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Indigenous Eats: From Beachy to Bartlett, and Over the Bridge, they Pilgrimage to Eat Here

Feb 16, 2016 04:37PM ● By Cate Reynolds

Clockwise: Cottingham Farm. Chef Mark Salter of Robert Morris Inn. Bistro Poplar.

By Gail Greco // Photos by Tony Lewis, Jr.

Navigating country roads off U.S. Route 50 where no beach-bound traveler dares veer off, I meandered my once-shiny black SUV dusting with dry earth from sprawling corn-shorn fields near Trappe. I was after a chicken, wobbling on grass, and my GPS wasn’t finding it. But a man with a seeing-eye dog was. “Over there and there,” his hand directed better than my nav app. “Thanks,” I cheeked; I had no choice but to believe him.

Minutes later I was at Stonehouse Farm: “Our chickens…local feed, fresh air, bugs, and grass.” Hands outstretched, Dave McClain greeted me from the processing barn, his yellow lab trotting behind. An amazing graze of chickens and warm pastured eggs, I left with my gold standard of real food—a roaster I later baked crispy brown in a winey-thyme sauce. It’s why my friends tolerate my culinary fussiness: “Let’s eat out; you pick where!”

True, I am after the sensual when I leave my kitchen for someone else’s: healthy, local ingredients in an intimate atmosphere. That’s not hard to find here now. From Kent Island to Cambridge, the world is a twitter over Chesapeake Bay eating. So what’s changed—from food just good enough to eat, to food so good that discerning diners go out of their way to eat here?

At Bistro Poplar in Cambridge, one answer stared up at me as my fork flaked a salmon filet, the color of sea-glass pink at Chef Ian Campbell’s coaxing, along with creamy greens the night’s menu listed as Palak Paneer. Located in historic portside Cambridge, it seems an unlikely setting for a world-class restaurant. Yet, it’s not the only one dotting the Eastern Shore. As in hidden towns along the fertile Hudson Valley or in New England, the very remoteness of our hamlets charms diners.

A good example is t at the General Store, in a former old-time general store, by a dusty antiques shop and a centuries-old boarded-up church in Royal Oak. You wouldn’t think they’d be packing them in here either. The location is tough—a road traveled mainly by locals and Bellevue Ferry passengers. With its restored tin ceilings and new marble mosaic floors, the place looks more urbany, like something off the Red Line’s Friendship Heights. t at the General Store was opened two years ago by a couple of D.C. folks. When I stopped by for a chai tea-rubbed chicken and sipped a green-tea martini (as in T), I thought, hmmm, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

208 Talbot offered more to the why eat-here. Around for years, it’s more visible on the main street in St. Michaels, but even bustling St. Mike’s is on a remote peninsula. When I’m out of town, I look for the casual elegance found at 208 Talbot, and rarely find it. It’s not that there aren’t great restaurants elsewhere; but I’m always comparing them to the Eastern Shore dining experience and they don’t quite make it. Something’s missing.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what that is. A November 11th, 2015, article in the Wall Street Journal begins to answer that. In “The Rise of Mid-Atlantic Cuisine,” they describe that missing link as being Chesapeake cuisine. Chefs can’t make their creamy oyster soup, WSJ says, like our chefs do at an arm’s reach. This side of the Bay Bridge has the largest contiguous stretch of agricultural land on the entire East Coast, so they are missing a whole lot more.

Diners eat from the world’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake, and its shores, right where the food is fished, raised, grown, and produced. Location and local are intertwined. Even t at the General Store’s cocktails pull mixers from Lyon Distilling Company in St. Michaels; pork from Sudlersville; veggies from Cottingham Farm; coffee via Rise Up Coffee Roasters, named one of the 25 best in the world by BuzzFeed, and dessert by Scottish Highland Creamery in Oxford, fifth best ice cream in America by Trip Advisor.


Tossed: This Changes Everything…Again

Is it the best food in the world? Well what is that anyway? I think New York Times food writer and cookbook revolutionary James Beard defined it best when he said he didn’t care if it was a potato or a soufflé he was eating; he judged food simply by fresh ingredients and the care taken to cook and serve. He was certainly describing the essence of what has become Eastern Shore Cuisine.

Sunflowers & Greens, a cafe in Easton, is the latest example of indigenous food taking area dining up another notch. I was awestruck opening day, walking next door from yoga at the new Blue Mat, perhaps the most upscale spot I’ve found in 15 years of downward-facing dogs. At S&G, I found the same marble countertops and blue walls I just noticed while holding steady in boat pose. Food is the décor, its baubles in a bowl: shining limes and lemons, sweet oranges. House-made lemonade and chilled teas are in glass dispensers; you can see the richness of the brews, and the centerpiece—the salad bar—bursts with sun salutations I left behind on the mat: kale still reaching for the sky, cabbage foaming sea green shreds, sprouts perking madcap, and lettuces laughing.

A white-aproned staff’s mantra is: “Our products are…respectful of the growing season. Dishes prepared on site….” And they want you to know, “…ingredients are peeled, cleaned, boned, ground, milled…in our kitchen.” Greens are from Salisbury’s Baywater Farm, tomatoes and beef from Dogwood Farm, Sherwood, tuna from Ocean City, breads from Chestertown’s Evergrain Bakery. I’m not sure where the softer-than-cloth tweed paper napkins come from!

S&G and Blue Mat are by Blue Point Hospitality, which purchased the Washington and Federal streets block, to turn it into a feel-good, feel-better, be-luxurious health/wellness destination where you can even drop in at the new Bumble Bee Juice for a kombucha or keva. Blue Point wouldn’t tell me if a dinner place is next, but the buzz is yes.

New style eateries are popping everywhere. Lan’s in St. Michaels serves only small-bites I enjoyed on a moonlit patio, allowing room for dessert at another newbie called Sinful, whose local includes goat cheese ice cream churned a few doors down by Justine’s Ice Cream that uses Sinful’s espresso to make its java flavor. I also had wine in a stem glass rimmed with chocolate/caramel. A friend sipped a martini too sinful to tell all.

Long ago, eating out on the Eastern Shore was an afterthought. Restaurants were more places to fill the belly while boating. You didn’t come here just to enjoy a dining experience. But now you can even sit and fine dine at marinas like Harbourside Grill in St. Michaels and Lowes Wharf in Sherwood, on the sandy beachfront where the crusted yellowfin tuna glows as red as the setting sun across the Bay.

And there’s the new Doc’s Downtown Grill in Easton for sports bar fans and casual dining, Theo’s Steaks, Sides & Spirits in St. Michaels for market price prime steaks, and a gastro pub where a duck fat burger is still calling me to The High Spot in Cambridge—owned by Chef Patrick Fanning, also of Stoked wood-fired Italian. Nearby, he just opened a roaster and café, Blackwater Coffee House (coffee in its purest form, and saluting nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge).

Even longstanding eateries here are bubbling with new twists. Mason’s in Easton, still awesome under new ownership, has just opened a sidebar, Sticks and Stones. I almost cried happy tears at a pasta in melting Brie with smoky bacon and apple chutney. I sent out a cue like something from the movies, “You’ll want what I’m having.” Same with the flatbread: wood-smoked crusty with chicken, duck, caramelized onions under a Gruyere/Cheddar BBQ sauce.

And Chef Jordan Lloyd, a name that will go down in culinary history here, has opened The Bartlett Pear Bakery in Easton, named after his inn. I loved the house-made baguettes and mile-high quiche, and I took home a miniature Smith Island Cake that Bartlett gets from Crisfield headquarters. The cakes were on the November 7th, 2015, front page of the Wall Street Journal as being so sought after that they will outlast the island itself, the article suggested!


Toque’ns: Shore Food Barons

All things local brought the French-trained chef Jordan Lloyd back home to Easton to start The Bartlett Pear Inn & Restaurant, six years ago. He has certainly been one of the biggest influences shaping the new Eastern Shore style food with “dirt to table” practice. Like his predecessor Chef Andrew Evans (now of BBQ Joint fame), who ran The Inn at Easton (now the Pear), Jordan earned a reputation across the bridge even to the ecstatic reviews of The Washington Post, thanks to his original food designed according to what’s Chesapeake-fresh. He got the attention of the dining community, and other chefs followed, raising the culinary bar again.

“No one can do what we do here,” Jordan preaches. “Only we have the mighty Chesapeake. Every dish we serve is touched with ingredients within a 10-mile radius.”

One of my first entrées into Shore food was at Chef Mark Salter’s table some 20 years ago at The Inn at Perry Cabin. I was writing a tea book (the inn also serves a daily high tea), and was struck by his passion for local ingredients as he used to source in his native England. Today he runs Robert Morris Inn, Oxford, when he’s not at the Easton Farmer’s Market, selling his own line of soups and condiments.

Another Eastern Shore foodie-original came in 2000 from the West Coast, pushing this local-sourcing idea. She felt diners should want to know the origins of their food. She certainly did herself. At 35, emboldened San Francisco native Amy Haines opened Out of the Fire and set the town ablaze. Gossipers worried: Too progressive? Forward thinkers simply dropped to their knees with joy.

Fifteen years later and Out of the Fire is respected as the restaurant that helped perhaps most in raising the bar for the Eastern Shore at that time. The result wasn’t just a new with-it restaurant, but chic businesses followed in their wake. “I love this community and wasn’t trying to change it; but health and wellness is still first in my work and I couldn’t do Out of the Fire in any other way.” Restaurants started thinking clean-eating, too, upping the ante in their own way like Bistro St. Michaels, even the old-timey Fisherman’s Inn, and a very local-oriented wharfside restaurant, The Narrows on Kent Island in Grasonville, Pope’s Tavern in Oxford, and the wildly popular Scossa in Easton.

O’Fares of the Art: Eastern Shore Cuisine

So with local ingredients on the table, Eastern Shore cuisine is food nourished of the Bay and served in locales remote enough to foster individual foods and philosophies. The chefs I’ve spoken to over the years say it’s harder and more expensive to do it this way. Bistro Poplar’s menu notes, “Due to our commitment to freshness, the kitchen prepares limited quantities and therefore may not be able to accommodate requests.” Sourcing and running a kitchen based on local has its limits, but that isn’t stopping Eastern Shore chefs who know they have an opportunity here in what the land and sea produces.

Chefs come here because they can pursue a niche and the locale allows it to flourish. Two If By Sea on Tilghman Island has done a wine dinner with local wines. Others use organics from Cottingham Farm, cheese from Chapel’s Creamery, of course Dave’s Chickens from Stonehouse Farm, and so many more like them. The culinary circle finishes off with you, me, and outsiders responding more than ever to Eastern Shore Cuisine.

Back at Bistro Poplar where the why of food being worth the trip had started to unfold for me as certainly being indigenous, our 18-year-old server Travis was bringing out the Pear Hazelnut Tart. One hand behind his back and the other gently setting the dessert down, he apologized, “Pardon my reach.” I wondered if I had heard correctly. Of course, I had. I’m on the Eastern Shore—gracious and giving, thoughtful and sensitive, where it’s always been about that extra effort, and believing it would make the difference, and it has!