New Orleans Finds a Home in Mercersburg:
The James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant
By Larissa Chace Smith
It is a clear, cold night on the cozy streets of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania when I step into the handsome foyer of the James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant. For a moment, I feel as though I am stepping into someone’s grand home one hundred and fifty years ago. “Home” is exactly what owners John and Deniz Celestin want your experience at their establishment to feel like. “We want people to feel they have a stake in this place,” says John, as he sits next to his wife at the table with us. This is, in fact, their home – they live in an apartment attached to the hotel – and they are thus accessible to their restaurant and hotel patrons around the clock. This profession takes a special person, or people, and the demands are unceasing. But Deniz and John are tireless, greeting customers with curious, heartfelt smiles. They even take the time to sit, chat, and eat with my companions and me.
As the food is served, the owners’ attention to every detail, ingredient, and gastronomical emotion gives me pause. Their love for food, and the experience of dining, is reflected in the thorough descriptions of menu items by the wait staff, as well as the delights that arrive from the skilled hands of Chef Andrew Thornton. Thornton was recruited by the Celestins, having grown up in New Orleans working in kitchens since the age of fourteen, and attending a top culinary school. The soft candlelight and air of antiquity in the room slow my thoughts and allow me to focus on the food alone as I try the first dish, a Roasted Corn and Crab Bisque, sprinkled with fresh herbs. Time is irrelevant in this place; the weight of austere tables juxtaposed with lofty pushed-tin ceilings give me balance as the rich bisque fills my stomach. This is what makes dining at the Pub better than home.
Deniz Celestin sits next to me with her hands folded, recounting the serendipitous tale that brought her and her husband from New Orleans to Mercersburg. Her deep, Turkish eyes add to the intrigue as she describes the sequence of events from the moment when Hurricane Katrina hit, to the couple’s decision to move to Maryland to be close to Deniz’s family. When they began to research potential properties in the area, the couple stumbled upon Mercersburg. They were immediately struck by its charm and semblance to a “Norman Rockwell painting,” and decided to look into buying a condominium at nearby Whitetail Ski Resort.
This is where they met Judy Bonciu, real estate agent and owner, at the time, of the James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant. Judy suggested the Celestins eat at the Pub, and they were enchanted with how the building’s late-eighteenth century architecture and décor reminded them so much of New Orleans. While they were dining, they discovered that the establishment was for sale, and the wheels immediately started turning. “The idea happened fast,” Deniz says. “The conviction was strong.” Before they knew it, the Celestins were proud owners of the James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant. They officially opened on May 30, 2007, offering a new menu, infused with New Orleans and European flavors.
The velvety strains of Bossa Nova dance around the warmly lit, but moody dining room, giving it a cosmopolitan air. Fleur-de-lis emblems on menus accent the room with a New Orleans flourish. Meanwhile, statues of monks, heavy candlesticks, drawings of wild game, and antique portraits in gilded frames provide old-world charm and the comfort of tradition and historicity. One really does get a sense of how many different beings and cultures have left their mark on this place. After the delicious Bisque, a cornucopia of appetizers are brought to our table, complimented by a basket of German ryes served with fresh-whipped butter and a dish of balsamic vinegar in olive oil for dipping, sprinkled with fresh parsley. It is the use of fresh herbs that makes each dish so outstanding, whether they are sprinkled on top or incorporated into the dish. Chef Andrew employs a host of local, seasonal foods, rarely using anything from a can; his attention to detail and respect for food are eminent in every morsel.
The Seafood Gumbo is my next epicurean sampling. Made with a dark, rich tomato-bacon roux, this New Orleans tradition features shrimp, oysters, crawfish, and fresh herbs and spices. A mound of white rice and fresh chopped scallions rests in the center. The restaurant offers a Gumbo Du Jour, synonymous with many New Orleans households wherein a different gumbo is made each day using whatever ingredients happen to be available. This delicious stew is followed by the Barbeque Crab Claws. Grilled focaccia triangles are angled artistically on top of the heap of claws, ready to be dipped into the perfectly spicy rosemary butter sauce. This finger food offers a medley of flavors that blends marvelously with the tender Blue crab claws, sprinkled with fresh parsley.
The Celestins offer me a glass of wine, and I decide on a glass of the Barefoot Sauvignon Blanc, based on the Chef’s recommendation for a crisp white to compliment the smorgasbord he is preparing for us. I eye the small platter of homemade Gnocchi Parmaggiano, sitting in a reduced cream sauce - a dozen or so round puffs of potato-y goodness. One by one they melt in my mouth, the shaved Prosciutto di Parma and pine nuts adding a welcomed bit of crunch to each mouthful. This is one of Deniz’s favorites; having lived in Italy for a time, she enjoys these hints of Italian authenticity in the menu. My own personal favorite – and one of John’s as well – is a special that evening: the White Wine Poached Eggplant. No ordinary eggplant dish, this delicacy is poached a creamy, ochre color, surrounded by a butter sauce. Crab, shrimp, and fresh parsley sit purposefully on top of the lovely eggplant slice. The flavor is utterly surprising – the eggplant provides a hint of melon to the rich sauce. It is a perfect mélange of European and exotic elements.
I am still swooning from the appetizers when three salads arrive: a classic Caesar with a peppery anchovy and raw-egg dressing, sprinkled with shaved Parmesan and crunchy croutons; a baby spinach salad with a light, creamy gorgonzola bleu cheese vinaigrette, topped with red onion, grapes, crispy bacon, and candied pecans; and a Mediterranean salad made with field greens, olives, tomatoes, and artichoke hearts, topped with large squares of feta and a light, fresh Cacik dressing – one of Deniz’s mother’s famous recipes. All the dressings are homemade, and the greens are fresh and brilliant. But there is more to come!
Our entrees arrive piping hot from the kitchen. We sample a delicious Bouillabaisse, made with shrimp, clams, scallops, and monkfish, sprinkled with fresh herbs. Accompanying toasts, drizzled with a zesty red cream sauce, are perfect for soaking up the buttery saffron broth. The Crab Cakes, served with a roasted red potato mash and buttery green beans, are made with huge lumps of crabmeat, with just a bit of crispness on the outside. A platter of Tri Tip Sirloin is served on a bed of sweet potato risotto and green beans. The meat, seared to perfection, has a hearty, natural flavor that blends wonderfully with the hint of sweetness in the risotto.
Meanwhile, our vegetarian companion enjoys a mouthwatering plate of Portobella Mushroom Penne in a pesto cream sauce, not yet aware of the surprise that awaits her. One of the many highlights of the evening is a beautiful vegetarian dish Chef Andrew has created just for her: a polenta cake topped with grilled tomato, beet cooked two ways, and fresh parsley, surrounded by a whimsical drizzle of a dark balsamic reduction. It is truly a sight to behold, and our friend cannot stop smiling as she finishes every last bite.
This is just one of the ways in which the Celestins – together with Chef Andrew – make the Pub a unique place to experience the joys of food and life. Though reception to the new ownership has been warm and welcoming, John and Deniz continue to work ceaselessly to quell any misconceptions people may have about Cajun food. After all, “Cajun” need not imply hot and spicy. A child and family-friendly establishment, John and Deniz welcome everyone to come to the area’s “home” for New Orleans fare and give their offerings a try. As Chef Andrew poignantly remarks, “Come with an open mind, and an empty belly!”
Need to Know…
James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant
15 N Main Street
Hours of Operation:
Lunch: Tues. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 2 p..m.
Dinner: Tues. – Thurs. 5 – 9 p.m., Fri. – Sat. 5 – 10 p.m.
Brunch: Sun. 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Monday, February 18, 2008
My Budding Writing Career
Friends, today I wish to share with you my most recent article written for Hagerstown Magazine. It has been a pleasure to write for this outstanding publication, and to find a vehicle to enhance my budding career as a writer. I had the great fortune to do a dining story on the James Buchanan Hotel, Pub and Restaurant in my own town of Mercersburg. My husband, Ryan, was assigned the photography, and we had a great time working on an assignment - and eating delicious food - together. I highly recommend this restaurant to any of my readers in the area. The article will appear in the May/June issue (and it may be slightly different than the version below). Hope you enjoy it!