We all have ideas and expectations about the holidays that can sure be hard to meet. The cleaning, cooking, decorating get overwhelming. We dream about who will spend the holidays with us, what we’ll all say and do. But life isn’t always like a greeting card that you buy at the drugstore. If you’re open to new possibilities, you can have a different — but wondrous — holiday. So, if you’re single or the traditional big family gathering is no longer in the cards, why not let someone else create the magic? Antrim 1844 will feel like a whole beautiful world and they do all the work! I was happy to be hosted to experience it.
And so, on Christmas Eve, I drove myself from Baltimore City to Taneytown, in the Catoctin Mountains. I had never driven that far in my whole life and I was all alone on the backroads. Well, me and a GPS that seemed like it had been tippling a little Christmas cheer early — all of the directions came about 30 seconds after I needed them.
Dort Mollett and her husband, Richard, are the owners of Antrim 1844, an inn that was a private estate before the Civil War. Dort not only has an eye for elegant, yet cozy decor — as you’ll see in the photos below — but she has this uncanny ability to create moments amidst the guests. Between afternoon tea in the sunroom, a half hour before dinner of passed hors d’oeuvres and cocktails in the salon, fireside tables to dine in the historic smokehouse and a cozy little shoebox of a tartan-festooned pub (with deep sofas and fireplace), there are all kinds of opportunities to meet new people, get acquainted. I found myself “adopted” by a pair of wine aficionado couples — Antrim has one of the most acclaimed and award-winning wine cellars on the East Coast — for a couple of my meals.
After afternoon tea, I had some time to unwind and refresh before dinner. My room, the Clabaugh, was in the mansion. There are also several outbuildings that are good for families or extra privacy. With high Southern ceilings and big picture windows, I was able to watch an outstanding sunset, with Christmas-decorated cottages in the foreground. The mansion rooms do not have televisions, so I turned on the radio. One of the old legacy radio stations from nearby southern Pennsylvania was playing classic Christmas songs — no Mariah Carey, thank you very much — so it felt like going back in time. It occurred to me that everything was so beautiful and cheerful, one just could not possibly be morose, even all on one’s own. Everything was lovely just as it was.
My room was one of the rooms that has an inside connecting door with the library/sitting room. It makes your room seem more like a suite. The library has puzzles and games, as well as interesting vintage books. I put on one of their thickly lined, waffle-quilted robes and sank into the sofa with a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette. I learned that hiring a butler with a mustache exposes one as a parvenu, so keep that in mind.
Soon, it was time to dress for dinner — that’s what everyone does here — and gather in the salon for a exquisite glass of Champagne and passed hors d’oeuvres in the salon with live piano music, all decorated to the nines for Christmas. I found myself wandering into the private dining room before its occupants were seated for the evening. There were all of these wreaths, formed into little dollhouse-like dioramas! They all had these displays showing times from the Antrim’s way-back past, both simple and prosperous. It was kind of neat being by myself, to be able to see these things in my own time, my own way.
Then, I was seated for dinner in the outer section of the smokehouse, also with a fireplace. Bread service included Vermont Creamery truffle butter topped with Maldon smoked sea salt. I am well acquainted with fine Vermont Creamery products from visits to Vermont to check out their cuisine.
Though I was dining alone, I noticed that when larger tables received their courses, several servers would come out to serve everyone simultaneously. That certainly adds to the fine dining experience.
The chef’s amuse bouche was prosciutto-wrapped asparagus with truffle cream, soft-cooked quail egg and shiso leaf garnished. Shiso has an interesting flavor profile: I noticed tangy citrus, while others describe it as minty or basil-like, which is in the mint family. These are the creative twists on classic cuisine that Chef Ilhan Erkek brings to the Smokehouse restaurant at the Antrim.
The first course that I picked from four was seared duck breast with pickled cauliflower, charred onion and pea tendrils, garnished with parsnip puree. Think of this dish as seasonal ingredients treated in a lighter, fresher way. The tangy cauliflower plays off the sweet parsnip. The duck was thick-cut and beautifully done. Pea tendrils, which I was previously unfamiliar with, have a flavor like bean sprouts.
Christmas Eve seemed like a fortuitous time to have hot soup, to warm both body and soul. Their lobster bisque isn’t like some places do, a bowl of hot milk that my folks used to say, “a lobster flew over”. No, indeed! It was deeply lobster colored and flavored, a generous portion, garnished with a little chopped lobster salad on top.
Next, a palette cleanser was served: mojito sorbet and a frozen chocolate “lime”. It packed quite the flavor punch!
With the different courses, I enjoyed expert pairings of some of their house wines, including an Orchard Hill Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. I very much enjoy Sauvignon Blanc with seafood, because it has good body to go along with any sauces and the flavor notes tend to be exceptionally complimentary to it. In this particular wine, there are notes of green pepper, tropical fruit and grapefruit.
My main course that I chose from five offerings — including a vegetarian one — was Atlantic salmon. It was presented with a glazing of “clam vichyssoise”, along with braised celery and purple potato “pearls”. The buttery salmon was served with crisped skin on, which I prefer. The combination with the clam vichyssoise was very much of the sea! The celery slices were still crisp — not the braised celery you might think of in a beef stew, for instance. The little potatoes went well with all of the flavors.
There was a choice of two desserts; I selected the pistachio creme brulee’. Chef Erkek is Turkish, so this was a fusion of his heritage with a classic fine dining dessert, very nutty and not too sweet.
When I got back to my room, I got back into the comfy robe, washed with their spicy scented toiletries and lit a fire in the working fireplace. That, then turning back on the Pennsylvania radio station with Christmas carols made for a memorable Christmas Eve.
In the morning, outside your room is a little wooden butler that holds a tray of your choice between coffee and tea, fresh muffins and some fresh berries. These muffins were blueberry, with that great crunchy sugar topping. It’s so civilized to have a morning hot beverage waiting for you, without anyone seeing you in your nightclothes like Wee Willie Winkie!
So, after a glorious dinner the night before and the morning snack, breakfast is a simple affair at the Antrim. You can order eggs any style or house-made granola or fresh fruit. They also serve a house Bloody Mary, but since I had a 50 mile drive ahead of me, I kept to their excellent coffee.
The early afternoon welcomed in the special Christmas brunch back in the smokehouse. A brunch-style amuse bouche was presented: a mini blini with smoked salmon, dill, shaved fennel and blood orange. This is a great combination! Blood orange is kind of a trompe l’oeil, flavor-wise: it’s intensely red, yet much more tart than regular oranges.
Since I had soup the night before, I selected the wedge salad for a starter course. It was fresh, crunchy and appealing, with cherry tomato, shaved red onion, lardons and blue cheese dressing.
A lovely raspberry sorbet was served as a palette cleanser.
Since I enjoyed fish so much the night before, I decided to order it again for brunch! Rockfish is a local delicacy in Maryland and it seemed like a perfect treat to have for Christmas. A very generous portion of perfectly seared rockfish was served with celery puree, purple potatoes and lemon beurre blanc.
For dessert, I ordered a beautifully crafted apple pie: it was more like a flaky ball from a croquembouche, filled with baked apple slices, bourbon vanilla ice cream and a dark caramel sauce.
If you want a special holiday for yourself, you can make reservations for New Year’s Eve or any of the other holidays!