Restaurant Review: The Inn at Woodstock Hill, Woodstock
For history buffs, garden lovers and gourmets with wanderlust—and people like me, who are a bit of all three—Woodstock has a lot going for it, especially in June when Roseland Cottage’s famous boxwood-edged parterre gardens (planted in the 1850s) are at their shiny-green best, and the Inn at Woodstock Hill, a stone’s throw away, is creating lovely meals with juicy berries, baby vegetables, leafy greens and juicy berries plucked from farms and fields in the neighborhood.
It may be called “The Quiet Corner” but in June all manner of events are scheduled there, from a Connecticut Garden Day celebration at Roseland Cottage on June 23 to a Victorian tea set for the 27th.
The inn, a favorite site for weddings, revs up for summer, too. The main house, built in 1816 (by William Truesdell) for William Bowen, is steeped in history (three presidents visited and it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places), but there’s nothing musty about its current incarnation. On my first return visit after 10 years, I literally could not find a scratch or chip on the white-painted interior trim, or a faded patch of wallpaper or drapery fabric.
The layout is a bit quirky due to numerous additions and renovations, but every room sings with color. The small parlor where we dined was wallpapered with butterflies on a bright salmon background. The bright tiles around the fireplace pictured a camel train arriving at a desert oasis—palm trees, men in flowing robes—reflecting the Victorian era’s infatuation with what they called “Orientalism.”
When a mahogany birdcage shaped like a cathedral caught our eye, and a staff member eagerly explained how it worked, I decided the evening was going to be fun. And it was.
On Saturday night, with two birthday parties and a reunion going on, there were a lot of people to be served. But we didn’t feel crowded because the inn had (like a gracious home host) moved furniture around to put several small rooms other than the main dining room into play. Service was formal (linen, silver, charger plates) but the staff was friendly, enthusiastic and attentive. From beginning to end, our meal proceeded at exactly the right pace.
The menu was New England with a few Asian surprises. Think New England whalers in the China trade, rounding Cape Horn, with a stop in the Philippines. Yes, there was Cape Cod-style seafood chowder, better than any I can remember, with scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams, in a rich, velvety cream soup. But there was also Burgundy escargot, equally pleasing, plump, tender and simmered in butter, herbs and just enough garlic to enhance without drowning out the subtle, distinctive flavor of the escargot.
A Maryland crab cake, too, was treated with respect. Blessedly free of breadcrumbs or other filler, it was served with a sprightly orange-basil aioli.
Entrées come with a choice of three small dinner salads, a practice I happen to love. I did not love the inn’s Caesar salad with its blah dressing and tasteless croutons (yesterday’s dinner rolls cubed?) and, only because I asked, two small anchovy fillets plopped on top.
On the other hand, Asian salad, a tangle of dewy-fresh mesclun greens, with mandarin segments, slivered almonds and sesame seeds in a ginger vinaigrette, was brilliant, and the ordinary-looking house salad achieved real distinction with a fresh-tasting herbal dressing a bit like Green Goddess.
The inn may be out in the country but it’s in the know when it comes to satisfying dietary requirements and spicing up the menu with exotic ingredients and global influences: black bean-vegetable-mango stir-fry and mushroom-and-roasted-pepper risotto for vegetarians, Filipino and Thai dishes for the adventurous.
Take chicken adobo, for example. Virtually the national dish of the Philippines and popular with home cooks all over Southeast Asia, it turns up in Connecticut mostly in small urban restaurants. Except for using chicken breast instead of the usual white and dark meat with the skin on, Woodstock’s adobo, served over rice, was classic in terms of ingredients and process. The chicken, simmered in a marinade of rice vinegar, soy and garlic, was fork-tender and the sauce reduced to delicious intensity.
Thai shrimp and sea scallops stir-fried with red curry and coconut milk was tasty but could have used more spice. In contrast, stuffed trout was a delicate dish involving crabmeat and applewood-smoked bacon.
Returning to the tried-and-true, roast half duckling à l’orange was wildly opulent but a bit heavy, with too much fat left under the skin and clunky accoutrements—carrots and broccoli. However a handsome veal chop on the bone trumped all. Tender and juicy and deeply flavorful, it was served with sautéed spinach and deliciously earthy red-skin potatoes.
Desserts were pleasant but unremarkable. The lemon drop raspberry cake could have been more lemony, but the chocolate bomb and chocolate marquis were, as hoped for, decadently swoon-worthy.
We’ve lost so many lovely old inns, it’s nice to know that the The Inn at Woodstock Hill, which has been in the Bowen family for generations, is still with us, spruced up without losing a speck of its charm, hosting outdoor buffets and lobster bakes, wine dinners and live music on Friday nights ranging from bands and hot jazz trumpet to harp, drums and bagpipes.
And oh, the joy, of just being far from the madding crowd in a grand old house, filled with gentle revelry. Happy birthday, happy anniversary—happy every summer day.
The Inn at Woodstock Hill
94 Plaine Hill Rd., Woodstock, 860/928-0528, woodstockhill.com
Lunch Thursday through Saturday 11 to 2. Dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 9. Sunday brunch 11 to 2. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $8.50 to $10, entrées $19 to $45, desserts $8.