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Restaurant Review: Salter’s Tavern at Robert Morris Inn in Oxford

May 31, 2016 12:13PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

Celebrity Chef Adds His Signature to Historic Eastern Shore Hostelry

By Mary Lou Baker // Photography by Jennifer Madino

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Salter’s Tavern at Robert Morris Inn
314 N. Morris St., Oxford
410-226-5111 | robertmorrisinn.com

Breakfast 8–10:30 a.m. Mon.–Sat.
Sunday Brunch 8 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Lunch, Mon.–Sat. 12–2:30 p.m.
Dinner daily 5–9 p.m. 
Casual and formal dining; seasonal outdoor terrace. Reservations suggested; wheelchair accessible; major credit cards accepted; $$$
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To enhance what promises to be a special experience, I suggest a preliminary “background check” on the historic Robert Morris Inn in Oxford. It would also be sweet if you make this excursion a day trip in order to enjoy the scenery and maybe a short but scenic round trip ride on the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry—the oldest privately-operated ferry in the United States. It departs regularly from its mooring at the mouth of the Tred Avon River just across the street from the inn. Go with or without your vehicle and/or your dog.

The Robert Morris Inn is a national treasure, parts of it built in the early 1700s as a residence for its namesake, a wealthy British merchant who is known as “the financier of the American Revolution.” Check out the original staircase as you enter the building, where 14 antique-filled upstairs rooms accommodate overnight guests and a series of first-floor spaces offer both formal and casual dining options. In fair weather, outdoor tables on the terrace or brick-paved front porch offer stunning river views.

Enter through the front door of the mustard-colored inn, and step into history. From the formal foyer, proceed into the dining room decorated with murals made from wallpaper samples created 140 years ago. Celebrating the four seasons, displayed are beautifully rendered paintings, the originals of which were discovered in an historic home in Western Maryland and used in a redecoration of the White House. Slate floors in the casual Salter’s Tavern came from Vermont and historic red brick dominates the room arches over four private booths, and makes the massive fireplace a handsome center piece for the room and a source of warmth on chilly evenings.

There have been plenty of changes at this iconic location over the years, the most recent being new ownership of the inn after more than 40 years of stewardship by a devoted couple, Ken and Wendy Gibson. They haven’t gone far—just across the street where they welcome overnight guests to their Sandaway Lodge and suggest they dine at the inn.

News of the current co-owners is exciting to those who appreciate their credentials: celebrity chef Mark Salter, who spent nearly two decades in charge of the kitchen at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michael’s and internationally-known hotelier Ian Fleming, proprietor of the highly acclaimed Lake of Monteith Hotel in Scotland. Friends for many years, the two assumed ownership of the inn in 2015 and are on a fast track to transform a sleepy property into a center of activity for local residents and a distinguished destination for visitors to the Eastern Shore.

Publication timelines brought us to their inn just before Chef Salter launched his spring menu, bringing back the lamb, asparagus, shad roe, and other seasonal treats he loves to showcase. We did sample some of his year-round favorites—classics that benefit from his culinary skills and innovative ideas. Chef admits that he has a true passion for cooking and is happiest when free to practice that passion in what is now his “own kitchen.” He is an artist of sorts, putting his own signature on American favorites. “My style of cooking is modern classical with an emphasis on lightness,” says Salter. “I want my menus to feature local ingredients and focus on flavor.”

Some savory samples are the tempura-like casing for the firm-fleshed Icelandic cod, lemony homemade remoulade sauce, baby buttered peas, and apple-blue cheese slaw that made the fish and chips sing; a miniature oyster pot pie with a sherries cream sauce under a beautifully browned pastry hat, perfectly partnered with a pile of carefully carved cooked vegetables (zucchini, Brussels sprouts, carrots, baby green beans) perfumed with herbs and enlivened with lemon; a Salter-style soup featuring poached chicken in a creamy curried parsnip and apple broth scattered with toasted almonds.

My perpetually on-a-diet companion (off-diet when we review) was jangling his internal tambourine as we feasted away, soon to be joined by the chef himself. It was a slow day and we were the only remaining patrons in Salter’s Tavern. Put two “food people” together and the talk starts flowing and pretty soon I learned that he was truly committed to buying local (seafood from Bay 100, greens and veggies from Cottingham Farm, pork and poultry from Black Bottom Farms); bakes his own breads, rolls, and desserts (except for the Smith Island cake); and enjoys accommodating vegetarians and special requests as long as he has prior notice.
Asked about some of his favorite dishes, he mentions crab spring rolls with pink grapefruit, avocado, and toasted almonds; his crab cakes (because he beat acclaimed chef Eric Ripert in a crab cake cook-off); honey-tarragon glazed lamb shank; and the Pavlova and Baked Alaska on his regular dessert menu.

When Salter learned I liked liver, he brought out a sliver of his chicken liver pate and chutney and said he often had calves liver and onions on special because his old friend and TV personality Ben Stein loves the way he prepares it. “He drives over from D.C. just to have it,” confides our attentive server, a nine-year veteran of the inn’s dining rooms who counts Brook Shields as one of the “rich and famous” who visit this Oxford landmark.

It was late afternoon as we finished the chef’s version of tiramisu enriched with Kahlua and white chocolate sauce and a dense lemon cake layered with house-made lemon curd, crowned with raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries and sided with Chantilly cream. Even the coffee was special. We’ll come again to sample from the savvy wine selection curated by Mr. Fleming, whose list includes 14 boutique wines from Italy, France, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina ($7.50–10 by the glass) and a solid selection of more than 100 reds and whites, each aptly described in colorful prose.

While the awe-inspiringly history of the Robert Morris Inn remains in all its glory, the personality of the new owners and the quality of the fare has taken it to a new level. Salter and Fleming are raising their families here and are active members of the community When we visited at the end of the season, a colorful folder called “28 Reasons to Beat a Path Back to the Inn this Winter” decorated each table—detailing the cooking demos, wine dinners, holiday activities, and musical entertainment that keeps the place busy year-round.

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About the Author: Mary Lou Baker is a frequent contributor to What’s Up? Media publications and self-professed gourmand. She has authored numerous culinary articles and recently penned the book Seafood Lover’s Chesapeake Bay: Restaurants, Markets, Recipes & Traditions.

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