For decades, the Comus Inn was a favorite dining destination for its view of Sugarloaf Mountain across verdant farmland -- if not for its food, which was plain and straightforward but never dazzling. The Dickerson inn, which reopened in December after a two-year restoration, is now an elegant retreat where the food might even outshine the view.
The transformation began in September 2002, when a group of local investors, joined by veteran New Orleans and Las Vegas chef Patrick J. Schrader, bought the inn and started work on the cluster of buildings -- collectively known as the Johnson-Wolfe farm -- that date to the Civil War.
Every underpinning and surface of the main building has been renewed. Every piece of wood was stripped and re-stained. Floors were re-laid, carpet was installed and new windows are in place. Red standing-ridge metal roofs now unify the bright white buildings, which include the main house and a nearby chicken coop.
Inside, the inn is all soothing gold and red, from the draperies that frame that famous Sugarloaf view -- in the porch dining room on the main level and the new terrace dining room on the lower floor -- to the lush and comfortable upholstered chairs. Two walls of the original log cabin help to form the inn's most private dining room, which doubles as the site of a chef's table.
Cloth-draped dining tables are set with fine china -- whose design depicts a sunset over the mountain -- and sparkling crystal stemware etched with the same logo.
The selection includes a Sunday brunch complete with eggs cooked to order, prime rib, corned beef hash, fish and chicken; a lunch menu limited to a dozen or so soups, salads and sandwiches; and even a special Sunday night supper, served family-style. But dinner is the star at the new Comus Inn.
This is upscale Washington-style dining come to rural Montgomery County. Wednesday through Saturday nights, the menu is prix fixe, from $59 a person for three courses to $89 for five courses.
Instead of appetizers and main courses, there are "blue courses" and "black courses" under subheads such as "memories, " "saucy" and "bold and aggressive." Odd nomenclature aside, the offerings combine New Orleans-influenced dishes such as gumbo and turtle soup with the perennial Chesapeake favorite -- pristine crab in several guises -- and New American dishes featuring squab, duck and lobster.
The menu offerings are a far cry from the fried chicken and steaks of yesteryear.
Dinner begins with petite rolls and biscuits, made on-site from scratch, served with butter pats molded into flowers. They're melt-in-your-mouth good.
A small gift from the kitchen follows. On a recent night it was a perfectly seared day-boat scallop, served atop barely wilted spinach and a rich risotto. Rarely has a tiny appetizer tasted so wonderful.
The sherry-laced turtle soup was rich, but the ground-meat consistency of what our waiter said was Louisiana snapping turtle was a bit off-putting in such a velvety base. On the other hand, an appetizer serving (technically a black course) of seared scallops was mouth-watering. Not only were the scallops perfectly cooked, but the accompanying Parmesan custard was a smashing complement to the briny bivalves.
In fact, the Comus Inn is uncommonly good at matching side dishes with featured ingredients. The puree of butternut squash, celeriac and sweet corn was so good that it nearly outshone the perfectly crispy yet succulent sweetbreads it surrounded.
A rack of lamb, cooked medium rare and juicy without a hint of the layers of fat that sometimes mar such delicate chops, was beautifully matched with a tangle of silken leeks and potatoes.
At lunch, the ubiquitous Caesar salad gets a bit of a tweak: The sheaf of romaine is lightly grilled before being adorned with a house dressing that includes toasted pine nuts and oven-dried tomatoes. One of several variations is a crown of fried oysters, gently battered, quickly fried and wonderfully fresh.
There is a daily soup special -- the roasted pepper and corn was delightful -- and a daily po' boy sandwich. The Sugarloaf burger was large and juicy but was overwhelmed by the house-made kaiser roll. All the sandwiches come with Comus fries, delightful fresh potato chips.
Save room for desserts; they are stunningly good. A key lime cheesecake was light yet decadently rich. The chocolate cake was warm and molten in the middle, and the bread pudding would have done New Orleans proud.
The staff was attentive and the wine list unusual. Despite Montgomery County's arcane laws requiring that all alcoholic beverages be purchased through the county sommelier, David Dantzichas assembled an impressive array of wines. He is also hosting monthly wine tastings.
A visit to the Comus Inn is now worth the drive for the food and the view.
Comus Inn, 23900 Old Hundred Rd. (Route 109), Dickerson, 301-349-5100, 866-349-5101 and www.thecomusinn.com. Reservations recommended, especially on weekends. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; brunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 5:30-8:30 p.m. Sunday. Lunch courses: $12-$18. Dinner: prix fixe, three courses, $59; four courses, $74; five courses, $89. Accessible to people with disabilities.
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