Roger Sherman Inn, New Canaan
Roger Sherman Inn ★★ (Very Good)
I love the Roger Sherman Inn for sentimental reasons and I return to it now and again as one might revisit an old friend, not only to reminisce but also to catch up on what's new. Over the years, changes have been gradual and respectful, which is as it should be, for this is a grand old inn with a grand old history. Built as a homestead in the 1700s, it witnessed the birth of the nation and is named for Connecticut patriot Roger Sherman, the only American to have signed the Articles of Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States.
If all this makes you think dark-and-stuffy, don't. Because nothing could be lighter and airier than the inn's wonderful wraparound porch with its sporty green-and-white-striped awning. When you drive up, it's the first thing you see, inescapably conjuring visions of cucumber sandwiches and iced tea. But far more interesting foods and drinks are served there once the it gets warm.
If the weather refuses to cooperate (Connecticut summers are capricious), not to worry. The main dining room, with its bay window and famously fanciful Revolutionary War murals (read the captions), is bright and cheerful. There's a cozy bar and wood-paneled "library" with tables and a pub menu. Once upon a time we tea-danced there.
The big news is that the Roger Sherman Inn has new owners, Nesreen and Joseph Jaffre, the latter well-known for his 27 years at Le Château in South Salem and before that at La Grenouille in Manhattan. Together the couple is breathing new life into the place. Most important, they have installed a talented chef, Christopher Cadou, whose credentials include La Càte Basque and The Carlyle Hotel in New York, and whose forte is a culinary balancing act involving classic French cuisine, traditional New England favorites and contemporary flair.
This much I have heard before I set off, friends in tow, to see for myself. Lori asks the waiter what he recommends. Caesar salad. What? With oysters Rockefeller and escargots on offer? We order it and encounter a rarity, a classic Caesar, not deconstructed, reconstructed or topped with everything on land and sea. Except for not being prepared at the table, this is the real deal, redolent but not reeking of garlic and anchovies, and tossed, as an old Italian proverb says it should be, "like a madman" until every romaine leaf is glistening with dressing. We love it. Classics are classics for good reason.
So we order another, oysters Rockefeller. Created by Jules Alciatore at Antoine's in New Orleans and served there since 1809, oysters Rockefeller is one of the world's most imitated dishes. (Imitated but not duplicated, Antoine's chefs insist, staunchly maintaining that the original did not contain spinach.) But imitation makes the heart grow fonder and the oysters Rockefeller we know and love usually consist of oysters broiled with a topping of chopped spinach, butter sauce, bread crumbs and, if we're lucky, a splash of Pernod. Chef Cadou hews to this tradition, starting with large, handsome bluepoints topped with a buttery spinach mix and baptizing them with Pernod. Bivalve bliss.
Escargots de Bourgogne are less successful. The escargots, in a classic sauce of butter, garlic, minced shallots and parsley, arrive sizzling-hot-so hot the little nuggets are frizzled to mere shrivels of their former juicy selves. They're also almost inedibly salty. Disappointed, we move on. An arugula-and-Parmesan salad with house-cured salmon and dill-cucumber coulis, pretty as a picture and totally delicious, revives our spirits.
Entrées intrigue-on the page and on the plate. Each is complemented by a different starch and vegetable, often complex creations enticing in and of themselves. King salmon, for example, comes with gigante beans and an artichoke-noodle casserole that would make a nice main dish if one were in a vegetarian mood. The salmon is a bit overcooked, but local striped bass, interesting in a port wine reduction, gets everything right. Lightly sautéed, it's paired with a beautiful kabocha squash risotto and wilted Brussels sprouts.
"Crispy duck breast," aside from not being crispy (ordered medium-rare, how could it be?), is rich and moist and boldly paired with Jack Daniel's-sloshed yams, wild mushrooms and pomegranate sauce. The mélange is a bit too sweet for me.
Rib-eye steak is more straightforwardly presented. The waiter has recommended it because "it doesn't have a lot of fat," which gives me pause. A rib-eye cut is extra juicy and flavorful precisely because it is marbleized with a bit of fat. We go for it and receive a perfectly grilled, medium-rare rib-eye with its rim of fat meticulously trimmed away yet surprisingly juicy and flavorful. It's guilt-free for the prudent, too pristine for the glutton, in sync with this gracious, mannerly place.
Desserts, too, are genteel, with lovely, luscious creations like white chocolate mousse with coconut cake, caramelized pineapple and lavender foam. Another winner is warm apple bread pudding, with cranberry sorbet and apple chips. Lemon hazelnut cake comes with dried-fig compote and honey ice cream-a plethora of sweetness, but what's a dessert for? Pastry chef Chelsea Spielman is endlessly inventive when it comes to nouveau desserts, but the star of her show is a clever trick with a golden oldie. Chocolate and Grand Marnier soufflés baked together in a single dish-high, light and heavenly.
With grand old inns fading away, along with their gardens and porches, white tablecloths and long leisurely dining, it's nice to know that the Roger Sherman Inn is still here, keeping old traditions alive and introducing new ones like live music in the lounge on Thursday and Saturday nights. Charm is rightly said to be indescribable, but the Roger Sherman Inn is, well, charming-especially in summer.
Roger Sherman Inn
195 Oenoke Ridge/Rte. 124, New Canaan (203/966-4541)
Lunch Tuesday through Sunday 12 to 2:30, dinner 6 to 10. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $11 to $16, entrées $29 to $42, desserts $11 to $12.Roger Sherman Inn, New Canaan