The Mansion at Bald Hill, South Woodstock
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The Mansion at Bald Hill ★★1/2 (Very Good-Superior)
Time was when the word “mansion” had clout. A mansion on Fifth Avenue. The mansion on the hill. (Gosh, the owner must be a millionaire.) Nowadays, while Americans still flaunt their wealth in square feet and granite countertops, millionaires are a dime a dozen and “mansion” is more often than not muttered in the same breath as “teardown”—not to mention “McMansion.”
But The Mansion at Bald Hill is the genuine article—a four-story, 21-room private residence on a 91-acre spread known as “the hill.” It was built in 1892 by Roxanna Wentworth Bowen, heiress to the Pullman train fortune. She used it as her summerhouse. In recent years it has served a number of purposes, most recently as a B&B. Now, under new management, it has added a full-scale restaurant. Dinner in a mansion? Who could resist? Not me.
Thick woods shield The Mansion from the main road. (Bowen planted thousands of maples, beech, oak and pine trees) and a long, winding driveway that doubles back on itself takes you there—eventually. We were expecting more blatant curb appeal and flashier signage, but polite society doesn’t shout and The Mansion’s ghosts wear kid gloves and leave calling cards. Their aura is so pervasive we actually find ourselves reverentially whispering as we’re ushered into the damask-draped dining room. It’s Thursday night and The Mansion’s offering a week-night special (three courses and two glasses of wine for $35). With turkey crêpes and cod Française among the choices, this prix fixe is tempting, but we haven’t come all this way to limit our options.
At first glance, dinner entrées on the regular menu look a bit same-old, but almost everything we try tastes better than it looks on the page.
Ordering with abandon, we end up with an embarrassment of riches. We are not in the land of little bites. Appetizers are as big as entrées. Entrées are big enough for two.
The appetizer list includes golden oldies like crab cakes and au courant favorites like The Dynamite Roll. We order one of each. The crab cakes are huge and tasty—much like the ones Roxanne Bowen might have served (the cooking bible of her day being The Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Merritt Farmer, © 1896—see page 275). A peppy fresh-tomato-and-roasted-corn salsa adds a modern touch.
The Dynamite Roll arrives in six pretty slices, each displaying a morsel of spicy yellowfin tuna framed with sushi rice and ringed with a delicate film of crispness that highlights the chef’s tempura expertise. Dabs of pickled ginger, sriracha (Thai hot sauce) and wasabi bejewel the plate.
The Mansion’s spinach salad is as delightful as its ingredients imply: pears poached in port wine, slices of ripe tomato, Gorgonzola cheese, candied pecans tossed with maple cider vinaigrette and fresh baby spinach leaves.