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Lot 12 Public House

July 25, 2004

By E.T. MOORE

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. - Recently voted the 12th best arts destination in the nation by the readers of American Style magazine and increasingly becoming a playground for city slickers, Berkeley Springs obviously has some pretty sophisticated palates passing through town.

And Lot 12 Public House at 117 Warren St. has the cuisine to please them.

My dining companion and I were impressed with Lot 12's innovative menu, impeccable service and artsy atmosphere - the chic but comfortable first floor and veranda of a Victorian house nestled along a side street in the cozy community. Adult diners - some in casual wear, others in dressier attire - occupied nearly all of the restaurant's indoor and outdoor tables when we arrived at 7:30 p.m. on a recent Friday.

Chef Damian Heath and his wife, Betsy, opened Lot 12 Public House at in 1999, perhaps figuring it would be interesting to see if big-city tastes could be satiated with rural Morgan County ingredients prepared with international flair. The ever-changing seasonal menu at Lot 12 - which takes its name from the original grid for the Town of Bath as it was laid out in 1777 - incorporates such local favorites as apple butter, peaches, goat cheese and fresh herbs presumably plucked from the lush gardens surrounding the eatery.

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Chef Heath is the son of local artists Jonathan and Jan Heath, whose works adorn the honey-mustard walls that brighten the dark, rich trim of the restaurant's clean interior. Heath clearly inherited his parents' artistic genes, although he expresses his culinary creativity on the canvas of fine china. He's infused his menu with the light-hearted lilt reflective of his father's art - paintings of hippos at a salad bar, or a tornado of flamingos.

That would probably explain the hard-boiled quail egg that accompanied one of the night's specials.

Interspersed among more traditional dishes like herb-roasted chicken with bourbon-flavored pan juices ($24) and spice-rubbed salmon over penne pasta ($24) were such unexpected offerings as crisp-roasted duck ($24), sautéed crab and lobster risotto cakes ($26) and coriander-seared rare tuna with wasabi caviar ($9, appetizer). Lot 12, 90 miles from "civilization," would stand proudly toe-to-toe with the majority of top restaurants within city limits, and would perhaps win the crown of best restaurant in the Tri-State area. Perhaps by a "lot."

We started our meal with a few glasses of smooth Australian shiraz ($6 each) from the extensive wine menu, the Grilled Tuscan-style Baby Back Ribs ($9), which were drizzled with a garlic-infused basil oil and balsamic vinegar reduction, and the Sautéed Lump Crab with Scallions & Shitake Mushrooms in a Savory Crepe with a Spinach Velouté ($8). The ribs were done perfectly, juicy and mouth-melting tender with a thin, crackling crust. The crepes boasted a symphony of harmonious flavors.

Our waitress was prompt and attentive without being overbearing, and a bread-and-oil server kept us content between courses with helpings of crusty bread and side dishes of the best olive oil we've had outside of Greece. A melon-ball scoop of house-made sorbet - we think it was cantaloupe - was served to cleanse our palates before the main course.

Heath frequently plays the "wild" card with his specials, and so it was with a ragout of braised duck over fettuccine in a deep, rich sauce ($27) sufficiently complex so as to reveal a flavorful new angle with every passing bite. A tasty breast of quail, which added interest and contrast to the dark strands of duck, topped off the dish. Our second entree, grilled tournedos of beef with bacon scallion mashed potatoes, a portobello mushroom crowned with Maytag blue cheese and a roasted shallot demi-glace ($29), was equally scrumptious. The thick medallions of beef were cooked to perfection, and the creamy potatoes bursting with flavor.

A nearly flourless chocolate torte with creme Anglais, scoop of homemade apple butter ice cream and peach crostini with caramel sauce (all desserts, $5 to $7) were satisfying conclusions to the meal. The torte was a bit like a cross between a cake and a pudding, neither doughy nor heavy, a little less rich than some but still substantial enough to stand its ground in a heavy wind. The warm crostini featured fresh local peaches wrapped in a light pastry. We just couldn't resist a side order of the apple butter ice cream since Berkeley Springs is, of course, home to the annual Apple Butter Festival. Lot 12's creamy, sugary interpretation of the condiment is the best we've ever had.

Lot 12 is not for those who judge a restaurant solely by its portion sizes. You will be satisfied but not stuffed. And you will pay for the quality; a couple might easily spend $100, so for most of us this is special-occasion dining. Our before-tip bill was about $110, but many times we have spent half that and felt like we got far less for the money.

On the ride home, we were already discussing what we'd order next time.

Lot 12 Public House

n Food: 4 forks (out of 4)

n Service: 4 forks (out of 4)

n Atmosphere: 4 forks (out of 4)

n Value: 3 forks (out of 4)

Hours: Open 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday. Reservations recommended.

Location: 117 Warren St. in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

For more information: Call 1-304-258-6264 or go to http://www.lot12.com on the Web.

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