Thursday, May 17, 2007

Country cooking gets classy at Country Kettle

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Bill Ryan⁄The Gazette
Amy Crooks uses a ‘‘turtle” to pour a Black and Tan with Guiness Stout and Bass Ale at the Country Kettle in Poplar Springs.
It’s not a chain. It’s not in a strip mall. And it’s not full of frozen appetizers that have been deep fried.

That’s reason enough to love the Country Kettle Café, even if you’ve never been there. But the unassuming little restaurant on Route 144 offers plenty of other incentives to come. Walk in and the homey, happy feel of the place just washes over you. Part of that is the décor, which is packed with country knick knacks and marked by red check tablecloths and pink walls. They don’t match exactly, but that’s ok, it makes it seem like a friend’s kitchen.

What really makes you feel welcome, however, is the friendly staff. When we came the owner was more than happy to chat and to explain the menu in whatever detail we wanted. It has a nice variety, but not so many different types of dishes that you don’t know where the restaurant’s strengths lie.

For lunch, we were presented with a few appetizers, salads, and sandwiches. And fortunately, this was no mere ham and cheese sort of place. Sandwiches can come with prime rib or smoked salmon, and salads can come with turkey and apple.

Appetizers can include shrimp sautéed in a ‘‘good” beer or nachos fried in house, too. I couldn’t resist the sound of onion petals ($5.95), however. Now it is true, the onion petals are a fried appetizer, but with the word ‘petals’ involved I figured they had to be worth it. They came up in a perfect petal shape, which was ever so much more exciting (and a little more substantial) than rings, and were just right when paired with a creamy horseradish sauce.

I made up for this nutritional indiscretion by going for a teriyaki salmon sandwich ($9.70). You don’t normally expect to find a sandwich packed with healthy omega 3’s at a place with ‘‘country” in the name, so I was happy to find in my bread a good rectangular block of pink salmon, tinged with tangy teriyaki flavor and ginger mayo. Of course, the real star of the show were the sweet potato fries. I paid a little extra to get them, and it was among the best times I’ve spent $1.75. Thin strips with soft inside, crunchy edges, and salty-sweet taste all-around, they’re not to be missed.

Another stand-out was the Reuben ($8.70) that my friend ordered, also with sweet potato fries. The corned beef was of a good quality, thickness, and heat, but it was the juiciness of creamy cole slow and dressing slipping throughout it that really made it another sweet and savory treat. When enjoyed with a strong iced tea in a glass jar ($1.95), it made lunch a real meal.

The one part I might change is the carrot ginger soup ($3) I ordered along with my sandwich. The joining of the two flavors was inspired, but it was a little too thin for my taste. Stocking it up with more substance would have given me more opportunity to savor the chef’s creation.

Another time to get more of the Country Kettle is dinner, when you can order entrees. I have heard many wonderful things about what they can do with seafood, but I also liked the sound of ham steak topped with apple corn relish and pan seared chicken with pesto sauce. Some of the ‘‘smashed” potatoes along side also sound like fun.

Of course there may be no better advantage of a place called ‘‘country kettle” than ordering cobbler. For those who love cake and pie so much that you could never choose between them, cobbler is the perfect compromise. This one ($3.50) had strawberries and blueberries in a thick gooey fruity mix, all topped with a sugary cake top.

It’s great to find a place that is so wholesome that it offers chocolate milk for kids for $1, but not so normal that it doesn’t pique your tastebud’s interests. Plus you know your dining dollars are not going to some big corporation or chain, but rather to the nice chatty lady who brought you your food. For a country lunch or dinner with a few big city tastes, you may want to give the Country Kettle Café a try.

The Country Kettle Café

17004 Frederick Rd

Mount Airy


11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; Closed Sunday and Monday.