There are ghosts at the Old South Mountain Inn. Just ask owner Chad Dorsey, who bought the Boonsboro restaurant almost 20 years ago.
There’s Madeline Dahlgren, for instance, the 1876 proprietress who still lingers around second-story windows. And another little girl who’s been captured in photos on the main level. But ghosts aren’t the craziest stories Dorsey has heard about the historic tavern over the years.
“People say it used to be a brothel,” he said with a laugh. “That’s definitely one I’ve heard before. The coolest thing is probably that it was used as a hospital during the Civil War. And there’s actually evidence for that.”
It’s part of what drew Dorsey to the historic restaurant, where he worked as a busboy, dishwasher, prep cook, line cook, and sous chef before finally buying the place in July of 2001. Now his wife, Lisa, runs the front of the house, while Dorsey still mans the kitchen as head chef.
“It’s where I belong,” he said with a laugh. “She knows where I need to be.”
Despite nearly two decades of ownership, the Dorseys haven’t had to do much to maintain the historic allure of the old stone building. Previous owners Russ and Judy Schwartz are responsible for putting in an open stone patio and a huge glass-enclosed garden room, which offers scenic views of the eponymous mountain and nearby Church of St. Joseph (ask for a view of the rock-faced edifice if you can get it).
What Dorsey has done is update the menu, adding a handful of new dishes to a repertoire of European-inspired cuisine. Think two different salmon filets — one encrusted with horseradish and herbs, the other breaded with wasabi and panko. Or a blackened tuna steak covered in fragrant saffron lobster sauce, a dish that promised to shake the doldrums of a persistently gray and rainy week.
Naturally, that’s the option I chose when I visited the restaurant for a late dinner with a friend. And the ensuing plate, topped with ribbons of green onion and a creamy yellow velouté, seemed as far from the building’s original roots as a tavern as Henry Clay — an early frequenter — was from the 1824 presidency. The iron tang of the fish, crusted with a peppery blend of spices, was mellowed by a thick sauce sweetened with saffron and tender lobster. Cooked to a pink medium rare, the meaty filet came with a well-seasoned side of sautéed vegetables that retained their textures and added more color to the plate.
The only low point was a bed of garlic mashed potatoes, which tasted so shockingly of corn starch that my brain had trouble processing the discrepancy.
Despite the updated plates, Old South Mountain Inn still offers courtesies that have all but disappeared from more contemporary dining spots. Take the yeasty white dinner rolls served with molded balls of butter and insulated in a soft cloth napkin. Or the gratis garden salad with its bright blend of cucumbers, tomatoes, and acidic red onions.
For an additional $3.50, you can upgrade the house greens to an ostentatious wedge of iceberg with the requisite crumbled bacon and a creamy bleu cheese dressing, streaked with salty veins of penicillium. I’d recommend the upgrade if you’re a fan of the steakhouse favorite, which packed a compelling blend of smoke and sharpness into every bite.
Those courtesies didn’t stop my friend and I from sampling a few of the appetizers, including an order of escargot served piping — and I mean piping — hot in a steaming metal dish. The salty little snails lent their natural earthiness to a coating of garlic butter and finely minced parsley, which, in turn, imbued the plate with bright herbal notes and a brilliant green color. The snails were a tad over-salted for my taste, but they made for a hearty starter, especially spooned over a crusty side of cheese toast.
Doll-sized toast points were also served alongside an appetizer of vibrant smoked salmon, one of the only items Dorsey doesn’t make in-house (he imports the fish, which he assesses for smokiness and richness of flavor, from distributors in Jessup). When the quality is there, it’s hard to go wrong with briny slices of coral-colored filet, especially when they’re accompanied by pungent horseradish sauce and a generous serving of pickled capers.
Perhaps Dorsey’s pièce de résistance is the beef Wellington, a dish I haven’t seen on a menu in or around Frederick since — well, ever. It’s understandable, the chef said, given how hard it is to make. But it’s one of the most popular items at Old South Mountain Inn, so Dorsey and his staff still go to the trouble of coating an entire beef tenderloin in pâté, adding a mixture of duxelles and ham, and wrapping the elaborate package in a sheath of puff pastry. “It costs a couple hundred just to make it,” the chef admitted.
The payoff is a meltingly tender piece of beef, its red interior cloaked in a thick mushroom Madeira sauce. The fortified wine added an unmistakable sweetness to the garnish, which, in my mind, was a mere distraction to the beautifully cooked tenderloin. I would have preferred less moisture soaking into the crisp puff pastry shell, and for the earthy blend of mushrooms and pâté to have more of a dominant flavor profile. But it’s impossible not to like such a toothsome cut of beef, the star of an already challenging dish.
My friend and I could have stopped at the Wellington, but it’s hard to resist dessert when you’re told that the treats are crafted by an in-house pastry chef. Despite the promised expertise, I was underwhelmed by our “fruits of the forest” pie with a doughy crust and overwhelming bite from the rhubarb in the filling. Much better was the frozen peanut butter pie, a sophisticated Reese’s Cup with chocolate drizzle and a tangy cream cheese filling.
Old South Mountain Inn does brisk business as a special occasion restaurant, Dorsey told me, especially around Christmas, when the space can host up to 1,500 guests a week.
But the quality of the cooking makes me eager to recommend more frequent visits, especially as warm weather makes the surroundings even more scenic. Kick back on the glass patio, order a bottle from the well-cultivated wine list, and take in the view. It’s a nice plan for a spring evening.
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters