Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Brunch Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations strongly suggested. Prices: Dinner appetizers $1.95 to $4.95, main dishes $8.95 to $13.95. Full dinner with modest wine, tax and tip about $22 to $28 per person.
On the way home from Penwick House, we happened to hear the rebroadcast of a 40-year-old "The Great Gildersleeve" show on the car radio. For those who can remember only as far back as "Howdy Doody," the Gildersleeve series was about the homey adventures of a small-town water commissioner in the halcyon days before nuclear warheads and seven-foot basketball players, when hardly anyone kissed on the first date and people still said "noodles" instead of "pasta." To our TV-tuned minds, this throwback to an earlier America seemed almost bland at first. But in the end we found ourselves comforted, warmed, reassured. Then it occurred to us: listening to "The Great Gildersleeve" was a lot like eating at Penwick House.
Tucked away in Calvert County (but only 18 miles beyond the Beltway), this country restaurant belongs to a time and place in which hyped-up flavoring was either unknown or suspect, and when no food was labeled "natural" because natural was all there was. So the soups at Penwick House aren't laced with sherry or doctored with sugar or topped with cheese. And they didn't begin with a bouillon cube, either. The whipped cream began with a cow. And the oyster casserole is nothing much more than fresh whole oysters baked with moistened cracker crumbs. Would you rather have them Rockefeller? Does your hand grope in reflex for the Tabasco? Relax. Simple is the way America used to eat. Maybe it's time to relearn the virtues of understatement.
History lives naturally in a place like this, without resort to hokey nostalgia. The building is a fine, white frame house, carefully kept as it was in the 1860s. There's a garden with azalea and ancient maples, and small, quiet, candlelit dining rooms. Hurricane lamps nestle in sprigs of fresh boxwood, baskets of fresh muffins and popovers grace the tables, and classical music plays softly on tape. In this setting, the period costumes on the servers don't seem an affectation.
The menu is brief and simple. The dishes, mostly from house recipes, are generally good, and a few are exemplary. Service is attentive and intelligent, prices moderate and portions adequate.
Straightforward and unadorned, the soups soothe more than they sparkle--they might be the kind to nourish a flu sufferer back to health. Among the appetizers, the most endearing is "angels on horseback," plump oysters wrapped in well-drained, not-quite-crisp bacon--the marriage of smoky and briny was made in heaven. Stuffed mushrooms are beauties, too, with a solid crab filling just moistened with a mild, eggy dressing. The ceviche is a subdued version, neither too acidic nor too peppery. Fine, because the flavor of fresh scallops doesn't need hiding.
Entrees range from exceptional to ordinary. "Our Made Dish" is a casserole combining shrimp, scallops and crab meat in a good, light newburg sauce in which the cheese isn't allowed to dominate. Having eaten enough gluey coquilles St. Jacques in enough restaurants, we were ready for the worst. What we got was the best, a dish of wonderful delicacy in which tiny bay scallops were barely covered by a simple, feather-light sauce of cream, diced mushrooms and the faintest touch of cheese. For shellfish unadorned by sauce, there's a good brochette of shrimp, scallops and mushrooms. The crab cakes, notably free of excess bread crumbs, grease and mayonnaise flavor, would have been flawless except for an inexplicable grittiness the night we tried them.
The biggest disappointment is the broiled fish. We encountered it perfectly fresh but so overcooked that it could have been eaten with a spoon instead of a fork. The prime rib, on the other hand, is a cut above the ordinary, with an attribute rarely found these days: flavor. "Feast of the Tidewater" is a dish that manages to save itself from excess: astonishingly salty ham is made tolerable by mild chicken breast, so that the net flavor is pleasant. For something more than just pleasant, try the superb fried chicken, served with a pitcher of honest country gravy on the side. (Hooray for poultry sauces on the side. More restaurants should try it.) Another solid, simple dish--good but unremarkable--is baked pork chop stuffed with a sage and raisin dressing.
The moderately priced wine list is all-American, with a sprinkling of selections from Buena Vista, Callaway, Fetzer, Firestone, Geyser Peak, Mondavi, Phelps, Sebastiani and Sterling. Or root for the home state and try Maryland's Byrd vineyards; the vidal blanc is dry, fruity and clean, and at $6.75 the price is more than right.
If you thought really good pie crusts had gone the way of the buffalo nickel, order dessert at Penwick House and take heart. The fillings are first-class, too, provided you ignore the gummy cherry pie. There's a credible chocolate mousse pie, an outstanding pecan pie crowded with whole pecans, and a rum cream pie with an old fashioned custard that's positively soul warming. (You can feed it to the kids without qualms, for the rum is all but undetectable.) Most cheesecake these days is so fluffy that it's sissy stuff. The version they make here is wonderfully dense, with a marvelous deep-down flavor.
You won't get bagels or brioche at Penwick's Sunday brunch. Remember, this is the country. You won't get big-city prices, either. For $9 there's aasimple buffet in which each of the dozen or so items is solidly successful. The fragrant, loose- textured sausage, made to order from a house recipe, is a standout, as are the stewed apple slices, redolent of cinnamon standout, as are the stewed apple slices, redolent of cinnamon and clove. There are grits good enough to convert the most hard-nosed Yankee, and superlative home fries. Eggs benedict are a textural triumph--muffin chewy but crisp-bottomed, egg yolk a touch loose but not runny, and hollandaise velvety and uncongealed.
Finally, some logistical facts of life. There are only about 20 tables at Penwick House, and the place is already popular, particularly for brunch. Expect to reserve a table well in advance, and don't be surprised to wait a bit on weekends.