Chef Annie Wayte Makes 'Superior' Magic at The White Hart Inn, Salisbury: Restaurant Review

All images by Julie Bidwell

★★★ [Superior]

It took a village to do it but one of Connecticut’s wonderful old country inns (many of which have been repurposed or torn down) has survived. Since it opened in 1806, the White Hart Inn in Salisbury has been purveying food, drink and hospitality through thick and thin, in good times and bad, weathering setbacks and even closings. Yet, with a little help from its friends, it has always pulled through—most recently this year when it re-opened after abruptly closing in 2014 less than a month after a $5 million renovation,Now a rejuvenated White Hart is kicking up its heels thanks to a group of eight investors with local ties and great affection for the old inn. Listed on the deed as “Deer Friends LLC,” the new owners (among them Michelin-starred chef Annie Wayte, at right with Paul Pearson, from London; Megan Wilson, an art director at Random House; and Malcolm Gladwell, author of five New York Times best sellers) are a creative bunch with like-minded ideas for rekindling the warmth and conviviality of the White Hart when it was a center of village life.

But before I wax too poetic about the beauty of this neck of the woods (shadowy pine groves, sunlit meadows and rolling blue-green hills), I have a confession to make: I love The White Hart.

For many years, David and I made it our base for cross-country skiing, hiking and canoe expeditions, and I have been following its recent history with bated breath. I have heard good things about the new-old inn but it is a dining destination after all, and tasting is believing. So here I am, not as an admirer but as a restaurant critic—let the truffled chips fall where they may.

I see at once that the term “$5 million dollar renovation,” with its intimations of opulence, is misleading. The White Hart has never been Tara in Connecticut—no grand staircase, no damask draperies for Scarlett O’Hara to turn into ball gowns. It was, and in its current incarnation, remains a simple country inn, as Yankee-Doodle-Dandy as the Governor’s Foot Guard. Spic-and-span, literally fresh as paint and by some trick of Rip Van Winkle magic, young again.We are seated in the dining room (above) because it is here that chef Annie Wayte makes her own magic with the seasonal bounty of farm and field. (The Pub has other fish to fry.) The dining room menu is as clean as its cuisine. Like haiku, it intrigues as well as informs, highlighting a few tantalizing ingredients rather than listing every grain of pepper as sometimes seems to be the norm.

We are all foodies and we take forever to decide what to order. While we confer, the chef sends out hot-from-the-oven rolls with sweet butter actually churned in the White Hart kitchen and so delicious we go into a collective swoon. Next, a complementary amuse buche (below) arrives in the form of a cutting-board display of chilled sliced Arctic char, brown bread and long, skinny, picture-perfect red-and-white-striped radishes, mild and crunchy. Let the feast begin.We start with sweet onion soup poured over tangy goat cheese custard topped with frizzled mushrooms, a suave, deceptively simple dynamite interplay of taste and texture. Crispy lamb belly, the starter I like best, sounds a bit off-putting, but it proves to be both delicious and attractive, reminding me of the “pinwheel cookies” I used to make with vanilla and chocolate cookie dough rolled together, sliced and baked into spiral-imprinted cookies. Crispy lamb belly is made much the same way, with lightly slow-cooked lamb rolled, sliced into mignonettes and flash fried. Fluke tartare served with rhubarb, fennel and sliced green almonds shimmers on the plate. But the show-stopper is an egg, potato and truffle “Raviolo.”

I am familiar with this star turn that confident chefs like to perform to showcase their expertise, but I let our waiter do the explaining and he does a good job. Sparing the details, the end result is an extra-large raviolo stuffed with potato, truffles and an egg so lightly poached the yolk is still liquid. Can’t be done, my skeptic friends opine. But when the raviolo arrives, I pierce its pasta dough wrapper with the tip of a steak knife and golden egg yolk flows out. Voila! Pasta with sauce.Entrées are equally appealing. Wild salmon arrives perfectly medium-rare adorned with artichokes, black olives, roasted peppers and white bean broth. Porcelet—a tender, juicy, cut of pork, gently braised and served with cheddar-garlic grits and maitaki mushrooms—is richly rewarding. Goat cheese gnocchi with pea pesto, maitaki mushrooms and spring onions are the answer to a hungry vegetarian’s dream. Platings are attractive but not gaudy. Wow appeal is in the quality of the ingredients and the brilliance of the cooking. Rib-eye steak, for example, arrives in rosy medium-rare logs cut from the very best portion of the meat, without a hint of gristle or fat. Roast chicken for two, presented whole in all its golden glory, is so gorgeous it encourages fantasy. In mine, I see a long line of chickens auditioning to be chosen. Seemingly unadorned, this chicken tastes as good as it looks. The secret, I discover, is a dusting of minced herbs under the glistening skin.

Desserts are alluringly adult. No do-it-yourself s’mores here.

But no lack of intense flavors, either. The chocolate cake could double for fudge, crème brûlée comes with ginger rhubarb compote, and tangy orange blossom and passion fruit sorbet ends the meal on a high note.

Was everything perfect? Not quite. As the evening wore on and the room filled, the noise level rose to an annoying din. But where does it not when people are having a good time?

In essence, the White Hart dining room, as opposed to the pub, is less like dining in a restaurant and more like having a personal chef—one with an A-list of farm sources and the talent and passion to create an original recipe and presentation for every item on the short-list menu. A house party in the country. Let’s go! 

White Hart Inn

15 Under Mountain Rd., Salisbury, (860) 435-0030, whitehartinn.com

Dinner is served Fri. and Sat. from 6 to 9. Price range: appetizers $9 to $14; entrées $24 to $38; desserts $8 to $12. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards.

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