Winvian ★★★★ (Extraordinary)
Remember Red Rover, king of the hill, hide-and-seek and "let's pretend"? The magic of childhood drifts away, eludes us when we seek to recapture it. But not at Winvian, where a tree house 35 feet above the forest floor invites us to climb up and spend the night. A cottage called Beaver Lodge on a reed-fringed pond looks as if Toad and his Wind in the Willows pals will arrive any minute. As for an edifice called Secret Society, it's a total mystery.
I query our guide. "What's inside?"
"It's a secret."
Where in the world are we? In Litchfield County-honest, look around. Here are the fields, the pines, the ponds, the ancient stone walls. Winvian's cottages, like a pastoral reverie, fade in, fade out.
My friends and I are here for dinner, first touring the grounds-113 wooded acres morphed into a fairy tale you have to see to believe. Except perhaps in poetry, there is no way to describe it without making it sound like Disney World. And nothing could be further from the truth.
The white clapboard main house, built in 1776, has been renovated with such restrained sophistication even Queen Victoria would approve. There is a Zenlike spa, a conference center in a meadow and, scattered about in groves of birch and hemlock, 17 cottages, each enchanting-and possibly enchanted-in its own way.
Excited by the architectural innovation, under the spell of it actually, it's hard to imagine what dining here will be like. Weird and way out? Perish the thought. Winvian is a nostalgic throwback-an idealization of the life on an English country estate we read about in books: gamekeepers, hacking jackets, that sort of thing. Andy gets it right away: "dressed-down genteel."
Precisely. No need to impress. We're off-duty, in weekend mode, out for a taste of connoisseur-quality country living.
Winvian obliges with a world-class chef and half a dozen intimate dining areas, among them a wood-paneled nook with a stone fireplace; a long, narrow upstairs gallery lined with windows; the beautifully refurbished living room of the Seth Bird House; and in good weather, an outdoor terrace.
We are led to a pretty parlor graced with a full-length oil painting of Vivian Smith, wife of Winthrop Smith, the onetime owners of the property Winvian was named after. In the center of the room stands one table-ours. How lucky can we get?
Very lucky. Chris Eddy, Winvian's executive chef, has worked with Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse. The maître, Paolo Middei, is a food and wine expert from Rome. The prix fixe menu is a carefully edited selection. Everything on it appeals. We all agonize-except Bill. He'll have the steak. Oh, come on, we remonstrate. But he is adamant, insisting he's the ultimate expert on steak. He gets his steak and when it arrives, juicily medium-rare, he pronounces it "great."
I agree emphatically, but I am more interested in dinner as a whole. As it enfolds the chef keeps sending out delightful extras, punctuating the meal with surprises, the first of which is a stunning little wonton, its house-made pastry shatteringly crisp, its filling exotically spiced. Piping hot, of course-as is every hot dish that follows. Parsnip soup, ladled into a deep bowl, is the essence of seduction, smooth as a caress, with tantalizing hints of ginger, mushrooms, foie gras.
Cubed yellowfin tuna is freshness itself, jewel-bright on the plate with osetra caviar and kernels of fresh sweet corn.
Sea scallops are like a blank canvas to a good chef and chef Eddy is no exception. We're told he rarely prepares them the same way. Today we find perfectly seared diver scallops plated with sunchoke purée, underseasoned to let their earthiness shine and dotted with lardons to add salt and crunch.
A salad of roasted golden beets with pecans and microgreens looks perky flying a flag of fennel sliced paper thin and french-fried. I love it, not for its looks but for the texture, flavor and sweetness of the beets presented with just-right accent notes.
At this point a small surprise arrives. Small, but oh, my! Poire William granita. Now here's a palate-cleansing sorbet to remember-subtle, suave, stunning-the sort of thing a country host would serve to his most treasured friends.
Our entrées are as exceptional as what went before. Pekin (aka Long Island) duck breast, roasted medium-rare, is served in thickish slices laved with herb-scented jus and garnished with baby carrots and turnips. Alongside, there's a ramekin of "stuffing," which deserves a more exalted name, laced as it is with a generous amount of foie gras.
In contrast, roast halibut is pristine-not gilded, not browned, just its own ocean-fresh self in the company of herb-and-vegetable-flecked quinoa. Healthiness and deliciousness keep close company at Winvian, where grilling, roasting and poaching are favored and lean meat options abound. Roasted tenderloin of bison is a low-fat, low-cholesterol choice, but served medium-rare with Swiss chard gratin and salsify, it's like eating your cake and having it, too.
Wish fulfillment rules the dessert roster. Each of us gets to taste everything: coconut-and-pineapple mousse, a glorified sundae involving strawberries and cream in an oversize martini glass, tapioca laced with passion-fruit curd, and a raisin-and-almond blini with caramelized pears.
Winvian is about genuine luxury-real fires on real stone hearths, acres of woodland to roam and Academy-Award-worthy dining that Vegas would announce in neon lights. For Winvian, word of mouth will do nicely, thanks.
155 Alain White Rd., Morris (860/567-9600)
Lunch Wednesday through Sunday 12:30 to 2:30. Dinner Wednesday through Sunday 7 to 9:30. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price: $85 for three courses.Winvian, Morris