Inventiveness is the name of the game at Antietam Cafe, but the food doesn't get overly clever. And typically, there's an emphasis on working with fresh, regional specialty foods, like crab.
Our opening spinach salad got mixed reviews. A large plate of baby greens arrived at our table sprinkled with pistachios, fresh red onion and slivers of dried tomatoes with bacon served on the side so the vegetarian could share the salad. My partner found the salad over-dressed in a house creation - pistachio-lime-honey dressing. I liked the coverage - the dry, tannic edge of spinach needs a bit more dressing for me.
The appetizers are generously sized. Light appetites can easily make a meal of an appetizer and a salad.
One of the best things on the menu is the cream of crab soup - a rich, smoky, peppery soup with a dollop of shredded crab. Superlatives dripped from our mouths as we eagerly passed the bowl.
The shrimp taquitos were excellent - a fat tortilla stuffed with south-of-the-border-style shrimp, prosciutto and sauted sweet peppers, deep-fried and served with fresh guacamole, sour cream and a vinegary salsa.
The crab-stuffed mushroom caps got mixed reviews. Two huge portobellos arrived generously topped with crab. But where other restaurants' mushroom toppings are broiled or melted in place, this hot topping was more the consistency of tuna fish salad. The verdict: flavorful but too creamy and loose.
We tried three main dishes - Chilean sea bass steak, crab cakes with garlic mashed potatoes and penne Milano.
The sea bass was good - a tasty piece of fish nicely cooked and presented, but it seemed naked, served with six slender stalks of lightly cooked asparagus. And for the price - nearly $30 - it seemed a poor value compared with other items on our table.
The cafe's crab cakes are meaty and moist, with just enough bread crumb-and-parsley filling to hold things together. They got top marks from our long-time Maryland girl.
The garlic mashed potatoes sparked more debate among the Savory Sams. "Burnt potatoes!" howled one; "Not burnt! Roasted!" claimed another. Turned out the mashies are indeed made from roasted baby red potatoes. But the taste was not to everyone's liking.
The penne Milano - creamy, garlicky and studded with shrimp - was filling. We took some home and it was good a couple of days later.
Wine is clearly close to the heart at Antietam Caf and Wine Bar, so take advantage. We tried Bogle Vineyards 2004 Petit Syrah from California. It was surprisingly big and tasty; we took a bottle home for half-price after dinner.
The wine menu also offers wine flights - three wines in 2-ounce glasses served side by side. We tried three Australian reds - a Greg Norman cabernet sauvignon (full body, peppery finish); Churchill Cellars' Houghton shiraz (hint of mint, lighter, fresher flavor); and Black Opal cabernet-merlot blend (slow start but lots of flavor at end). It's a good value for the price of a single glass of wine.
We wrapped up the meal with two desserts - a quietly sumptuous raspberry sorbet with frozen papaya chunks and raspberry sauce, and apple crisp with ice cream. Both were good, though the sorbet seemed more suited to summer.
Overall, the Savory Sams were pleased with Antietam Cafe and Wine Bar. Setting aside a couple of quirks, there's a lot to like and plenty more to explore. We'll be back.
Savory Sam is a pseudonym for a Herald-Mail staff member who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.
Antietam Cafe and Wine Bar
Overall: 4 stars (out of 5)
Food: 4 stars
Value: 4 stars
Service: 4 stars
Ambience: 5 stars
Address: 113 E. Main St., Sharpsburg
Hours: Antietam Cafe and Wine Bar is open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Reservations for the weekend are a must.
Appetizer prices: $5 to $12
Entree prices $18 to $36
Web site: AntietamCafe.com (should be in place by March)