were cooked nicely, presented well, and had appropriate flavors. My lamb was subtle without that overpowering flavor you get sometimes. Anyway, for dessert we ordered two lemon tarts and “four forks” and were presented with four plates containing half a tart. Lemon is one of the all time favorites for dessert.
So if you are ever in Cambridge I would highly recommend Bistro Poplar. We would go back in a second, and I think a return visit after experiencing the first would be even more enjoyable in that you would have some realistic expectations..
mas oui, we were
quick update (Saturday PM): King Oyster has been highly received, hotel food has been better than some i've had. Yesterday's lunch was plated, but last nights (Business Dress) was buffet... go figure..