FOUR & TWENTY BLACKBIRDS - Routes 522 and 647, Flint Hill, Va. (703) 675-1111. Open: Wednesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch, for dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday. MC, V. Dinner reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch entrees $3.50 to $5.25; dinner appetizers $4 to $5.25, entrees $9 to $16. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $30 to $40 per person.
ATLANTIC HOTEL -- 2 N. Main St., Berlin, Md. (301) 641-0189. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 4 to 9 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch entrees $6 to $11; dinner appetizers $6 to $10, entrees $17 to $24. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 per person.
IN SUMMER THE CITY SEEMS TOO confining. We want to see a few trees, maybe a mountain, or stop at a rural antiques shop on the way to dinner. It is the time for vacations, including those that last only an evening. Here are two countryside destinations, one a hotel near Ocean City and the other a small restaurant in Rappahannock County, Va., the county that was first made a gastronomic destination by the Inn at Little Washington.
FOUR & TWENTY BLACKBIRDS HAS recently relocated, yet runs as smoothly as an old-timer. And though I made only one visit, this restaurant seemed consistent enough for me to draw confident conclusions.
The trick is, I think, that Four & Twenty Blackbirds has wisely limited itself to what it can handle well. Its dinner menu lists only four appetizers, five main dishes and three desserts. And while the dishes sound interesting, they are not particularly complicated. Lunch offers a few creative sandwiches and salads plus house-made chicken noodle soup.
The first-floor dining room is small but offers privacy -- the tables are in nooks with screens of lace or floral prints. Old pine flooring and ceiling fans speak of tradition, invigorated by walls of blush, burgundy and forest green. Downstairs is a less attractive room that looks like a basement rec room, even with its stone walls.
The menu lists 20 wines in four categories -- a play on the restaurant's name perhaps? Even more interesting are the prices, starting at $12 and topping out at $26 for a Roederer brut champagne.
Particularly charming are Four & Twenty's bread sticks, thin, herbed and in the shape of fiddleheads. Dinner also includes a pretty salad of red beets played against green lettuce and cucumber.
Among appetizers, the most irresistible is the smoky and tender grilled skewered lamb with spicy-sweet fig tapenade. Local smoked trout is moist and delicate, pleasantly teamed with lentil salad. Curried mushroom-pecan pastries are beautifully formed, but the filling is dry and needs zip. Gingered carrot soup, handsomely garnished with big golden croutons and carrot shreds, has a gentle and fresh flavor but is perhaps too restrained.
Main dishes cut a wider swath. Beef filet kebabs are browned and tender, their red wine sauce sparked with crumbled blue cheese and walnuts. Not only are the kebabs delicious, but they come with zesty, lemony saute'ed potatoes as well as the ubiquitous snow peas. Large and juicy grilled shrimp with cold sesame-lemon noodles are equally grand, imbued with grill smoke and piqued with wedges of orange and lime. Other main dishes enticed me less: Chicken madras is juicy strips of breast meat in a glaze far more sweet than hot; salmon baked in parchment is a dull and conservative rendition; and crepes filled with a sort of ratatouille taste like second-rate tearoom cooking.
There are a couple of sensational desserts, foremost among them the fragile-crusted and oozingly rich chocolate pecan tart. Mango mousse is light and airy, letting the fresh mango shine. The mocha cheesecake, though, needs work.
Four & Twenty Blackbirds is more an urbane restaurant in the country than a country inn. But its prices are rural, and its quality would be welcome even on K Street.
BERLIN, MD., IS A CHARMER, WITH ITS herringbone brick sidewalks and Victorian storefronts. Just a few miles west of Ocean City, Berlin is a bit off the beaten track. But it is fast becoming a destination since a group of local businessmen restored the Atlantic Hotel.
This turn-of-the-century 16-room hotel is exquisite, from its quilted bed coverings to its porches well stocked with rocking chairs. The dining room is formal but not stuffy, and the service emphasizes friendliness.
The dinner menu, which changes frequently, lists about five appetizers and six entrees, plus a couple of specials each day. The food would have been called continental in the Atlantic Hotel's early days; now it is considered new American. There are such flossy touches as carved-fruit garnishes and sorbet between courses. But the mood is homey, and the chef injects a bit of local color into the menu: snapper soup, oysters, crab meat, Virginia ham. Breads are house-made, a crusty braided loaf and dampish corn pone.
Escargots bourguignons are available everywhere, so snapper soup is a more interesting beginning. It's the real thing, dark and thick as gravy, with texture provided by the mildly gamy turtle and minced egg; a cruet of sherry comes alongside. Also local in flavor are oysters Atlantic, wrapped in smoked salmon and dolloped with chive-studded creme fraiche. Even coconut shrimp, which has nothing to do with Maryland, is nicely done with its chutney garnish.
If one dish is making this chef's reputation, it is the rack of lamb chevre, the boned loin browned with a coating of goat cheese and herbs, an astonishingly good combination. It is sliced and moistened with port and garlic sauce, then ingeniously garnished with the bones, crisped and served alongside for nibbling. Veal puttanesca, blanketed with diced ham, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and black olives, is a well-conceived combination too, though the veal is slightly floury. There are also such entrees as duck Chambord, sole with cheese, scallops with mustard and tarragon, Virginia beef Wellington with a Smithfield ham accent, and a sedate Victorian creamed seafood in puff pastry. Specials sometimes have a Cajun bent, as with gloriously crusty blackened tenderloin tips.
Dessert choices are ambitious and include a flaky apple tart with superb cinnamon cream and a rich bittersweet chocolate raspberry mousse.
This is nice food. And these are nice people. After dinner, a lounge sing-along is likely to be in full swing. And as you check out of the hotel, the hostess engages you in conversation: "Isn't the chef wonderful! He's my son-in-law." So you figure he'll still be around when you return.