UPDATE: As of September 2017, The Inn at Duck Creek is closed.
The renaissance of once-sleepy Smyrna got a big boost when The Inn at Duck Creek opened in late December. The handsome restaurant brings fine dining to a town that once craved upscale options.
Business partners Donna Ignasz and Howard Johnson painstakingly revived three 18th-century buildings with the idea of creating a destination dining spot in Kent County. They transformed the impressive Victorian and Federal-style facades into one elegant space that exudes historic ambiance while offering an au courant, farm-to-table menu by executive chef Chris Rauber.
Executive chef Chris Rauber
â€‹Rauber, who moved from Gladstone Tavern in New Jersey, brings a fresh approach to the menu, updating it for the seasons. What we ate on our visits may be different from what’s on the menu when you go.
We hit the restaurant on an evening when it was having trouble with a smoke detector. It was only a mild distraction—who hasn’t set off the piercing noise while cooking?—but it rattled the staff.
We ordered a bottle of local Harvest Ridge wine, then lost our waiter for a while. After a half an hour, he said the staff couldn’t locate the wine and brought us a substitute. That’s understandable, but we’re not sure why it took everyone so long to discover it was missing from the wine cellar.
We sat in the nicely appointed Governor’s Room. With golden-hued walls and cloth-covered tables on the first floor, it is one of several cozy areas in the multilevel restaurant. There is a separate but connected tavern that was once a barber shop, complete with a quaint photo of its earlier days. The upstairs houses dining and meeting rooms and a lounge for music acts.
But we were there to eat, and our appetizers were a great introduction to the chef’s skills.
Crispy calamari was breaded lightly and served with an addictive cherry-pepper aïoli. We also enjoyed the romaine wedge, a take on the classic salad with a different lettuce. The hunk of greens was bolstered beautifully by scallions, cherry tomatoes, thick crumbles of bacon and a piquant sherry-blue cheese dressing.
The crab bisque was a silky elixir imbued with the essence of the crustacean. It was a generous portion ladled into an attractive square white bowl.
As a native Baltimorean, I’m always skeptical of crab cakes on a menu. Rest easy. Duck Creek’s are awesome, though not a traditional Eastern Shore preparation—and they didn’t claim to be.
The two large patties were enhanced by Sriracha and a red pepper-curry sauce whose tongue-tingling zing was calmed by tender bulbs of roasted bok choy and a mound of the savory grain faro. Both additions complemented the seafood.
Seared sea scallops
The Long Island duck entrée
The Faroe Island salmon fillet was served on a cute, cut-to-size plank, imbuing the sweet fish with smoky woodiness. The fish was heavenly when dipped into the horseradish crème fraîche.
Every restaurant seems to have a steak, and Duck Creek is no exception. Its tender 14-ounce New York strip was lovingly draped with a cipollini demi-glace and balanced atop a creamy potato-garlic purée and creamed Swiss chard.
We were disappointed that the restaurant was out of the apple-frangipane tart, but we didn’t pine for long. A dense chocolate cake soothed us with intense flavor and an icy cranberry-orange compote that played off the richness.
You don’t want to miss Howard’s “famous” warm bread pudding, which I hope is a constant on the menu. It’s a comfort dessert at its finest, with pecans and bourbon salted caramel escorted by a nutmeg tuile and a scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel.
On another visit to Duck Creek, we checked out the tavern, which has a bar and several tables. It’s a congenial spot to grab one of the burgers from an informal menu that includes snacks like crispy calamari, pig wings and truffle fries.
The NoLo burger is a must-have. The thick beef patty was stacked impressively with fat shrimp, a spicy cheese sauce, Tasso ham, sautéed peppers and onions, lettuce, tomato and a swipe of garlic aïoli on a soft brioche roll. It was a masterpiece.
You can also order from the restaurant sides menu. We settled on a lovely chopped spring salad that looked like a still-life painting. A bed of iceberg lettuce and arugula were entangled with bright-green fava beans and peas, bronze chickpeas and pretty-in-pink watermelon radishes, all feathered with ribbons of Parmesan. Our only disappointment was the meager drizzle of the champagne-herb vinaigrette.
On both visits, we left content. The Inn at Duck Creek wisely caters to various dining needs, from casual to special occasion. The hands-on owners are welcoming and keep an eye on those who have entrusted them for a meal. They’ve certainly woken up taste buds in Smyrna and elsewhere with their vision.
2 N. Main St., Smyrna, 389-6700, www.theinnatduckcreek.com | PRICES: Appetizers, $4–$12; entrées, $19–$32. | RECOMMENDED DISHES: Sriracha crab cakes, NoLo burger and Howard’s “famous” warm bread pudding.