The Garden

American, Crabs
$$$$ ($15-$24)
'

Editorial Review

By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, May 13, 2004

Think of eating near the University of Maryland's College Park campus, and visions of pizza parlors, taco joints, delis and fast food spring to mind. Ask about a restaurant where one can dine before or after a performance at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland, and the answer likely will be much the same.

But right next door to the Smith center, a large conference center holds a well-kept secret: a full-service restaurant operated by Marriott International Inc.

There are no signs proclaiming its location. Just follow those for the conference center, which is part of a state program for adult part-time learners. Inside you will find the Garden, which offers American standards with a decided Maryland flair.

Through double French doors, just off the main lobby, the restaurant beckons with simple formality. Queen Anne-style chairs are pulled up to white-tablecloth-draped tables, each adorned with a single flower.

At night, small oil lamps and brass chargers set the scene. Doors along one side of the room lead to an interior Asian garden filled with tables, where one can dine in good weather. On the opposite wall is a display of artwork from Bali and China. A small bar fills a corner.

The conference center is owned by the state as part of the University of Maryland University College's program of adult part-time education.

Marriott has operated the center for 17 years, and for almost all of that time, Executive Chef Patrick N. Hutcheson has presided over the Garden. Hutcheson is also in charge of the Mount Clare coffee shop, which offers buffet-style service at breakfast and lunch, and the Oracle, which provides a lighter bar menu, catering and room service.

Although the Garden may have been hiding in plain sight for nearly two decades, Hutcheson and new Marriott general manager Robert M. Allen, himself a former executive chef, said the restaurant is open to everyone, not just the university and UMUC faculty members who are the core of its clientele. Another little-known aspect of the Garden: There are special dinner/ticket packages for the Smith center.

The Garden's menu gives star billing to the state's premier contribution to gastronomy: the Maryland blue crab.

There is Maryland crab soup, a broth-based vegetable soup rich with sweet crabmeat, though perhaps too gently spiced for true aficionados. The spinach, artichoke and crab dip, served with pita wedges, is rich and fresh-tasting, but not the least heavy. And the seafood sampler features a mini-crab cake, deep-fried calamari and grilled shrimp, all of which allow the inherent flavors of the seafood to shine.

The flatbread salad, offered at dinner, tops a slice of flat bread -- accented with garlic and Parmesan cheese -- with baby lettuces and other greens in a light balsamic vinaigrette. The Caribbean chicken, a luncheon appetizer, is fingers of breast meat, deftly fried to a golden brown, in a jerk barbecue sauce.

In addition to the standard menu, there are lunch and dinner main course specials, which change each week. Recently, these have featured asparagus, in combination with various entrees including salmon and scallops.

As a tribute to the artwork in the 45-seat restaurant, Hutcheson's menu also includes a few Asian-inspired dishes, including California Asian shrimp salad and pan-Asian salmon, served with banana-papaya chutney.

Maryland-style crab cakes are available as part of a salad or sandwich, or as an entree. In each, the cakes are mostly lump crabmeat, with little filler as distraction.

But crab isn't the only thing on the menu. Other standard dinner entrees include two chicken preparations (one with crab), two pasta dishes, two beef selections and rack of lamb. The filet of beef, twin tenderloins, was grilled just to medium rare, as requested, and served atop roasted red potatoes and asparagus.

Desserts display a decided University of Maryland bent, beginning with ice cream from the university's dairy. It's rich and full of flavor, and available only on the university campus. The turtle cheesecake -- a nod to the university's mascot -- is dense and chock-full of caramel and chocolate on a chocolate cookie crust. The chocolate love cake is almost like eating pure fudge, and nearly as addictive.

There is a modest but well-balanced wine list, priced mostly from $20 to $25.