Fair Hill Inn's farm-to-fork approach to a dish is simple: Fuss all you want around the edges, but don't mess with what's in the center of the plate. This isn't to say the food is plain. In fact, every dish boasts a handful of flourishes. But all the sauces, gastriques, and demi-glaces don't detract from the flavors of the main ingredient.
The approach was heralded by an amuse-bouche presented at the start of our meal: a small chunk of watermelon on a plate decorated with three dots of sweet balsamic reduction with a sprig of mint and a crumble of chevre. The succulent watermelon was fine on its own, but with its companions, it was even better.
The Fair Hill Inn in Cecil County is housed in a 1764 stone building, which was, for most of its life, a private residence and, for the last 40 years, a restaurant. It was opened in its current form in 2006 by owners Phil and Venka Pyle and chef Brian Shaw—and has garnered praise since day one. We were curious about this far-flung dining destination and headed north on I-95 to see what all the fuss was about.
The first thing you notice is Fair Hill Inn's farm, no farther than the other side of the restaurant's parking lot. There, a series of small vegetable plots, raspberry and blueberry bushes, and beehives provide just about all of Fair Hill's produce during the growing season and, thanks to the owners' canning and preserving efforts, a large percentage throughout the rest of the year.
The menu changes every month or so, and is determined not only by what is growing in the garden, but by what's going on in the restaurant's basement, where pork is stored to cure.
When we visited, tomatoes from the garden were at the height of their season: juicy, sweet, and served unadorned. They shared a plate with honey-glazed corn, a spoonful of house-made pepper jelly, a sprig of basil, and a grilled pearl onion.
We also savored the sweetbreads, crumbly pan-fried bits in a buttery beurre blanc sauce with tightly rolled tubes of fresh pasta. The sauce—called carbonara on the menu—lived up to that designation with a lightly poached quail egg and a smattering of salty lardon (bacon-like chunks made from pigs processed by the restaurant).
For entrees, we chose the halibut. The light, flaky fish was complemented by mashed potatoes laced with leeks and a subtle velouté, the creamy sauce spiked with a hint of horseradish. There was also an added treat—two plump oysters.
Our second choice was the duck, which was prepared two ways: one, shredded and barbecued, wrapped in a corn crêpe; the other, four tender slices of roasted breast placed on a bed of salty sautéed beet greens and onions. The center of the plate was a dark swirl of mole sauce, with a smoldering hint of cacao. A pile of diced fennel and kohlrabi on the side added a nice crunch to the meal.
The restaurant's wine list contains about 90 bottles, along with a selection of wines by the glass, and wine pairings are offered with nightly prix-fixe dinners.
The only issue we have with the Fair Hill is its spotty service. On one evening, it continued to slide—with extended waits for the check and long periods without attention from the staff.
We've had wonderful meals with attentive service at Fair Hill on other occasions. But when a dinner is anticipated with such lush expectations, we hope that every detail lives up.
Like the rest of the menu items, desserts are driven by the seasons. We were intrigued by the white peach and coconut clafouti, served with sweet corn ice cream (which, unfortunately, overdid the sweet and, in the process, lost the flavor of corn).
Dessert is also the right time to sample some of Fair Hill's cheeses: about half are made in-house, with the remainder hailing from farms within a few hours' drive of the inn. In fact, on just about any night you choose, there's a good chance that most of the guests have traveled farther to get to the Fair Hill Inn than the food on their plates.