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Every day is a new feast at Bona Terra

| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 6:50 p.m.

In Sharpsburg's tiny but intriguing Bona Terra, just reading the menu can be a delight.

Chef Douglass Dick builds each day's menu around his visits to local markets and the availability of seafood and meats -- meaning a nearly new menu every day.

"Our menu is seasonal to the week, to the day," says restaurant manager Mark Towers. "Chef hand-picks his ingredients, choosing the highest quality ingredients available that day."

Such a menu can be exciting if you're a daring diner, or intimdating if you enjoy having your favorites again and again. But Towers points out that if you do develop a passion for a particular menu item, Dick will do everything possible to accommodate an advance request -- as long as the ingredients for it are in season and high quality.

"That's something we can do because we're small," Towers says. "We have someone coming tonight who requested mussels, which we don't usually have until the weekends. But we've got them for tonight."

Dick makes everything -- from the appetizers to entrees, desserts and dinner rolls -- on the restaurant's premises.

The menu is short and beguiling -- creative mixtures of market fresh adorn a page of five appetizers, a pair each of soup and salad, and six main course choices. A smaller selection might suggest choosing is simple -- but the luscious descriptions make it a difficult job.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted warmly and shown to a table in the glowing, intimate dining room with golden yellow walls adorned with still-life artwork. The music is an eclectic yet unobtrusive mix of contemporary pop and rock artists, the volume turned down low. Our server was friendly and knowledgable, offering suggestions and easily answering all of our questions.

We started with a pair of appetizers to share. The small plate of Pan-seared Blue Crab Cakes ($11) was enough to offer four of us a couple of bites each. The two cakes arrived with an artistic daubing of chipotle aioli, along with preciously plump candied kumquats and roasted tomatoes. We couldn't detect any filler in the crab cakes and marveled that they held together with seemingly nothing but crab meat and seasoning.

House-made Potato-herb Gnocchi ($10) came in a deep bowl, accompanied by four soup spoons, so each of us could help ourselves to dainty servings of the thick, chewy pasta, swimming in a veal jus. Somewhere between a soup and a stew, the appetizer also included braised veal breast, wild mushrooms, wilted local baby greens and goat cheese -- an interesting combination that pleased us all.

Puree of Black Bean Soup ($6) was a surprisingly mild preparation. A smooth serving of black bean puree and Andouille sausage, topped with a spiral of cumin-lime creme fraiche and cilantro, it was enough to whet the appetite without being too filling.

Two Spring Valley Gardens salads beckoned: The Mixed Greens ($6) featured toasted almonds, ribbons of roasted red peppers, substantial chunks of English Stilton cheese tossed with a sherry-tarragon vinaigrette. The Arugula ($7) married a heartier mix of avocado, bacon and cherry tomatoes to Reggiano cheese and a honey-white balsamic vinaigrette. Each preparation was almost impossibly fresh and light-tasting -- and enjoyed alongside warm, sweet brioche topped with sun-dried tomato spread, enough to ensure our swift return.

But dinner doesn't end with the salad. Our main courses arrived one at a time in swift succession.

Pan-seared Dayboat Sea Scallops ($24) featured about a half-dozen large, meaty scallops dusted with white pepper and kosher salt, served atop jasmine rice and topped itself with a sweet but not cloying blood orange reduction sauce, crispy shallots and candied zest. Ringing the serving were adorable baby bok choi -- not too crisp, not too wilted, and lovingly flavored.

We pronounced the preparation of Pan-roasted La Belle Farms Duck Breast ($26) the best we've had. The juicy, lightly seasoned duck arrived sliced and fanned out over caramelized onion wild rice and paired with a sweet orange-rhubarb compote. Snow peas and carrots rounded out the serving.

The Veal Rib Chop ($31) arrived cooked to order and savory -- seasoned with black pepper, kosher salt and a bit of cajun seasoning. The side dish accompanying it, a crispy herbed polenta cake prepared with Parmesan-Reggiano and herbs was of particular note.

A serving of Alaskan Halibut ($25), pan-seared, crispy and incredibly flaky, was served with a mild roasted garlic cream and vegetable primavera sauce. The preparation and its accompanying peas, carrots, fennel, potato, leeks and micro red cabbage proved a hit with our fish aficionado.

We surely aren't ones to skip dessert , and each of the four selections proved worthy of the calories: Chocolate-Grand Marnier Mousse ($6) was a petite serving of mouth-watering, smooth mousse with just a delicate aftertaste of orange liquor. Lemon-Vanilla Cheesecake ($6) was pleasantly tart and sweet, not to menion creamy. Banana Parfait ($6) featured homemade banana ice cream, banana chips, walnuts and chocolate ganache. The largest of the desserts, it's a banana-lover's dream. Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee ($6) supplied sufficiently creamy custard, profusely dotted with black flecks of vanilla bean.

In one visit, we've learned to trust Chef Dick -- and can't wait to discover what he'll create on our next trip to Bona Terra. Additional Information:

Details

Bona Terra

Cuisine: New American bistro.

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Entree price range: $24 to $31.

Notes: BYOB, $3 corkage fee. Reservations strongly suggested. Credit cards accepted. Non-smoking.

Location: 908 Main St., Sharpsburg.

Details: (412) 781-8210.

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