Stonehenge, Ridgefield

 

★★ (Very Good)
 

George Washington didn’t sleep here but Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd chose it for their honeymoon—with good reason. In its heyday, Stonehenge was the epitome of romantic dining: a sprawling white farmhouse with guest rooms nestled in the green hills of Connecticut, an hour or so from Manhattan, discreetly screened from the road (nip in, nip out with none the wiser if that were your wont), a sweet little village to explore if you decided to extend your stay.

Dom Perignon, escargots and Grand Mar-nier soufflé, ah, those were the days—the most memorable being the ones between 1965 and 1972, when the most famous chef in America turned Ridgefield, Conn., into the East Coast capital of the culinary world.

Stonehenge was already noted for its cuisine when Albert Stockli, founding chef of The Four Seasons, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars and Zum Zum in New York, bought it. But Stockli, over 6 feet tall, his towering toque adding an extra foot, was a force of nature and light years ahead of his time. He visited farms and dairies himself and developed a network of hunters to bring him game. The trout for his Truite Bleu was delivered live; his Crabmeat Lorenzo was legendary. He wrote a cookbook and knew every celebrity worth knowing. He died at 52.

A lot of swans have swum in the Stonehenge pond since then, and dining in the grand manner has gone out of style. But lo and behold, Stonehenge is still with us—and we find ourselves delighted to have it so. While there are hipper places to go, we wouldn’t want fine dining as we once knew it to disappear altogether.    

So in honor of St. Valentine, my friends and I made an exploratory visit to Stonehenge for dinner. It was a Thursday but the dining room was virtually empty. To our dismay it remained that way all evening, although every table was set with starched white linen and a glittering array of polished silver and gleaming glassware. Lovely, but a little sad.

We were hoping for a trip down memory lane and Stonehenge obliged. Our waiter, in suit and tie, was unflappably competent and affably polite, reminding us how soothing professionalism can be. The menu, a curated collection of old favorites, was short, informative and adjective-and-adverb-free, leaving us to discover for ourselves the excellence and deliciousness of much that we received.

An appetizer of mushrooms in puff pastry, for example, was reason enough to revisit the past. The combination of tissue-thin, crispy flakes of pastry, almost light enough to float away, and a torrent of mushrooms in an earthy herb-scented sauce was a soul-satisfying treat rarely on offer today.  

A salad of Belgian endive and roasted beets was appealingly arranged on a flat plate along with orange segments and almond-encrusted balls of goat cheese, dressed with almond vinaigrette.   

Gravlax came close to being the star of our meal. Rarely have I encountered this frequent-flyer of an appetizer prepared with such delicacy and finesse. Stonehenge’s chef cold-cures his own salmon with sugar, salt and fresh dill, and serves it chilled in all its rosy glory with capers, egg salad, pumpernickel bread and red-onion relish.  

Juicy, exceptionally tender escargots, served piping hot, bathed in garlic-parsley butter, more than held their own in this impressive starter lineup. I’ve rarely had better.

Simply prepared and simply presented, entrées were somewhat lacking in the creativity and panache we associate with ultra-haute cuisine. But we encountered only a few serious missteps.  

Halibut, a thick, juicy, snow-white slab, laudable for its sparkling freshness, was lightly crusted with Parmesan and served with aromatic rice and beurre blanc—plain but pleasing. Pan-seared duck breast was more ornate, sliced and slathered with “red wine cranberry sauce” that tasted (I swear) like maraschino cherry juice—too strident and way too sweet for my taste.  

Tiny, tender lamb chops sliced from an oven-roasted rack were also ill-served by too much thick, dark sauce. The chops, in their tasty rosemary-scented herb crusting, would have done nicely on their own, thanks.

An evening special we tried, Gorgonzola-crusted New York strip steak—a good piece of meat served medium-rare as ordered—was perfectly acceptable but nothing to write home about. Wild rice or potatoes in a creamy gratin graced entrée plates along with appropriate seasonal vegetables.  

None of the above prepared us for the grand finale of dessert. Somebody in the kitchen must have channeled Albert Stockli to achieve such a pinnacle of perfection. It began with an ethereal Grand Marnier soufflé, hot and quivering in the baking dish. Pour in the heady sauce. One bite and I heard angels singing; two and I was in gourmet heaven. Next stop, a French farmhouse kitchen for the grand-mère of tarte tatins, the centerpiece of a flowerlike arrangement including vanilla ice cream and a burnt-sugar minisculpture. Last but not least, molten chocolate cake. Imagine intensely rich, seriously sensuous chocolate decadence—then double it.

There was a time when the Stonehenge kitchen bustled with cooks and waiters, the parking lot was full and the herb garden grew three kinds of thyme. The house party’s over and Stonehenge looks a bit tired. But it is still stalwartly there. With a little imagination we can dine the way Elizabeth Taylor did when she was a starry-eyed bride.

We walked to the car trying to remember the lyrics to “Isn’t It Romantic?”
 

35 Stonehenge Rd., Ridgefield
(203/438-6611, stonehengeinn-ct.com)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $9 to $14, entrées $19 to $29, desserts $6 to $9.
 

Stonehenge, Ridgefield

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