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James Buchanan Hotel

January 20, 2008

By SAVORY SAM

MERCERSBURG, Pa. -- On a crisp winter night, the James Buchanan Pub & Restaurant is like a warm hug of traditional American hospitality. The pub is small and intimate, the food is excellent, and the décor -- as appropriate for the childhood home of the 15th president of the United States -- is authentically early American.

The Savory Sams visited and found the establishment to be one of the best restaurants in the Tri-State area.

The atmosphere is elegant, yet cozy, like a nicely decorated Colonial parlor. Heavy wooden tables and chairs are cheerfully mismatched. Stucco walls with milky green wainscoting show off 19th-century prints and a collection of old pewter candlesticks. The staff is welcoming and genuinely warm.

Surveying the menu and wine list, we were disappointed to find a limited selection of microbrews, our preferred beers. The wine list is short but covers a wide range of prices. We ordered a glass of the house cabernet and found it excellent.

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The menu also is short, but we saw that as a sign of focus, not limitation. Offering only a few dishes is no problem, if they are well prepared.

We ordered and our server brought a basket with slices of sourdough and a dark, seedy pumpernickel-style loaf accompanied by olive oil and balsamic vinegar on a small plate. Our appetizers followed.

We looked forward to James Buchanan's authentic New Orleans-style cuisine. We ordered two appetizers: crawfish beignets (deep-fried fritters wrapped around New Orleans' native, mini-freshwater lobster) served with a dipping sauce of honey, butter and hot pepper; and a thick, smoky, intensely flavored, New Orleans version of French onion soup. Both were very good.

But the stellar appetizer was a nightly special -- grilled fois gras served on a homemade crostini with cranberry chutney and a small scoop of citrusy sorbet. This oddball mix of elements was astonishingly good. The seared fois gras was thick and melted in the mouth; the oiliness of the liver was complimented by the toasty crispness of the crostini and the light, sharp touch of the sorbet. The chutney brought the elements together. Wow.

Our salads showed the same attention to detail as the appetizers: Servings were modestly sized, ingredients were fresh and appealing, flavors were compelling. A Mediterranean salad of romaine, kalamata olives, feta cheese and artichoke hearts was dressed with cacik, a house dressing of yogurt and dill. Small Caesar salads had a robust flavor, with shreds of good-quality Parmigiano Reggiano and a homemade dressing.

We ordered three main dishes to share among four Savory Sams. From the menu, we had rainbow trout almondine and pesto portobella. We also ordered another nightly special, a combo of filet mignon and crab cake.

The trout was two fillets served with a butter-hot pepper dipping sauce. The fish was of good quality and well prepared; the sauce was outstanding.

A Savory Sam vegetarian tasted her pesto portobello and was delighted. The portobellos were amazingly meaty and rich, so meaty she asked the waitress to confirm that they were, in fact, vegetarian. The linguine and creamy, Genoa-style pesto sauce were tasty, though some in the party wanted a deeper pesto flavor.

The high profile dish of the main course was the crab cake and filet. "Crab cake" is really an inaccurate description. This was more a crab mound, with large, sweet chunks of crab meat gently sautéed and barely held together with a sprinkle of seasonings. Most delicious, but not the standard crab cake. The filet, ordered rare, was quite red on the inside and charred black on the outside -- nearly perfect for the Savory Sams' resident carnivore. Tender and tasty.

The side dishes were a surprise. Smashed red potatoes were moist, creamy and garlicky. Twice-roasted red and yellow beets shone like big rubies and topazes on the plate.

We saved room for dessert, especially when we saw vanilla bean crème brûlée on the menu. We also ordered a serving of bananas Foster. The crème brûlée was light, not as custardy as I prefer, and the torched, sugary top was thicker than I'd rather. But I still enjoyed the dish.

The bananas Foster was a hit. A scoop of homemade, vanilla ice cream sat on a fudgy, moist brownie surrounded by bananas swimming in a magnificent sauce of dark rum, brown sugar and butter. We loved it.

In fact, we loved most everything. The James Buchanan Pub & Restaurant is a great addition to the Tri-State area's best-of list. The atmosphere is understated and classy, the New Orleans-style food is well-crafted, and service is attentive. Prices are higher than average, but we got good value for our money. Four of us ate well for about $150 before tip.

Quite simply, this is one of the best restaurants we've visited in the area.

James Buchanan Hotel, Pub & Restaurant (out of 5)

Food: 5 stars

Value: 4 stars

Service: 4 stars

Ambience: 4 stars

Address: 15 N. Main St., Mercersburg, Pa.

Hours: James Buchanan Hotel, Pub & Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner five days a week and brunch on Sunday. Lunch is available from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; dinner is served from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Monday.

Phone: 717-328-3008

Web site: http://www.jamesbuchananhotel.com

Style: New Orleans-style food

Range: Appetizers are $5.50 to $13; main courses are $15 to $28; desserts are $4 to $6.

Savory Sam is a pseudonym for a Herald-Mail staff member who reviews restaurants anonymously.

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