The dining rooms are decorated in an understated combination of Victorian and Colonial Revival styles -- warm gray walls with white trim; flowing, pleated curtains; wood floors and fireplace mantels; and chandeliers with candle-like flickering bulbs. Small paintings by local artists hang on the walls. Dining tables have dark legs and distressed tops; patrons sit in Windsor chairs. Nothing looks forced or plasticky. The mood is elegant but not ostentatious.
We took our time ordering. The menu is not overlong, but many items looked good. We settled on chicken Oscar, two crab cakes with roasted vegetables, fettuccine Alfredo, salad caprese and vegetable penne.
For hors d'oeurvres, we ordered two soups, two salads and two house appetizers. These arrived quickly. The tomato-based Maryland crab soup was delicious, with multilayered flavors of vegetables and crab. But the saffron-colored butternut squash-yam soup was spectacular -- a wonderful blend of sweet and savory, like liquid pumpkin pie.
The house salad was fine -- crisp romaine sprinkled with grape tomatoes and a couple of cucumber slices. But the house salad paled next to the excellent Caesar salad, a not-too-large serving of crunchy romaine with plenty of creamy, flavorful dressing.
Both appetizers drew raves. We relished the look and taste of the berry orange tuna -- a pepper-crusted, seared yellowfin tuna disk in an orange sauce with a scattering of berries and crested with an architectural tangle of freshly fried noodles. The crab dip -- a generous ladle-full of creamy-spicy goodness -- was served in a hollowed hunk of crusty, fine-grained white bread. Yum.
As the appetizer course was cleared, we were already impressed with the 1912 Hoover House. The kitchen staff used fresh ingredients creatively in flavorful dishes.
In retrospect, we realized that the creativity and deliciousness of the first course dramatically raised our expectations of the rest of the meal. We were a bit disappointed, perhaps unfairly, with our entrées.
Three fish-eating vegetarians sat around the table. They shared the crab cakes, vegetable penne and salad caprese. Savory Sam standards are pretty high for crab cakes, since some of the members are native Marylanders. The Hoover House's crab cakes were rated better than average: moist, with decent flavor and a nice balance of crab and filling. The roasted vegetables served with the crab cakes were exceptional -- slices of zucchini, tomato and asparagus drizzled with a balsamic reduction.
The salad caprese was good -- soft disks of fresh mozzarella served with fresh, red tomatoes and slices of red onion. A simple, classic Italian salad done well.
The vegetable penne, however, was a disappointment -- bland, soft pasta with flavorless sautéed vegetables. The youngest Sam mused that this dish -- often conceived as something vegetarians might like -- is universally better in concept than execution. The Hoover House's version was well-prepared and fresh, but even with fresh-ground pepper, the youngest Sam said the dish lacked interest.
Another member of the Sam clan ordered cheesy fettuccine Alfredo. The dish was spectacular. The sauce was flavorful and creamy but not too thick, the noodles were perfectly al dente. She said she has never had better.
The chicken Oscar was satisfying, the chicken breast combining well with asparagus, crab meat and Bernaise sauce. The roasted Yukon potato wedges on the side were excellent; everyone around the table wanted more.
After putting leftovers in carry-home boxes, we considered one more course. Our waitress told us the only dessert made in-house was a crème brûlée, but the kitchen had run out. We decided that we should try a selection of the other desserts, most made locally. We ordered three and were pleased.
The Key lime pie was, thankfully, not synthetically green nor buried under a foamy, sugary wedge. The filling had a pleasant lime flavor but was slightly grainy and a little too sweet. It was topped with tasty butter-cream spritzes. The crust was soggy and flavorless.