It’s hard being the new kid in town, especially when the town is the close-knit community of St. Michaels, and the “new kid” is 208 Talbot, the community’s beloved restaurant. Since April 2006, when Brendan Keegan and Brian Fox, business partners and brothers-in-law, bought the restaurant from chef-owner Paul Milne, Keegan reports that folks have been peering into the windows of the restaurant and wondering aloud at its new incarnation. Diners need not worry. There were a few glitches around us on the night we dined at 208 Talbot, but our meal was nearly perfect, and I imagine things will only get better.
Although the brothers-in-law have kept the restaurant’s name, they’ve made a few changes, including updating the bar and adding tables to the bar area.
If we hadn’t been there to review the restaurant, I would have been more than pleased to try the small plates menu offered in this warm, brick space.
The restaurant’s main dining rooms have been painted soft shades of gray that make them feel country colonial, especially when paired with the brass and crystal chandeliers and the Audubon prints on the wall. (Keegan and Fox hope to have the restaurant’s two fireplaces up and running this winter and the outdoor patio prepped by summer.)
And yes, they’ve changed the menu. “We want to maintain the integrity of 208,” says Keegan, who most recently cooked at O’Leary’s in Annapolis. But, Keegan adds, he needs to create his own dishes based on seasonal, local products to produce a cuisine he describes as “upscale homey” or “Southern cool.” Our menu choices, which include ingredients such as oysters, grits, chicken, and trout, were perfect examples.
Before ordering, however, my husband, Kevin, and I nibble on the amuse bouché (or our “amuse,” as the server called it, as she plunked the plates down on the table), a gratis slice of spicy chorizo coupled with a dab of cooling chevre and “deconstructed” green olive tapenade. Amuse bouchés are tiny, I know, but there is something welcoming about the gesture from the kitchen to whet your appetite while you peruse the menu.
Soon after, a small basket of freshly baked breads arrives, which includes a tender biscuit that’s oddly cold in the middle; appropriately buttery, but not too heavy hunks of cornbread; and two light-as-air yeast rolls. His baker, Janice Schmidt, arrives at the restaurant at closing time, according to Keegan, “locks herself in and bakes all night.” Judging by her breads and desserts (more on them below), he’s lucky to have her.
As we consider our dinner choices, I look around the dining room and am tempted by the generous crab cakes ordered by the stylish gal in the newsboy cap and her companions in the corner, even though one of them sends a crab cake back to be reheated.
In the end, the Southern-country décor and a love for oysters sways me; for my appetizer, I order the oyster stew, which turns out to be five incredibly plump fried oysters nestled in a fennel-spiked sauce with crispy bits of ham. It’s rich and outrageously delicious, the silky cream sauce, a textural foil to the crispness of the briny sweet oysters. Later, Keegan tells me that customers pleaded with him not to change Milne’s signature poached oyster appetizer. I plead with diners to try Keegan’s oysters. They’re that good.
Kevin opts for the grilled prawns and grits, livened with a bit of sweet barbeque sauce. The squeamish might be warned that the prawns have heads. (Keegan notes that leaving the heads attached is a way of showing how fresh the seafood is.) But the meat is tender and grilled just right, and the grits are fluffy, a down-home guilty pleasure.
We follow our appetizers with what turn out to be two of the most popular menu items: cornmeal-crusted rainbow trout for Kevin and semi-boneless panko-crusted chicken breast for me (for the uninitiated, panko are crispy Japanese breadcrumbs). I have to admit, I don’t usually order chicken in a continental-style restaurant, but I’m seduced by the sides: a sharp, creamy mound of macaroni and cheese and sautéed, nearly caramelized Brussels sprouts. The chicken is very moist and fresh-tasting, yet something I would make at home, which makes the $26 price tag a little steep, but the quality is there. Kevin’s trout is my second favorite thing we sample that evening. (I just looove those oysters.) Keegan leaves the skin on, so it gets extra crisp, while the fish flesh stays extra moist. The fish is mild tasting, and the horseradish mashed potatoes, grilled apples, and the dainty escargot that garnish the plate give the dish a diversity of flavors.
We are full, but the desserts are tempting. The crab cake table has ordered two generous coconut cupcakes that they share among the four diners, but my eye is drawn to the apple cider donut served with homemade hot chocolate and a homemade marshmallow. The donut is a little dry, but I love the concept, and the marshmallow is sweetly sublime, a childish treat for adults. Kevin orders the gentleman’s chocolate cake, a dense, flourless cake spiked with whiskey. It is a massive ending to a very positive meal.
I’d like to point out two additional things 208 Talbot does especially well. The first is Brian Fox’s wine list, a smart and interesting balance of European and New World wines with an emphasis on quality.
The second is service. Having been caught in a nasty traffic back-up at the Bay Bridge, we were fifteen minutes late for our reservation, but our reception by the hostess was nothing but warm. This kind of understanding also extended to the dining room. In what must have been a hit-or-miss night for the kitchen, in addition to the cool crab cake, another table near us sent back a steak. The server was all apologies and practicality and even brought the couple two fresh entrees—a new steak and lamb chop—so that the couple could eat their entrees together, rather than letting the lamb chop grow cold while waiting for the steak. The table was very appreciative and left the restaurant happy.
Keegan and Fox know diners love 208 Talbot for what it was. I challenge you to fall in love with 208 Talbot for what it has become.
Mary K. Zajac is a food writer living in Baltimore.