Dining at the Imperial Hotel's Front Room Caps a Visit to Chestertown, Md., with Gustatory Splendor.

By Jane Meneely, July 2007
Photos by 
Michael C. Wootton

Our meal was terrific--the food, the service, the setting. Paul and I had traveled up the Chester River to Chestertown, to see the sights and visit our friend Karen Ashley,CBM's art director. We'd agreed to meet Karen for dinner at the Imperial Hotel's Front Room restaurant and had made reservations for 7:30. The hotel sits on High Street, Chestertown's main drag, only a few blocks from the waterfront. We'd heard that the place was under new management, and we had wanted to try it out. The chef had been a student of culinary wizard Wolfgang Puck, so we expected great things.

We met in the hotel's cozy bar and began working on a bottle of cabernet while we waited for our table. The restaurant takes up the ground floor of the old hotel, but is broken up into three separate areas. Ours was one of three tables in the smallest of these, and we were next to a cheery gas fire--very intimate. Kenneth, our server, offered us menus and fetched us another bottle of wine as we perused the selections. Everything is a la carte: salads, appetizers and entrees. And everything seemed expensive, at first, but it also made our mouths water just reading the descriptions. The local beet salad, for example, comes with honeydew melon, goat cheese and citrus vinaigrette. Starters included "crispy sweetbreads"--something I haven't seen beyond my mother's kitchen (and it's been years! I'm not sure where I could even buy them these days; and if you must know, they are the thymus glands of young beef, pork or lamb). The entrees, a few well chosen items--seafood, steak, lamb and quail--come with distinctive and sumptuous-sounding accompaniments, like tempura sea bass served with almond spaghetti squash and apple Dijon sauce.

We decided to forgo the salad and dove straight into the appetizers. Karen wanted the sauteed crabcake (it was also available as an entree). It was nicely prepared, but wasn't as flavorful as we'd expected (we all swapped tastes); then again, this was mid-winter and crab wasn't exactly in season. The good-size patty was loaded with crab, and the pesto-infused pasta made a nice complement. This, with a salad, would have made a meal. Paul ordered the baked oysters. These were heavily spiced, steeped and baked in a thick tasso cream--and not at all to my liking (I like to taste the oyster; I'm also a spice weenie). But Paul and Karen raved. "They're so different!" they said, smacking their lips and relishing the unexpected mix of flavors. There were six of them, again a meal by themselves. I had ordered the seared foie gras, served with diced, roasted peaches in a vanilla sauce. It was as elegant as it sounded, served on a bed of fresh greens (ah, there'smysalad) and just enough to share. Foie gras (goose liver) may be the height of politically incorrect decadence for some, but I savored every bite.

Our entrees were exquisite. Karen's seared scallops were sweet and moist, served on a butternut squash puree and surrounded by crispy shaved carrots. Paul's Moroccan lamb came with a tasty goat cheese polenta, thick and savory. The meat was succulent (you could cut it with a fork), a perfect medium rare, its flavor heightened by a port raisin sauce. My chorizo-stuffed quail (two) was just as delightful. It was hard to tell where the stuffing ended and the bed of mustard spaetzle began. The combination had the nutty flavor of wild rice, a lovely adjunct to the delicate fowl. And yes, everything came with vegetables, fresh and crisp and delicately seasoned. Of course we had dessert: creme brulee, chocolate mousse and a helping of brandy-infused fruit served in a chocolate cup.

Okay, so the oysters brought me up short, but everything else was grand and elegant and smack on the edge of decadent. This is definitely a special-occasion kind of place; my kids would have hated it, and no yacht club in its right mind would venture in en masse. Yes, the prices were on the high side, but the menu was set up so that you could zero in on what you wanted and not lose a car payment. Even better, the new managers plan to expand the bar area to create a quiet pub for wine tasting and what they call "duets," small plates of delectables paired with a complementary wine. We'll check that out on our next jaunt up the Chester. After all, it's exactly the kind of place to play footsie with your sweetie, and that's worth a trip up any river.

The Front Room is located in Chestertown's Imperial Hotel, 208 High Street. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday; brunch (including a do-it-yourself Bloody Mary bar) is served on Sunday until 3 p.m. Lunch $8-$12; dinner $15-$32; Sunday brunch $8-$12. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations suggested. 410-778-5000;www.imperialhotelchestertown.com.

[07.07 issue]