If you never had a reason to go to North Beach, a tiny Chesapeake Bay town in Calvert County, you do now: a new upscale restaurant called the Westlawn Inn. Single-handedly it is redefining the Twin Beaches' culinary image from a land of biker bars, fried seafood and the Tastee-Freez.
The kitchen's three professionally trained chefs are turning out food far more sophisticated -- and flavorful -- than their twenty-something ages might suggest. And the enthusiasm of owner Lee Travers, a local builder and sometime rock musician, has infected the entire staff. An evening at Westlawn is a visit to an idyllic country inn.
The century-old structure was built as a rooming house for beach vacationers and more recently had been a bed and breakfast. Travers bought it three years ago, about the time he decided he was physically tired of building houses -- his family's business for three decades in Calvert -- and wanted to open a restaurant.
He gutted the interior and over the next two years reshaped it into his dream. From the Victorian-style vestibule, a wood-panel bar is situated to the left (the actual serving bar is faced with old panel doors Travers found in the attic), and a dining room, with windows all around, is off to the right.
Up a flight of stairs is a smaller dining area, and there is a private dining room in one of the old boarding house bedrooms. A wide veranda, cooled by several ceiling fans, wraps around the front and side of the first floor, offering outdoor seating in warmer weather.
John Kozik, 26, a local who trained at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona, heads the kitchen. He worked at Kinkead's in the District and as a caterer before joining Travers's venture.
Kozik describes the restaurant's concept as "casual upscale," with a menu that will change with the seasons. He and Travers said part of the reason for the menu changes is to keep attracting local residents, their main customer base.
Many of the dishes have Italian and southern roots or accents. And if you never thought you'd find collard greens you could love, just wait until you try Kozik's.
It's hard to recommend specific preparations because Kozik introduced a fall menu last week, changing all but one offering. The sole survivor is a lively rendition of Charleston-style she crab soup. The creamy base is laced with sherry and rich with lump crab, with a bit of Tabasco oil to give it some punch. My only complaint was some bits of shell that should have been removed during preparation.
On two visits, every item my guests and I tried was a winner, beautifully composed and with interesting tastes and textures. Westlawn's version of shrimp and grits was one of the best of this southern standard I have ever had. It married briny, fresh shrimp with creamy stone-ground grits, all napped with a light barbecue-flavored sauce laced with bits of spicy tasso ham.
A crab cake appetizer was all lump crab gently bound without a hint of filler and topped with a corn relish. A crab cake sandwich, served at lunch, was just as flavorful, though the kaiser roll seemed to overwhelm it.
The most stunning appetizer was the crispy chicken egg roll, a riff on the traditional Chinese preparation. Sliced in half and served with zesty cream sauce, the egg roll was stuffed with chicken and some of the world's most delicious collard greens.
Those wonderful shrimp were paired with perfectly seared scallops in another main course that included a crispy grits cake and collard greens and wowed even my decidedly Yankee husband. Duck breast was cooked just to medium rare, leaving it moist and juicy, and was accompanied by a rice pilaf with a complex flavor and nutty crunch. Either dish would have been the pride of any top downtown Washington restaurant.
The new menu includes an oyster bar, with the bivalves offered raw on the half shell, buttermilk-fried or as oysters Rockefeller. Starters include flash-fried buttermilk-soaked calamari, sauteed littleneck clams and miniature veal meatballs. Shrimp over dried tomato risotto, grilled rib-eye steak, grilled pork chop, veal scaloppine and seafood linguine are among the main courses offered for fall.
Most of the desserts -- and they are all very good -- are purchased from a commercial bakery in Silver Spring. If carrot cake is on the menu, don't miss it. Baked by the mother of one of the cooks, it's a mile high, light and luscious.
A small, modestly priced wine list complements Kozik's menu.
Travers, who played with a rock group called Nobody's Children in the 1960s and '70s, more recently has joined with some former band members to play under the name Treated and Released.
"My children said we couldn't be Nobody's Children anymore because we were all in our fifties, and we didn't like the notion of Nobody's Grandparents," Travers said. "We thought Treated and Released best described us."
Music runs in the family. His brother, Fred Travers, plays dobro with the bluegrass band Seldom Scene. Lee Travers said that on cold winter evenings, after dinner is finished, he hopes Treated and Released will make some music at the Westlawn Inn.
Westlawn Inn 9200 Chesapeake Ave., North Beach, 410-257-0001. Reservations recommended, especially on weekends. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Fridays-Sundays; dinner, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5-9 p.m. Sundays. Appetizers at dinner, $4.95-$15.50; main courses at dinner, $17.50-$23. Wheelchair accessible.
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