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Carnivorous classics, traditional fare reign at the Briarhurst Manor

There are few restaurant settings as lovely as the Briarhurst Manor. Built in 1872, then rebuilt after a fire in 1886, the Manor was the home of Dr. William Bell, friend and business partner of General Palmer. Its pink sandstone walls now enclose rooms as true to their original dcor as is possible when their primary purpose is to shelter diners. The grounds, whether for a leisurely stroll after dinner or a summertime wedding party, are soothing and spectacular. It is an architectural gem, well deserving its place on the National Register of Historic Places.

The restaurant is celebrating its 25th year under the capable and successful hands of Chef Sigi Krauss. Consistency rather than innovation awaits diners at the Briarhurst. My grandmother would have loved it; my parents would have recognized the traditional menu items as among their tried-and-true favorites: Chateaubriand, Rack of Lamb, Filet Mignon. It's the perfect place for a prom date or Uncle Frederick's 80th birthday bash. In short, you will be assured a fine dining experience again and again. But for aficionados of food trends, for anyone who has ever subscribed to Bon Appetite or Food & Wine for more than just the pictures, for anyone for whom "fusion" has nothing to do with nuclear power, it will not be a terribly exciting dining experience.

We started with two soups, two salads, and two appetizers. The soup du jour, a Cream of Broccoli soup, had more cream than broccoli, the Seafood Bisque had more cream and sherry than seafood. Cream (and its pal, butter) can be used to make all things better but really should play a less prominent role. Prices for first course fare range from $2.50 (for the cup of soup) to $8.50 for Escargots.

The Steak Tartare was a tasty and generous plate of coarsely chopped tenderloin surrounded by tomatoes, onions, capers, and baby corn. The Alligator Pear, an avocado stuffed with seafood, came with both a brown sauce on the plate and a Hollandaise on top. We couldn't quite identify the seafood for all the sauce but the dish was very tasty.

The salads were the best of our first course selections: a spinach salad with a piquant warm bacon dressing and a garlicky Caesar salad. As a great example of why English is a tough language to learn, the menu tells us "Bleu cheese crumbles with any salad" for $1.

Would-be vegetarians, beware: the Caesar comes with bacon, and the Fettucine Alfredo or Vegetarian Platter, an assortment of vegetables with pasta, rice or potato, are your only entree options.

Our entrees were carnivorous classics. The Steak Diane ($25.95) was the standout, perfectly rare and tender. The Pork Chops Normandy (two generous pieces of meat weighing in at $21.95) was presented with an apple ring on each chop with a maraschino cherry in each ring's center. The chops were flavorful, if a little dry. A salty demi-glaze also accompanied the lamb chops. All dishes came with rather disappointing vegetables: carrots with the taste cooked out of them, a bit of broccoli under a dollop of cheese sauce.

One special of the day ($38.50) featured a small filet, a lamb chop and a lobster tail, and seemed too good to pass up. All components were delicious. This is a Super-sized version of the Briarhurst's Surf & Turf, one of the Fixed Price Presentations. The other, the Mixed Grill, featured a filet, a medallion of venison and a duck breast. Both Price Fixe menus include soup, salad, dessert, and a non-alcoholic beverage; at $39 they are relative bargains for the variety and amount of food involved.

The Briarhurst offers a changing sample of international cuisine, also Price Fixe at $24.95. The one we tried was a rather tame Chicken Mol, a dry chicken breast whose benign topping lacked the fire and complexity a good mol should display.

The Rainbow Trout was the most disappointing. It was greasy as if it had been sauted at too low a temperature, and tasted more of the green onion garnish than of trout. Those green onion garnishes, by the way, covered every dish we had.

Our earnest waiter flubbed a few things (charging, for example, for a dessert that should have been included in the International Showcase) but all was forgivable: he was juggling several tables and trying to give full attention to each. In general, the staff is well trained and well-rehearsed. I'm not sure why, when it was I who had asked for the wine list, the waiter insisted on asking the "gentleman" next to me if he needed any assistance in selecting a wine. I suspect it is a quaint policy to defer to men, an amusement to three of our party, a minor annoyance to the other three. Like I said earlier, my grandma would have loved it.

Since we had already shot our cholesterol levels skyward, we sent the caloric intake to join them and dove into desserts. The crme brulee was fantastic, full of real vanilla bean flavor. The apple pie was warm and exploded with cinnamon. The chocolate mousse was closer to pudding than mousse, breaking the hearts of the chocolate lovers at the table. Desserts were all under $6.

What Talbot's is to clothing, the Briarhurst is to food: timeless classics. Elegance and tradition.

Sometimes that's enough.

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