Go! Eat & Drink: An Homage to Fromage

From its decor to its menu, The Fair Hill Inn receives an overhaul. The results? Say cheese.

The tomato and basil al a Georges Blanc is comprised of a ripe tomato married with basil and a touch of garlic garnished with marinated cipollini and cucumbers. Right: Owners, from left Brian Shaw, Venka Pyle and chef Phil Pyle Jr.

Photographs © by Thom Thompson

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The Fair Hill Inn

Routes 213 and 273, Fair Hill, Maryland n (410) 398-4187

Recommendations: Gazpacho, chilled avocado soup, tomato-basil salad, and medium-rare tuna with cumin, fennel and sesame seeds. Bear in mind that the menu changes frequently.

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Before I tell you how wonderful my meal at The Fair Hill Inn was, there’s something you should know: I’m crazy for cheese.

A few years back, when all things French were under fire and Americans were pouring Bordeaux into the gutters, my only fear was that something might interfere with the availability of Camembert. I have a firm position on European Union efforts to cut tariffs on agricultural products: I’m against it, because I worry about possible effects on France’s small-scale cheesemakers. Of course, I hunt local purveyors of fine fromage, from the health food store that stocks an array of raw-milk cheeses to gourmet groceries with vast display cases gathering tastes, textures and styles from all over the world.

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But though we cheese-lovers have unprecedented choices at take-out shops, few American restaurants have adopted the tradition of a post-prandial cheese course.

Which is why I’m so high on The Fair Hill Inn. The old stone building at the intersection of Maryland routes 213 and 273, near the Fair Hill horse track, was recently purchased by a young Washington couple, Phil and Venka Pyle. They have updated its décor, its menu and its entire approach to dining. The menu doesn’t just include cheese; it devotes an entire page to a selection—most from American artisanal producers—designed to make cheese lovers swoon. Clearly this is not a stodgy, standard-issue country inn designed with your grandma in mind. Unless maybe your grandma makes her own cheese.

The cheese course isn’t the only evidence. The menu and wine list drive the point home. The entire menu changes every month, the better to take advantage of seasonal ingredients, which means the meal I enjoyed in July can’t be duplicated now that the days are growing shorter. The a la carte menu is supplemented by a seven-course tasting menu, which can be matched with five different wines for a surcharge. The wine list is among the broadest and most ambitious in the area, topped by dozens of bottles selling for $200 and up.

From outside, the building looks much as it has for decades—a stone house flanked by neat, charming gardens. The décor provides the first clues that The Fair Hill Inn, despite its stone fireplaces, deep windows and random-plank floors, doesn’t intend to trade on its Colonial pedigree. In summer those fireplaces are filled with large floor candles, and the walls are hung with modern art—nothing avant-garde, but not Brandywine School landscapes, either. Contemporary geometric lights and sconces in gun-metal gray provide further contrast to the building’s age.

The geometric theme carries through to the china—striking rectangles, squares, even elongated triangles in white—as well as the presentation of many of the dishes Pyle and chef Brian Shaw create.

For instance, a “tuna trio” consisted of six chunky rectangles of fish tumbled across a narrow triangular plate, each pair leaned together like a piscine version of Stonehenge. Gazpacho was served in a square bowl, each corner garnished with a circle of ingredients that could be stirred in. Most eye-catching was a tomato and basil salad in which the tomato was sliced, then reassembled for presentation. That was the only example of the current trend toward three-dimensional presentation. While many chefs create dishes that strive for height, as if they were miniature works of architecture, Pyle and Shaw draw on the visual arts instead. Sauces further the feeling. They are often presented beside the meat in dabs, slashes and squiggles.

The presentation might be flashy, but the preparation goes in a different direction—standout ingredients cooked simply but carefully, seasoned and garnished to support the basic flavors rather than dazzle the palate with wild combinations. Everything is cooked from scratch. The restaurant isn’t yet supplying all its needs with local ingredients—lobsters, salmon and avocados are in short supply ’round these parts—but that’s one of the kitchen’s goals.

The standout dish on my visit was a chilled avocado soup so verdant it almost glowed in the dark, a rich, satiny, concoction bursting with so much flavor that its dollop of spicy tuna tartare, delicious in its own right, seemed a minor distraction.

That tuna trio was another solid winner, crusted with three different kinds of seeds—cumin, fennel and sesame—then served with three separate side dishes. What made the strongest impression on me, though, was that the fish wasn’t left raw in the center—it was cooked medium-rare, giving it a juiciness that raw tuna lacks.

Other dishes were impressive for their restraint: a subtly herbed crab cake served with an Old Bay-flavored sauce on the side, perfectly cooked scallops garnished with dots of chili puree, chops of free-range lamb accompanied by a tzatziki that tasted like it came straight from the Greek islands.

Desserts are the best examples of the everything-from-scratch aesthetic. On my visit, a peach clafouti and an ice cream “sandwich” featured raspberries and shortcake—precisely the sort of basic, home-cooked sweets you’d expect at a country inn.

Perhaps the restaurant’s most idiosyncratic feature is its wine cellar, which contains more than 500 bottles. Oenophiles accustomed to the great chateaux of France and trendy vintners of California will be in for a surprise. The backbone of The Fair Hill Inn’s impressive collection comes from Spain and Italy, where grapes get enough sun to match the full, muscular flavor they develop in California, but wine remains a drink consumed with food, not at tasting parties. That’s not to say France and California are ignored; the cellar contains a representative sampling of recent-vintage Bordeaux, including several limited-edition garagiste offerings that are so trendy.

The fun isn’t limited to those who can afford these showcase selections. Pyle has assembled 10 three-glass tasting menus arranged by themes, all affordable, with all 30 of those wines also offered by the glass. And customers just looking for a decent bottle to accompany dinner will find plenty to choose from. If your mind boggles at the overwhelming number of choices, the menu contains wine suggestions for almost every dish. Whatever you order will come in the appropriate Riedel stemware.

For me, of course, the real climax of the meal was the cheese. Most are from small American producers, but they’re made in a representative range of styles. All were excellent, but the ones I’d go back for are Red Hawk, a triple-cream cow’s milk cheese from California; Buche, a tangy goat cheese from California; and Hooligan, a Belgian-style cheese from Connecticut with a marvelously pungent rind. There’s no more civilized way to conclude a meal.

All in all, The Fair Hill Inn has been transformed from just another charming old country inn to a restaurant worth a detour. The only potential fly in the ointment will be the transition from its former incarnation to its new one. Elkton has grown in recent years as the Delaware suburbs spread into Cecil County, but the inn remains surrounded by acres of preserved land, and the Pyles’ new philosophy is likely to jar the restaurant’s old crowd. As much as I enjoy a plate of cheese and a fine wine, the illusion is seriously dented, if not broken, when the next table over is full of matrons in stretch pants drinking iced tea and looking bewildered.

Service might potentially be another challenge. The night of my visit a student at the nearby University of Delaware hotel and restaurant school did a good job of explaining the rather complicated basics—how the prix fixe menu and wine tasting flights worked, the ingredients in the specials—but, not surprisingly, was out of his depth when it came to answering questions about the wines. Hey, I would be out of my depth answering questions about the wines, so a serious training program might be in order.

If they’re looking for someone to handle the cheese, though, I might be available.


Family Tradition

Just 3 percent of family businesses survive to the fourth generation. But that’s not the case for the Boscaini family, whose winery has been around since Paolo Boscaini purchased his first vineyard, Vaio dei Masi, in 1772.

Now led by Sandro Boscaini, the winery has slowly evolved through successive and careful acquisitions, beginning from the classico zones of Valpolicella, Bardolino and Soave, then moving recently into Tuscany and Argentina.

Masi is best known for its voluptuous Amarone, a rich red from the Veneto in northernmost Italy. The country’s largest wine-producing region, it is responsible for 20 percent of Italy’s DOC wine (denominazione di origine controllata), a government certification of origin.

The 2001 Costasera Amarone Classico is pure joy. The wine is an Amarone della Valpolicella, which is made with the Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Molinara grapes. As is the case with Recioto della Valpolicella, the grapes are semi-dried on racks to boost their flavor. Recioto is sweet. Amarone is dry.

The 2001 Costasera possesses the rich aroma of dates and black cherry with a waft of chocolate. Round and full-bodied, the wine is redolent with the flavor of dark cherry fruit. There is a persistent, pleasantly tart finish.

Not into reds? Sample the 2005 Masi Masianco Pinot Grigio and Verduzzo, a delicate yet surprisingly supple wine that blows most Pinot Grigios out of the water. Verduzzo grapes, harvested at the end of September, ripen on racks for three weeks. The process helps promote body and flavor in the thick-skinned grapes.

Pinot Grigio, harvested at the end of August, ferments in stainless steel tanks to preserve the grapes’ distinctive aroma and fresh flavor.

The tropical note—a mélange of white fruits and citrus—gives the Masianco more oomph than some of its paler counterparts. The lovely straw color, which shimmers gold against a light, is more enticing.

The Amarone is $53. The Masianco is $14. Start with a white aperitif, then move to the Amarone, which suits red meat, game and piquant foods, including chicken Parmigiana. After dinner, continue with the Amarone, which is wonderful all on its own. —Pam George

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