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Inn at Millrace Pond
313 Johnsonburg Road
Hope, Warren County, New Jersey
(908) 459-4884

August 4, 2010

I'm not saying that a recent dinner at the Inn at Millrace Pond was the worst meal it has ever been my displeasure to ingest... but it was damn close. In point of fact, it was right up there -- most assuredly in the top five of gastronomic gaffes I'd like to forget.

And this is an incredible tragedy, as the setting is a study in bucolic bliss. Set on a hillside in the picturesque Village of Hope, the Inn incorporates three buildings with seventeen distinctive guest accommodations and charmingly rustic dining facilities.

The main focus of attention is the former gristmill, a landmark limestone building constructed between 1769 and 1770, where a massive stone wall and exposed posts & beams bask in the flickering candlelight of the formal dining room. Directly below is the more casual "Tavern" boasting an enormous walk-in fireplace, grain chute, and assorted memorabilia spanning the structure's almost 200-year history as a working mill.

When I first reviewed this restaurant -- nearly a decade ago -- it had just settled down after engaging in a spirited (and detrimental) version of "Musical Chefs." Victor Dias, who had risen up through the ranks, was the power behind the stove and had the traditional Continental/American fare well in hand.

However, about three years ago, Bill Kirkhuff and his partner, innkeeper Jonathan Teed, acquired the property; and chef Darin Deacon took over the reins in the kitchen. I'm not quite sure what transpired... But while the welcome is warm, even warmer than under the previous administration, and the service helpful and competent -- our waitress was extraordinarily pleasant -- the food sampled was very nearly beneath contempt.

Let's begin with the "Drunken Mussels." The broth, spiked with bourbon and butter, was a good deal beyond funky in countenance. In addition, it was a sea of broken shells, so every mouthful was something of an adventure. As for the bivalves themselves... Well, my wife, who freely confesses that she could live on mussels, declared them considerably less than desirable; and I agreed -- in spades.

Then, of course, there was the retro wedge, a chunk of iceberg lettuce with bleu cheese dressing and crumbled Maytag bleu cheese. The problem I've often found with similar presentations is that restaurants are often rather skimpy on the dressing. Not so here... The wedge was smothered -- and I do mean smothered -- in dressing and cheese. So much so that I couldn't take more than a few bites before my taste buds gave up the ghost. Too much richness... Too much creaminess... Too much of too much. And when I finally made my way through to the greenery, it was definitely on the tired side.

But what was a turnoff for the taster proved to be an eyesore as well. Every variation of the retro wedge that I've encountered has included diced tomatoes and crumbled bacon... not only to provide an infusion of contrasting flavors and textures but also a much needed splash of color. The Inn's version, however, treated the diner to no such luxuries. The presentation was an unmitigated, unappetizing "whiteout," a free-floating miniature iceberg (if you'll pardon the pun) with absolutely no appeal to the eye... and even less to the palate.

Entrées demonstrated little or no improvement over their predecessors. The Mediterranean ravioli, one of the restaurant's so-called "Specialties," really wasn't very special at all... downright generic, at best. And its filling -- spinach, mushrooms, and Romano cheese -- tasted as if it owed its genesis to the local supermarket's frozen food case.

The real culprit, though, was the chicken piccata, a relatively simple dish but one that is always a good test of the kitchen's mettle (as numerous things may easily go awry)... and this kitchen failed miserably.

The chicken breast was slightly overcooked but still acceptable... No, it was the sauce (a combo of white wine, butter, lemon juice, and capers) that provided the kiss of death. It was inordinately viscous -- name your favorite thickener -- and horrendously salty. The capers (perhaps not adequately rinsed) may have contributed slightly to this state of affairs; but it was obvious that the chef or one of his gofers had run amuck with the salt shaker... The accompanying snow peas were crisp & crunchy, just as they should have been -- but incredibly oily; and the dollop of gloppy mashed potatoes added absolutely nothing to the occasion. Certainly not the kitchen's finest hour.

Due to circumstances beyond our control, we were committed to return to the Inn for lunch the following day. My wife had made arrangements to meet an old friend, and it was too late to change the venue at the last minute. I was hoping against hope that the lunch menu's simple, straightforward fare would prove more palatable... unfortunately, this was not the case.

My wife's chopped salad -- greens gussied up with cranberries, walnuts, cheddar, onions, raisins, and apples -- had too much going on for its own good; and the yogurt dressing was too liberally applied and off-puttingly acidic. My grilled chicken "burger" wasn't a burger at all but a dry, overcooked chicken breast sequestered beneath an overdose of bacon and cheddar. The only redeeming feature: a mini side of first-rate potato salad.

The highlight of two meals proved to be the warm berry cobbler. It exhibited just the proper amount of sweet/tart fruit, just the proper texture, and generous dollops of vanilla ice cream provided just the proper embellishment. If only other items had measured up to its wholesome simplicity.

In addition to the quality (or lack thereof) of the cuisine, there were other tip-offs that all was not as it should have been. First of all, we were the only patrons in the dining room for the majority of the evening. Not a good sign. In the immortal words of food critic Jim Quinn: "Never eat in an empty restaurant. Everybody who isn't there must know something you don't." Despite the absence of other diners, however, items took an inordinate amount of time to make their way from kitchen to table.

Secondly, the wine list, (sans vintages), which had been quite good at one time, is now a mere shadow of its former self. I ordered an Italian Pinot Grigio from Livio Felluga, which turned out to be a 2007... It was completely over the hill. I sent it back and then chose a Pouilly-Fuisse from Louis Jadot. Our server disappeared for an extended period of time. When she returned, she apologetically told us there were no chilled bottles of that particular wine... My third choice was a Pouilly-Fumé from Michel Redee, which, thankfully, managed to arrive without a hitch.

Taken together, all of the above faux pas are symptomatic of an establishment that simply doesn't have its act together. Under the previous proprietorship, the Inn at Millrace Pond was an excellent place to dine. The food was never cutting edge, but the quality was impeccable and it was carefully prepared & attractively presented. That, in my opinion, is not now the case.

I have no doubt that the Inn may very well be able to survive hosting corporate gigs, weddings, banquets, and other large party functions... However, if the current owners wish to continue the tradition of fine dining here, they must be prepared to make some immediate changes... beginning with the cuisine.

Cuisine: Dining Room: Traditional American/Continental; Tavern: Casual Fare
Hours: Lunch: Daily, 11:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.; Dinner: Sun - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Accepted
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.innatmillracepond.com

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