The dining room at the Morrison-Clark Inn, housed in connected Victorian mansions, looks fixed in time. When’s the last time you saw stenciled ivy, peony-pink walls, and finely laced curtains? But though there’s a certain formality—the silverware is heavy, the waiter always pulls out your chair—nobody raises an eyebrow if you walk into the dining room in jeans.
The restaurant is trying to bring itself into the 21st century—or at least back to its 1990s heyday when then-chef Susan McCreight Lindeborg drew raves for her Southern-inspired cooking. It wants to be more than a place to take your mom for a nice brunch. Toward that end, management has instituted Thursday happy hours on the veranda and brought in a new chef, Janis McLean, who started her career working under Lindeborg at the Morrison-Clark and headed the kitchen at the Red Dog Cafe in Silver Spring.
Like her mentor, McLean accents her cooking with flavors from the Carolinas and beyond—foie gras is paired with spoonbread, not brioche; shrimp ’n’ grits gets a dose of Jack Daniel’s. A Bibb-lettuce salad is a bright medley of sherry vinegar, delicately spiced pecans, and sweetly poached pears. The crab cakes are terrific: generous mounds of crab, lightly seared and paired with lemony risotto. Less successful are an oyster stew that tastes mostly like leeks, and oversalted scallops with black rice. But the roast chicken, a whole baby bird surrounded by roasted fingerlings, is beautifully rosy and juicy.
Whether McLean can woo more than the Steel Magnolias crowd remains to be seen. But she’s off to a very good start.