Hands On Perfection
Jan 23, 2015 01:46PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
504 S. Morris Street, Oxford
By Gail Greco
“The Popemobile’s not available,” sighed the hostess.
So the chance tonight for a complimentary ride in the restaurant’s vintage cab was going to have to take a back seat. The so-named vehicle—normally ambling around Oxford, picking up diners, passing Victorian picket fenced-houses, quaint commercial buildings, boatyards, and even a picturesque riverside park—was in the shop for a tune-up.
I shrugged, but cheerily hung up the phone knowing that my dinner guest’s ravenous appetite for all things old/repurposed would still be satisfied later at Pope’s Tavern, The Oxford Inn’s Euro-bistro style restaurant. Instead, we traveled in my sporty mod sedan (ouch) instead of the quaint 1958 Austin FX3 black patent-leather spiffed British taxicab that rolled into town three years ago.
Arriving at the inn’s sprawling veranda, the mood shifted immediately to country inn romantic. Walking into the foyer, rays of setting sun and gas-lantern aura lit the reception area’s old-timey sofas and chairs. We could sit here for a pre-dinner cocktail since we couldn’t sit on the ribbed masculine leather seats of the Popemobile. Those seats are behind the traditional, but seemingly awkward U.K. driver’s steering wheel on the right. Instead, we moved right—on foot, a 90-degree twist off the center hall staircase that leads to seven circa 1880s-replicated bed-and-breakfast guest rooms.
Once through the dining room doors, the hostess started to chauffeur us to the table, but my guest remained at the threshold, hands crossed in repose smiling at the ceiling. Original tin panels wrap the entire 40-seat dining room in a stipple of flickering gold light, giving the room its yesterday charm. The ceiling suggested the room could have once housed a store. Turned out it did, once selling general merchandise and hardware for watermen and their families.
Inn owner and the masterful artist at the culinary helm Lisa MacDougal, told me, “our driving force has always been to create a warm place we would like to hang out in because then so would everyone else.” She and husband Dan Zimbleman purchased the inn in 2005 when a job transfer from Chicago, brought them to the Eastern Shore where they found the inn, and with Lisa’s stateside Cordon Bleu training and work in the Midwest and New York, she was able to fulfill her desire to have her own commercial kitchen. Since then, Pope’s Tavern has experienced steady, happy reviews as it goes into its 10th year.
During this recent visit, I spotted Lisa checking on diners in the bar. “I’m getting out of the kitchen to meet and greet whenever I can,” she informed, extending her hand from under a black chef’s coat hiding the splashes of a fall menu that I was in the midst of eating, and needed to get back to, as well as to my guest who had just been served a foie gras fig terrine ($16).
Wrapped in prosciutto with lambs lettuce, the man at my table knew my research would require a taste, but I agreed not to take too much to spoil what he described as “a fascinating combination,” and I dissected as, “a reflection of a confident chef who knows how to honor the Chesapeake’s propensity for growing sun-drenched sweet figs and honoring ubiquitous waterfowl.” But I kept that to myself until now.
I always order Chef Lisa’s fresh salad ($6) presented in a “wow, you get all of this?” berm of greens under a gentle shower of blended mustard seed and champagne vinegar, topped with a crisp flash-fried disk of Italian grating cheese.
I should have offered a go-with Black Cab Cocktail, named in honor of the Popomobile, done with blackberry-infused gin and liqueur, English blackberry tea, and fresh lemon juice. But we were interrupted by our order of Chesapeake oysters ($13), tasting as if they were just tonged that morning. Pope’s takes great pride in anointing oysters with subtle flavors such as bacon and spinach under a cheesey brown crust, or just on the half-shell that allows the mollusk to preach its sermon of fresh-from-local-waters tasty. If the Popemobile were a real cab service (complimentary to local diners only) the cabbie would be sure to tell you a little lore that the building used to be an oyster house handy to the rail car on the train passing through Oxford.
Pope’s Sous Chef Dave Donohue dropped by the table next with a chalice of creamy butternut squash swirled with arugula pesto; there’s always a soup du jour ($8). “Regulars often come in several times a week for soup, salad, and a sandwich, in the bar,” Lisa says. The menu there includes pub pies, burgers, and you can order off the main menu—maybe a goat cheese soufflé, fig ravioli, or short ribs.
Pope’s wine list is a seemingly Vatican-sized cellar of distinguished foreign and domestic viticultures. The waiter suggested a Pacific Northwest cabernet to go with my order of beef tenderloin ($34), but there was a persistent California pinot noir that we kept coming back to and it did satisfy with cherry fruits, chocolate, and toasted spices.
The pinot also complemented my unusual potato side—a chef signature, made as a cannoli. Mashed potatoes fill a shell she makes out of potato skins. “Time-consuming but this is what I want to do for my guests,” says the Chef. I’ve even had the cannoli with another steak dish at Pope’s topped with a lobster béarnaise.
Fish is big at Pope’s with in-season crab—soft, cakey, or stuffed into zucchini blossoms, served over succotash, or a local Chesapeake rockfish. My guest opted for pan-fried swordfish en pepperonata ($28) that proved to be meltingly moist in texture and perhaps the best swordfish he said he had ever eaten, “and just a few blocks from my house.”
The menu changes as much as eight times a year to be “fresh and seasonal,” so check Open Table online. Organic chicken, for example, can have cuttings from the chef’s own spring or summer kitchen garden, and recently I had it with quinoa and mushrooms in a marsala sauce.
Desserts are announced only after dinner and we indulged in several from crème brulee to a flourless chocolate cake before hitting the road again, hoping next time to hop on board in more period style.
In my career writing about small inns all over the world, I am always asked for my favorite place to stay. My answer is simple: “The inn/restaurants where the owner is present, because that is where you will get the best experience, personal service, and the finest fresh food.” Lisa (and Dan) live at the inn, and Lisa is so hands-on that once she had to leave the kitchen to do a pickup in the Popemobile.
The English cab for locals also brings in the seafaring diners, docking their yachts, cruisers, and sailboats at Oxford’s nine marinas. Lisa and Dan conceived the cab idea to complement the character of their inn, finding it on eBay, by way of London originally, and then the Midwest. I am reminded of a Florida license plate that simply read S-Car-Go. So even if you don’t “…car-go” in the Popemobile, Lisa offers another escargo as an appetizer—with the t at the end of the word, and that like everything else she serves at Pope’s, never needs a tuneup!
Author of several inn-inspired cookbooks and host of Country Inn Cooking formerly on PBS-TV, Gail Greco has visited hundreds of small chef-owned inn restaurants and is glad to have one of the best, she says, right in her own home town.