Thursday, March 29, 2007

Red Maple Inn

The Red Maple Inn is postcard perfect, a tenderly renovated, antique-filled two-story house surrounded by stunning gardens. My husband and I chose to visit on a lazy Sunday afternoon for the "Sunday Supper," a Southern-tinged fixed menu with varying entree and side options.

Hostess and co-owner Charlene Fowler greeted us graciously, and led us to a cozy adjoining dining area.Our server ambled by with menus, waters and the modest wine list. He also mentioned, much to my husband's delight, that the listed pork chop was being replaced by a grilled ham steak. A no-brainer, to be certain.

Dave Bankes, co-owner and Sunday chef, came out of the kitchen and chatted amicably with us for a few minutes. He takes command one day a week to give his son and full-time executive chef Ben Bankes a day of rest. His passion for the restaurant and gardens was palpable and refreshing.

As our waiter returned with the wine, he slipped back into the kitchen to ready our meals.The Hugues Beaulieu 2003 Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet was light-bodied, with hints of peach and apple balanced by a bright squirt of lemon-lime, and a hair away from being grape juice at only 12.5 percent alcohol. Sipping away, I glanced around the room. An old piano stood proudly at the rear, laden with plates and serving pieces. Antiques, all for sale, hung on the walls and sat on the sideboard. Tables, chairs, and dishes are all a charming medley of mix 'n' match pieces.

First course was the salad, a mixture of fresh field greens and marinated tomatoes, onions and peppers. Really, a classic chopped salad, which had just the right ratio of tart to sweet, and was the perfect beginning to the meal. Along with that, we received warmed sweet potato muffins dusted with a touch of powdered sugar. Subtly sweet and spicy, I can see why people request these to take back home.

Our entrees arrived spice-dusted and strewn with rose petals. My husband's grilled ham steak was exceptionally good, very juicy, meaty and tender. The seasonal vegetables, which in this case were summer squash, zucchini, onions and grape tomatoes, were lightly sautéed and tender-crisp. A light sprinkling of salt was all it needed to ramp up the fresh flavors to perfection. The herb-seasoned white rice was a bit sparse in the herbage department, but fluffy nonetheless.

My own plate was truly a sight to behold. The crab cake, lightly sautéed and perfectly browned, was heavy with fresh-tasting jumbo lump crab, and light on the filler. It was just fine sans sauce, but a quick dip in the sassy remoulade revealed the perfect pairing between sweet meat and zippy sauce.

My sides included a baked sweet potato that was melting with maple butter, and sautéed peas and mushrooms. Again, the vegetables were wonderfully cooked and seasoned, and notably fresh in taste.Although our waiter tempted us with creme brulee and coffee, we'd both reached maximum capacity.

After paying the bill, we went for a quick stroll out back. It was then we realized that, in addition to the covered porch at the side, there is also seating outside among the flowers. The backyard is alive with colorful flora, all carefully maintained by Dave Bankes. We spent several minutes looking at roses, phlox, daylilies and the herbs that had been on our plates.

Red Maple Inn is truly a welcome departure from the fast-food, hurry-up mentality of corporate America. This is the place where a diner (not an eater) can relax, chat, and spend a couple of leisurely hours enjoying good food and conversation.


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