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The Tasting Room
101 North Market Street
Frederick, Maryland
(240) 379-7772

Ever on the prowl for intriguing gastronomic encounters outside our home stomping ground, recent business/pleasure trips to Richmond, Virginia, yielded several pleasurable stopovers - one lunch, two dinners - at the Tasting Room in Frederick, Maryland. Comments from a variety of sources have been extremely favorable; and despite Tom Sietsema's somewhat self-centered, curmudgeonly iconoclastic Washington Post review (6/6/04), owner Michael Tauraso's bustling, glass-encompassed bistro does not disappoint.

The bar area - separated from the dining room proper by plate-glass panels paying homage to bread, salt, and olive oil - is a lively spot to enjoy a preprandial libation. Peruse the excellent selection of vintages or choose from a number of first-rate selections by the glass. Highly recommended are the David Bruce Petite Syrah ($8.50) and the 2002 Domaine Girard "La Gazenne" Sancerre ($8.00). But if you happen to be feeling more light-hearted and lyrical, you might decide to tie into a French martini ($6.50): Stoli, Chambord, Grand Marnier, pineapple juice, and splash of OJ.

Once settled in at table, you will find the menu a well-traveled creative American affair with a host of international diversions. You might begin, for example, with "Mr. Mason's Country Paté" ($6.95), a moist veal-pork pistachio-infused amalgam replete with an epicenter of marinated eggplant, pitted olives, gherkins, coarse-grain mustard, and crispy croutons. "Grandma Sciacca's Cauliflower & Bean Stew" ($5.95) is another down-home winner. Adorned with broken spaghetti, crushed red pepper, pecorino cheese, and garlic croutons, you have undoubtedly discovered the perfect pottage to ward off the chill on a cold winter/spring evening.

More exotic of disposition - but no less delicious - are the "Panko Shrimp" ($9.95) and "Sicilian Rice Balls" ($7.95). The former are jumbo crustaceans rolled in Japanese breadcrumbs, fried to an ingratiatingly crunchy consummation, and served up with a delightfully addictive Asian/vinegar dipping sauce. The latter sport a crisp golden brown exterior that gives way to a creamy, risotto-like core enhanced with pignoli nuts and fontinella stuffing.

I also highly recommend the "Spicy Lamb Skewers" ($7.95). Tender morsels of Colorado lamb bask in a homemade red curry marinade and are then gently kissed by the grill. There's just enough heat to tantalize rather than traumatize the palate, and the tzatziki (cucumber/yogurt) dressing provides a cool and captivating counterpoint.

Like the appetizers, entrées cut a rather wide swath and, in my opinion, make an even stronger showing than their predecessors. Your most straightforward choice would most assuredly be the "Eastern Shore Maryland-Style Crab Cakes" (Market Price), a benchmark presentation that is all crab, embellished with tartar and cocktail sauces, and paired with incredibly rich au gratin potatoes. The "Veal Saltimbocca" ($22.95) may also be something of a culinary cliché, but here the dish is carried off with style and panache. The sautéed veal "top round" cutlets are inordinately tender, partnered with prosciutto de Parma, fresh sage, delicate white wine pan sauce and, flying in the face of tradition, set on a pillow of luscious whipped potatoes.

And piscatorial pleasures are legion: a lovely pan-roasted local rockfish filet served with green onion risotto and finished with a zesty black pepper beurre blanc ($22.95); pristine porcini-dusted North Atlantic halibut filet swimming in a pool of seasonal vegetables and consummated with arugula/pesto-infused sauce ($21.95); and a pan-seared red snapper filet prepared meunière-style (lemon, butter, parsley, and white wine) and garnished with whipped potatoes ($22.95). All are worth the price of admission.

Luncheon specials range from a classic "Panini" ($8.95), tender roasted eggplant, roasted peppers, fresh mozzarella, arugula, and heady basil/garlic vinaigrette on perfectly toasted sourdough bread, to "Kevin Jackson's Power Lunch" ($15.95), pan-roasted filet mignon with Old Bay fries and horseradish sauce, to "Black Greek Salad" ($9.95), a provocative amalgam of mixed greens, blackened chicken breast, imported feta cheese, cucumbers, and lemon/oregano vinaigrette.

But whether putting in an appearance at lunch or dinner, it is worth saving room for Melissa Dantzic's dynamic desserts ($5.95). The "Banana Split Trifle," for instance - layers of sponge cake, strawberry jam, banana mousse, toasted walnuts, butterscotch sauce, and vanilla bean ice cream - is simply superb... ditto the tropical upside down cake, raspberry-lemon tart, and Carol's dense and decadent NY-style cheesecake with caramel sauce and praline..

When proprietor Michael Tauraso's restaurant made its debut, just over two years ago, he noted that he hoped to offer his patrons "a place where people could come for a good plate of food and a good glass of wine." He has, in my opinion, more than made good on his promise. Whether traveling for business or pleasure, the Tasting Room is worth a dining journey... or a detour...

The Artful Diner
March 2005

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