The Comus Inn at Sugarloaf Mountain

American, Nouveau American
$$$$ ($25-$34)
The Comus Inn at Sugarloaf Mountain photo
(James M. Thresher/TWP)
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Editorial Review

The Comus Inn, Trying to Rise Above

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Aug. 18, 2006

A few years ago, when a group of investors decided to buy the old Comus Inn, an upper Montgomery County landmark with great views of Sugarloaf Mountain and mediocre family-style food, they told friends they hoped to make it into a destination restaurant that would be to Maryland what the Inn at Little Washington is to Virginia.

Let's just say, it's good to aim high.

The Comus Inn at Sugarloaf Mountain, as it's now called, definitely shows off an expensive renovation. The long, galley-like back porch has three sides of glass to frame the Sugarloaf sunsets. The once somewhat dilapidated downstairs lounge has lost its casual seating to a group of tables that looks a little stiff and catering-ready, but you can dine or drink on the patio.

The kitchen uses a lot of local produce and boasts of its expensive meat and seafood suppliers. Although it began with a more rigid fixed-price format, the menu now works a la carte as well as in three- and four-course options. The fixed prices are deals, in fact, three courses for $53 (you can choose dessert or a second small course) or four for $67, and those prices are honored even if the specific dishes chosen would add up to much more if ordered separately.

Dishes are plated with many upscale, time-consuming frills such as frizzled leeks and a sort of pomegranate-pistachio compote for the lamb chops. In fact, a lobster described on the menu as poached but actually grilled, chewy and a little char-bitter was redeemed by the fine cider-pine nut pesto that accompanied it, and which also transformed the lobster's otherwise chaste fois gras topper.

Red wine-braised veal cheeks (from the previous menu, since replaced by Kobe beef ribs in a similar presentation) had been meticulously trimmed of membrane, which altered the usual viscous texture somewhat and made them a bit stiffer but quite likely more attractive to most meat eaters; the beluga lentils beneath them were even better. Miso-glazed scallops (big but not "giant") would have seemed a touch dry had it not been for the corn-smoothie coulis beneath.

Fresh Tasmanian crab headlined a narly too-delicate deconstructed salad (the shredded meat bedded on a lime-infused creme fraiche, offset by parentheses of salsa) and is currently appearing in a more assertive format with pink grapefruit and vanilla bean dressing.

Barbecue-glazed hebi, a Hawaiian marlin, is meaty enough to stand its tangy glaze, though a "confit" of beautiful baby vegetables, including fairy eggplant from the restaurant's own garden, was a wimpy and oil-puddled partner. And you can't say the combinations are always predictable: Muscovy duck hen paired with black trumpet mushrooms, fava beans and a green curry sauce is fusion with a mission.

So, yes, there is much to like here, but also much to question. The bread plates arrive before the appetizers with a quite good Southern biscuit and a sort of mini-foccacia, with softened butter and a small cruet of lavender-flavored honey "from the bees next door." But when the bread is finished, and sometimes when it isn't, the plate disappears.

The whole establishment is a mix of casual and formal -- meant, no doubt, to make a wide audience feel at home, but which can seem slapdash. The gold-and-black-rimmed logo-inscribed plates are erratically combined with some of those more modern white geometric shapes and glazed platters that seem handmade (and sometimes chipped). The wine list is pretty good but with a comfy margin of profit in some cases. The wine pairings offered with the fixed prices are a reasonable match flavor-wise, if not inspired, but poured in somewhat scant portions. In any case, glasses with restaurant logos on them look to me like souvenirs from a wine fest. (In fact, the Comus Inn is hosting a day-long wine fest and extravagant dinner Aug. 26.)

The staff works hard to be helpful and hospitable and can be exceedingly generous with complements (and compliments), but at times, the ceremony verges on the campy. Servers are discouraged from handling more than one plate at a time, which means that several waiters at a time, often with the host (in suit and sneakers) in the lead, stalk majestically to the table bearing plates like footmen at a royal banquet. (On the other hand, plates are routinely cleared several at a time, stacked home style on top of one another.) The menu describes the sea bass as "mero bass, the most sought after of the Chilean species," which is gilding the lily a bit, mero being just the Japanese term for that poor toothfish. And occasionally the staff nearly lectures you on how "awesome" a dish is -- like the sea bass, which wasn't particularly inspired (but the escabeche of fennel, another nice condiment, was).

The chefs are rightly wary of salt, but not sweets. Even foie gras (duck) doesn't need quite the combined syrup of rum raisin demi-glaze and roasted bananas. "Sweet white corn soup" is an understatement, even if that's not what it means. The sweet potatoes that accompanied an otherwise delightful filet of elk were sugary/orange-juicy to distraction -- on top of the honey-glazed baby turnips.

The Comus Inn is a much more enjoyable dining experience these days, no question. But it needs a lot more focus. Clear the way for those good ingredients, don't drown them -- and that's Lesson No. 1 from the Inn at Little Washington.