Vera's White Sands:
Still Playing -- Polynesia on the Patuxent
Gabby Crabcakes is on vacation.
We no longer go to Vera's White Sands for dinner.
Certainly we eat - and sometimes very well - on our visits. But over the years, our trips to Vera's have become pilgrimages. It's a little like returning to a favorite and long-running play, Auntie Mame or South Pacific, with its original leading lady still going strong. It's a little more like revisiting a shrine whose priestess keeps an extraordinary flame burning.
These comparisons, dear reader, are not far fetched. Vera's White Sands is everything you've ever heard and all you imagine.
We believed we had paid our final visit at season's end last September. The timeless Vera Freeman had been struggling with ill health as well as with the all-too-familiar problem of finding help equal to this world-class Polynesian paradise on the Patuxent. There were rumors of a sale. Vera even spoke of retiring.
At last, it seemed, Vera was about to succumb to the thesis of her friend Jack Sherwood's enchanting book, Maryland's Vanishing Lives - in which she is a chapter.
Yet on a sweet June evening in 1999, happy days were here again.
Vera appeared, announced as always by an Oriental gong, at her ageless best. She wore Indian silks, rings studded with giant gems on every finger, a necklace of seashells (from Easter Island) and a hibiscus in her long, platinum blonde hair. Surrounded by movie makers and mystics (this was the occasion of the filming of the Calvert County segment of the British Broadcasting Company documentary Mystery!), she shone.
As in its long heyday, every artfully and Easterly decorated nook and cranny of her spacious cocktail lounge and supper club overflowed with vitality. The filming party nibbled appetizers in the gazebo room under the watch of a recently acquired African giraffe - wood and about the size of a calf. Sentimental tunes wafted from the grand piano bar. Couples in summer dress circled the faux leopard-skin bar, sipping piña coladas and frozen strawberry daiquiris topped with paper umbrellas. Passing from the inner dining room to the outer, a party of Singles on Sailboats admired Polynesian art, giant clam shells and deep sea diving helmets collected in a lifetime of exotic travels by Vera and her late husband, Dr. Freeman. Sunset painted the Patuxent in colors matching Vera's.
What's more, the food was better than ever.
That's due, in part, to the arrival of William Taylor as executive chef. Taylor, former chef of Sotterly Plantation for 20 years and executive chef at Riverside Restaurant in Solomons, is well-known as the impresario of cozy thematic dinner parties - part cooking class, part eating adventure - in his St. Mary's County home.
"Everybody's been saying for years we're a dream couple," said Vera, of a match you'd think was made by Baltimore filmmaker John Waters.
For 40 years, Vera's kitchen has been the province of Mary Gross, a Calvert County native who's a master of Chesapeake Country cooking. Her Southern Maryland crabcake ($18.95), fried chicken ($12.95), crab imperial ($18.95) and mariner's platter ($18.95) - all served with a traditional restaurant salad - each set the class standard.
Traditionally, our dinner at Vera's would begin after sunset cocktails. We'd slip on our paper lei (replaced on Mother's Day with orchid leis flown in fresh from Hawaii) then - from a half dozen appetizers - choose escargot ($5.95) or jumbo shrimp cocktail ($7.95) served iced in a giant conch shell. Ideally, Mary would be serving her buttery Southern Maryland garlic bread. (Remember to ask if she's making it.)
For entrees, we'd choose a Southern Maryland favorite, shrimp scampi ($16.95) or steak ($16.95 to $18.95). We've tried osso bucco ($18.95) and bouillabaisse ($18.95), but they're served in heavier tomato sauce than we prefer.
Incredibly, we'd finish with homemade lemon meringue pie ($2.95), a fresh strawberry or hot fudge sundae ($3.95) or world's greatest chocolate cake ($3.95).
Taylor's adding a new dimension. "It should be not only wonderful food, but like Vera, like a fantasy," says he.
In keeping with Vera's theme, Taylor is adding a tropical menu running the gamut from appetizers to dessert. If you're on his wavelength, you'll start your meal with rumaki ($5.95) or a Javanese satés ($5.95). Continue with seven-boy chicken curry with baked saffron rice and seven condiments ($18.95) or barbecue pork with Chinese spices ($18.95). Conclude with tropical trifle ($4.95), home-made coconut ice cream ($3.95) or tropical fruit flambé ($6.95). Top it off with Tahitian coffee ($5.95).
If your culinary compass points to Europe rather than the Pacific rim or Southern Maryland, try Taylor's simple rack of lamb ($20.95) or elaborate artichoke Florentine ($15.95). Salads now go East and West. Get your Pacific influence in the outrigger ($5.95) or shrimp Oahu ($6.95). On the Atlantic side, try the Provence ($5.95) or Tuscan ($4.95). For New World flavor, try an original Caesar, which Taylor insists comes from Tijuana ($5.95).
If service is sometimes slow, don't let it bother you. You are, after all, on a pilgrimage. Come early, in time for sunset. Stay late. You'll never find another place - and perhaps never another time - like this.
White Sands Rd. Lusby 410/586-1182
Proprietor: Vera Freeman
Reason to go: There's no place like it anywhere.
Something to think about: If you're in a hurry, try a franchise.
| Issue 26 |
Volume VII Number 26
July 1-7, 1999
New Bay Times
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