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
Handicapped Accessible: Yes