Isabel Restaurant at Tilghman Island Inn

Fine Dining is offered at Isabel Restaurant.

Name a fine dining restaurant after a hurricane? Particularly one that swamped said restaurant’s just-completed renovations with a five-foot wall of water, mud, and debris?

For David McCallum, naming the dining room at his elegant Tilghman Island Inn “Isabel” was a fitting acknowledgment of the power of Mother Nature’s offspring. The storm which struck in 2003 made such an impact on little Tilghman Island, MD that it will be talked about for generations. May as well make it official. As the menu says, it’s “An American Restaurant Named for a Once in a Hundred Year Visitor.”

Hurricane Isabel may have found Tilghman Island by chance, but most travelers have to look for it. It’s a tiny speck of land off Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Getting there involves an hour’s drive through remote salt marshes and past windswept fields frequented by Canada geese and deer before finally crossing a two-lane drawbridge. David McCallum and Jack Redmon created the restaurant as part of The Tilghman Island Inn about 20 years ago. Opening an upscale European-style Inn in such a remote spot was a gamble, but it was immediately embraced by guests from Washington, New York, and beyond.

A Culinary Pioneer

While the Eastern Shore now has a reputation as a foodie’s delight, when the Inn opened it was one of the first fine dining establishments on the eastern side of the Chesapeake. Up ‘til then, menus were heavy on fried chicken and steamed crabs in the summer and fried oysters and glazed ham in the winter. Draft beer was considered premium and wine was in a box or raffia-covered bottle. Who would make the long trek for a meal of honey & Dijon roasted wild salmon and wines with exotic pedigrees?

Wine Offerings

Wine Offerings

Enough people that the monthly themed wine weekends often have waiting lists and reservations are strongly recommended at other times. Customers happily ramble through the countryside to enjoy a menu which reflects both David McCallum’s culinary roots and his love for his adopted region and to browse through a wine list that is larger than the island’s telephone book. Wine Spectator has presented it with their Award of Excellence every year since 1996.

Chesapeake Bay meets Southern Traditions

Simple, seasonal, and sensibly creative sum up David’s approach to cooking. It’s in his genes. He grew up on a truck farm in South Carolina, steeped in the traditions of down-home Southern cooking. Take the freshest ingredients found locally and introduce them to each other in ways that compliment their flavors and textures. His menu is jointly dictated by the season’s bounty (most of his produce and seafood comes from local farmers and watermen) and his delight in giving Southern and Chesapeake staples a sophisticated treatment.

While food was always his passion, he did not start out as a professional chef. He had a career as a biomedical engineer and professor at Georgetown and Columbia Universities before finally being able to indulge in his first love. And he’ll tell you that while biomedical science shares many basic concepts with cooking, kitchens are a lot more fun than laboratories.

Rockfish

Rockfish

So what does “sophisticated” Chesapeake cuisine mean? Maryland’s icon fish is the Rockfish (aka Striped Bass). It’s considered heresy to do anything but broil it. David does so but then graces it with winter edamame succotash and a citrus beurre blanc. Or he takes freshly shucked Choptank Sweets (the ‘crop’ from oyster farms in the Chesapeake) and serves them with peppery mignonette sauce. He celebrates another Southern staple with black-eyed pea cakes topped with house-made corn relish.

Wonders of Wine Weekends

The wine weekends began as a way of enticing guests during the slower winter months. They became so popular that they are now scheduled throughout the year except for the height of the summer season. The weekends are a chance to really experience the magic of matching food and wine. The monthly theme varies: Sometimes it’s built around the wine – labels from the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes, it’s the season – holidays around the world. Sometimes, it’s the food –wild game. Sometimes, it’s a place – San Francisco or the Riviera.

On Saturday afternoon before the dinner, David conducts a cooking demonstration which previews one of the courses and allows him to introduce the visiting expert with particular knowledge of the wines to be served. The evening’s menu presents each course with the appropriate wine while the expert circulates through the dining room answering questions and sharing tasting notes. For newcomers to the wine world, it’s a pleasant, non-intimidating excursion into the often confusing realm of vintages, grapes, and tannins. For the more knowledgeable, it’s an in-depth study of the art of food pairing.

Isabel’s floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the vast expanse of tidal marshes and Chesapeake Bay at the edge of Knapp’s Narrows, the channel which separates the island from the rest of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It’s a perfect setting with a view as memorable as the food. No wonder it attracted that once-in-a-hundred-year visitor.

“Isabel” at the Tilghman Island Inn. Open nightly. Starters $10-15; Mains $20-35. Reservations recommended. 800-866-2141. For information and to sign up for the e-newsletter with a schedule of wine weekends and other special events, visit Tilghman Island Inn.

The Tilghman Island Inn
21384 Coopertown Road
Tilghman Island, Maryland  21671
Toll Free: 1-800-866-2141
Local: 1-410-886-2141
Email: info@tilghmanislandinn.com

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