Restaurant Review: Lemon Leaf Café in Chestertown is a Treat
Nov 03, 2015 09:00AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
A Citrusy StoryBy Rita Calvert
Lemon Leaf Café
Serene and peaceful with major historical notes, Chestertown is all about family and close knit relationships. However, when one passes a street named Cannon, reminders of an up close and personal War of 1812 are evident. Chestertown dates back to 1706 when it served as a bustling Mid-Atlantic port of entry for the colonial movement into Maryland. This maritime history is obvious in the charming “widows walk” architectural feature on the Victorian homes along the Chester Riverbank and closely nestled streets. Weathered brick buildings abound in the historic district, a few sporting murals of George Washington or a food market scene carefully painted on the surface.
JR Alfree’s food and drink establishments uphold this history and sense of community, especially in his Lemon Leaf Café, JR’s Pub, and, just recently, Molly’s, about ten minutes out of town. It’s a large story for a little town, which makes you wonder if JR is the culinary leader for the area. Although much of his support comes from locals, visitors to the nearby wildlife refuge, Washington College, weddings, and sightseers to this pristine peninsula appreciate his talent. Since the Lemon Leaf Café made an effort to market off-site catering in early summer, they are now also supplied with party business beyond their wildest dreams.
JR came to open Lemon Leaf Café by way of a 12-member supper club he had with friends in Los Angeles. When “in-the-weeds” (re: late) for hosting his event, he turned to the yard and gathered lemons with leaves for the decor and pulled together a menu from old family recipes. Inspired by JR’s creativity, the group became The Lemon Leaf Café. You can see his visual talent with a fresh, bright, comfortable ambiance. Original brick walls from the memorable building complement the deep wood floors and large beams that span the ceiling. Cylindrical vases of orchids and (you guessed it) lemons adorn each bright white tabletop. The perky lemon, lime, green, and white swirled fabric covering the seats of dark wood chairs fits the fresh and rustic theme.
As with all pieces of history, there are stories. Lemon Leaf’s own homemade goods baker, Miss Joe, turns out to be one of the enduring tales. And she is still at it! At 76 (she doesn’t mind telling her age), Miss Joanne Mulford first knew JR as his Sunday school and pre-kindergarden teacher. She is still baking strong with homemade apple bread, along with the dinner roll basket, legendary Coconut Cream Pie, and the big winner...Lemon Meringue Pie, which I had the opportunity to devour. A story for this delicacy is that visiting New Yorkers tasted her creation— with a homemade crust, by the way. They immediately purchased seven full-size editions to carry back to NY. The Lemon Meringue is available to purchase in petite size for $6.50 or full size, which runs $25.
On to the menu. From breakfast through dinner, the Café is a niche for classic Eastern Shore dishes: cream of crab soup, crab cakes, oyster stew, chicken and dumplings, and hearty breakfasts including “flannel cakes.” The menu also has cleverly named items—Gucci Croissant, Leeman Sandwich, Paris Delight, and WC Hungry Oarmen. Another good anecdote; every Saturday after rowing practice, the ravenous oarsmen from nearby Washington College would come in and order the same two flannel cakes, two eggs, two pieces of bacon, one piece of sausage, and home fries. This large platter became their namesake on the breakfast menu. Other items of note are the cocktails made from fresh squeezed juices.
As my curiosity always orchestrates the meal I’m about to order, I wanted to taste how the Café’s award-winning Cream of Crab Soup earned its trophy. Lemon Leaf enters their rendition of this soup every year in the Maryland Seafood Festival and has taken the top honor in years past. I have judged this creamy soup cook-off and I know a slew of restaurants covet the award. The large, deep bowl arrived with a colorful sprinkling of paprika, dotted with green parsley flakes. Sherry in a cruet was served alongside. The creamy, but not overly thick, “Maryland” soup was divine with nice chunks of local crabmeat.
Next course from the dinner menu was one of JR’s contemporary designs: Grilled Hearts of Romaine. An entire (but not too huge) head of romaine lettuce was split lengthwise and grilled. Flipped over on the plate to show the grill marks, it was topped with glazed red onions, bacon, and bleu cheese crumbles, served with a homemade white balsamic vinaigrette in a side “boat.” The warm and slightly wilted lettuce melted the generous blue cheese. The cubes of bacon added rich saltiness to the dish. The dish is visually impressive and you can order it with more or less char.
Martell, the manager, was such a treat as he described all of the dishes in detail. A big question crabcake aficionados always ask about is the percentage of crabmeat in the cake. Ninety-five percent crabmeat gets the gold star and is the bestselling item for lunch and dinner. However, when I heard the rockfish was local, I indulged in the fin fish and was so glad I did. With a limited season and many regulations governing the catch, it is definitely a star on a menu. The filet of striped bass was large and thick—about eight ounces. Simple and superb, it came with a caramelized dusting of a mild spice blend which lent a bit of saltiness, but not too much. The average restaurant cliché would be a sauce. However, the Café knows what they are doing, as it was left unadorned and didn’t need any extra flavoring. The freshness came through with perfect moistness in the thick texture. The long “platter-for-one” was a beautiful sight. Next to the rockfish was a bed of woven fresh vegetables. Ribbons of zucchini and crookneck squash were melded with caramelized red onion cubes and tiny red cherry tomato halves. Fresh mint specks were a gentle surprise in the olive oil sautéed sauce. The filet was propped up by crispy-sautéed Yukon Gold potatoes with a crown of micro-greens.
For dessert, I just had to give Miss Joe’s Lemon Meringue Pie a go. It’s unusual these days to find this offering on a menu. I wonder why it has virtually disappeared. It may be that the meringue is difficult to keep in humid weather, as we have here during Maryland summers. I was expecting a tall wedge of pie with a golden meringue. Instead, an individual little round darling arrived with a peak of whipped cream on the summit and down one side. Confectioners’ sugar dusted the plate. Well, you must imagine the treat it was! A homemade crust wraps the tangy lemon curd-like filling and then there is the meringue—soft inside with golden edges-perfection.
It’s a challenge to keep a Café open for three full-fledged meals a day, even more so with attention to “homemade.” Martell mentioned that the previous weekend, they had three weddings on top of the bustling summer restaurant and pub business and they are taking it in stride. That’s a lot of food and staff organization.
JR and his team are dedicated to a relaxing food experience with what they consider family and friends. Eat there and you’ll be in the fold.
As a food writer, blogger, food stylist, photographer, Rita Calvert has partnered in writing cookbooks and developed product lines to showcase the inspiration, art and nourishment of food. She is a blogger, photographer and advisor for the food world. The Grassfed Gourmet Fires It Up! is her most recent book with co-author farmer, Michael Heller. After owning a successful restaurant in California, she has now been an Annapolis resident for close to 30 years.