Altnaveigh Inn, Storrs
Altnaveigh Inn ★★1/2 (Very Good-Superior)
951 Storrs Rd., Storrs (860/429-4490)
Lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:30 to 2:30. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 9:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $8 to $10, entrées $30 to $38, desserts $7.50 to $8.50.
Old houses are forever on the verge of slipping over the fine line that divides quaint from run-down. What they need is dauntless love and constant attention. Altnaveigh Inn, which dates back to 1734, got a double dose of both when chef Douglas Parks and his wife, Gail, took over in 2004. The place has blossomed under their care.
Today the old inn is fresh as paint-white woodwork sparkling, grounds groomed. Flowery curtains, draperies, lamps and knickknacks are, well, quaint. And Altnaveigh offers an essential ingredient of hospitality that hard-edged nouveau-chic restaurants sometimes forget: comfort. Adding to my personal comfort level is the fact that the kitchen is absolutely spotless (I peeked).
The menu, at first glance, looks old hat. Okay, we say, why not? A waltz down memory lane could be fun. What we get is a culinary romp, familiar ingredients perfectly cooked, imaginatively combined and elaborately embellished.
Clearly we're in the hands of a competent chef pulling out all the stops-starting with a star-spangled oyster stew. With only a soupçon of cream, it's heady with the taste of the sea, revved up with an elusive hint of heat. White pepper? Red chili? Whatever, it's wonderful.
Offered as an appetizer, steak bruschetta is so bountiful it would make a nice little lunch. But the strips of toasted baguette topped with marinated steak, sautéed tomato, chopped basil and mozzarella are irresistible. We finish them off in no time. Vegetarians or anyone wishing a lighter starter may order bruschetta without steak.
Baked oysters Louis are misnamed but we are not misled because the ingredients are stated on the menu: garlic butter, chopped herbs, diced tomato, smoked Gouda cheese and bread crumbs. It's not the sensuous cream-based Louis sauce I love. For me the acidic tomatoes and strong cheese here overpower the delicate flavor of the oysters. My companions like this dish better than I do but I'm an oyster purist-and a Louis fan.
Crab cakes, however, can please me in many ways and I love these: plump, crispy, piping hot on a bed of dressed greens with endive leaves heaped with a tangy aioli of garlic, lime and chili peppers alongside.
Reviving a time-honored custom that nowadays has pretty much gone by the board, Altnaveigh serves a complimentary salad with dinner entrées. The size and quality of these salads, and the fact that entrées also include green vegetables and interesting carbs, make entrée prices in the 30s seem more reasonable. After all, at a kicky little café a few rounds of trendy small plates at $10 or $15 add up fast.
We sample four entrées, each best described as a feast. The rib-eye steak, hand-cut, well-trimmed and charcoal-grilled, weighs 12 ounces. Served over a grilled heart of romaine, it's strewn with toasted pine nuts and drizzled with butter, fresh herbs and a reduced balsamic sauce. But wait, there's more: slender fronds of baby asparagus threaded through a hoop of zucchini, fresh broccoli, mashed potato, two miniature orchids on top-a tone poem on a plate. But what about the steak? It's gorgeous, perfectly medium-rare as ordered, tender, and juicy with the full-bodied flavor that makes rib-eye one of my favorite cuts.
Altnaveigh's version of surf and turf is regal, two large fillets of brook trout, pan-seared and topped with caramelized onions, smoked Gouda and toasted almonds, accompanied by a six-ounce filet mignon wrapped in bacon topped with golden raisins, shallots and a smoky bourbon sauce. If that sounds a bit much, it is-more than a bit. Altnaveigh hews to the country inn tradition: Never send a traveler away hungry. A medley of asparagus, broccoli and potato is served. Other entrées boast different garnishes. The sea bass, sparkling-fresh, is graced with sautéed bananas. Rack of lamb arrives on a bed of julienned green and yellow squash tossed with freshly chopped rosemary. It's excellent, medium-rare, infused with oven-roasted garlic cloves and laved with a spirited sauce of reduced cranberries and sweet red chili.
Lighter but equally, if not more, munificent is a composition of "scallops en croûte and East Coast lobster" elegantly presented in the form of large seared sea scallops wrapped in filmy ribbons of phyllo pastry, placed over corn coulis and topped with butternut squash purée and pieces of lightly cooked lobster tossed in butter. It's a blockbuster of a dish if you don't mind the double sweetness delivered by the corn coulis and sweetened butternut squash purée. The composition might also benefit from something crisp for contrast.
But how minor these quibbles are compared to the overall feeling of well-being the meal engenders. To begin with, there are fabulous, freshly baked popovers served with a ramekin of good butter. Water glasses are constantly being refilled. There are good wines by the glass. The house white is $7, a premium Chardonnay $9. The Gorgonzola dressing on the house salad, a state secret, is so good it should be bottled.
And every dessert we try elicits sighs of contentment and pleasure. A perfect crème brûlée may not be news, but it is a joy forever. Altnaveigh gilds the lily by serving its crème brûlée with a footed glass of fresh strawberries and whipped cream on the side. Carrot cake from a local bakery is better than many homemade ones-each portion a miniature cake, frosted on all sides and layered with traditional cream cheese frosting. Chocolate lava cake is the steamy depth of decadence. But all is eclipsed by a fresh peach crisp bubbling-hot in its baking dish, with a buttery pastry crust and a dollop of vanilla ice cream melting into its peachy-keen heart.
Old-fashioned? New-fashioned? At Altnaveigh, the twain meet-felicitously.Altnaveigh Inn, Storrs