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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@worldnet.att.net.

New Jersey Restaurant Review

Perryville Inn
167 Perryville Road
Perryville, Hunterdon County, New Jersey
(908) 730-9500

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
10/10/2005

Paul and Lorraine Ingenito's Perryville Inn has long been considered a prime destination for those in search of a cozy dîner à deux. The Federal-style building boasts two dining areas: an original room dating from 1813 replete with huge stone fireplace and accoutrements appropriately rustic, and a larger, modern space offering two walls of windows that afford a lovely view of the restaurant's finely-manicured greenery. The Inn is the perfect setting for a gastronomic romantic rendezvous -- if you get the right table, that is.

On two separate occasions, our hostess (not Mrs. Ingenito, who often handles the hosting chores) plopped us down in circumstances that were about as conducive to romance as dining in a major outpost of the U.S. Postal Service several hours before the April 15th deadline for filing income taxes.

In the first instance, our party was seated in the homey 1813 room. This arrangement would have been perfectly acceptable, had it not been for the fact that the entirety of the larger dining area had been reserved for a surprise birthday bash. Hence, we had a bird's-eye view of the tumultuous arrival of various and sundry guests -- and they of us. It was somewhat akin to chowing down in Bloomingdale's front window. Then, as if to add insult to injury, sometime later the very same hostess seated parties on both sides of our table. Once again, this would have been fine... except that the two parties knew each other and spent a good deal of the evening engaged in spirited clamorous commutes.

During our second visit, my wife and I were escorted into the larger modern dining area. As it was early in the evening, only one table was occupied. And, you guessed it, with the entire room from which to choose, the hostess with the mostest seated us right next to the occupied table. Even more disconcerting, however, was the fact that we were situated in a direct line to the kitchen -- close enough to hear the doors to the nether regions creak with nauseating regularity and the sound of spirited chopping (the noise was so loud, it was actually discernible on my tape recording) and conversations from within... Ah, sweet romance...

Apart from the hostess, though, service here is both professional and personable and is perfectly exemplified in the gentleman who presides over the establishment's attractive diminutive bar. So feel free to unwind with one of the Inn's specialty martinis ($8.75) -- recently sampled, for instance, was a fabulously refreshing white watermelon martini -- and take a gander at the first-class wine list.

If you'd prefer to order by the glass, I can highly recommend the 2002 George Faiveley Bourgogne Blanc ($8.75), 2003 Dr. Loosen Riesling ($7.00), 2002 Aquinas Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.50), and 2002 Sterling Merlot ($8.00). Bottle-wise, try the lush 2002 Cambria "Katherine's Vineyard" Chardonnay ($36.00) or the incomparable 2001 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley ($65.00).

When contemplating the menu, it's helpful to bear in mind that Mr. Ingenito characterizes his modern American cuisine as "classic country." This is, indeed, an apt description, as presentations are generally quite robust in nature and several of the appetizers -- unless you happen to be gifted with a ravening appetite -- are certainly suitable for two persons.

... And the "Portobello Club ($9.50), a contemporary takeoff on the time-honored club sandwich, is surely a case in point. Mushroom caps are layered with roasted peppers, slices of Yukon gold potato, and herbed goat cheese; the "sandwich" is then quartered and anchored with sprigs of rosemary. A delightful and delicious presentation... but also quite prodigious.

A related concept is the special fried green tomato "BLT ($9.75). A tower of fried green and vine-ripened red and yellow Jerseys are interspersed with pancetta crisps, greens, and basil mayonnaise. A neat idea... but the green tomatoes were conspicuous by their absence; on a second go-round, however, they managed to make a miraculous reappearance.

Other ample appetizers include the grilled filet of lamb tenderloin ($10.75) and oven-dried tomato ravioli ($12.75). The former is comprised of luscious medium rare slices draped over a savory goat cheese pancake and surrounded by an invigorating red pepper coulis dotted with slivers of kalamata olives. The latter tempts the palate with tender pockets filled with sweet lobster meat arranged around an epicenter of angel hair pasta tossed with rock shrimp. Both, in my view, constitute the chef's finest efforts.

Among the entrées, the presentation of pan-seared filet mignon ($28.75) may be considered standard restaurant issue -- especially when accompanied by a stylized mound of whipped potatoes, haricots verts, and sautéed crimini mushrooms -- but the quality of the beef is superb. Boasting a cut-like-butter texture and remarkable depth of flavor, this is one of the best filets it has ever been my pleasure to ingest. The breast of Long Island duckling ($26.00) is also quite excellent. Rich, succulent slices adorn a provocative California fig and toasted almond tart and are consummated with a stone fruit relish and port wine reduction.

From the piscatorial perspective, the red snapper ($28.00) is a standout. The filet is beautifully prepared, moist and flaky, arranged on a seabed of wilted spinach, and crowned with a tiara of sweet jumbo lump crabmeat. The pizzazz is provided by a colorful circumscription of sherried lobster sauce.

Desserts, like many of the appetizers, are quite generous. And the chocoholics' sine qua non is most assuredly the retro "Ring Ding" ($8.50) -- layers of devil's food cake with white and dark chocolate mousse and chocolate ganache -- a delectably decadent culinary ode to the classic Drake's snack cake. The caramelized banana tart ($7.50) is also highly recommended, as is the almond lace cookie "cannoli" filled with citrus mascarpone and embellished with blackberry sauce ($7.50). Those who prefer a somewhat lighter touch in the sweet endings department would do well to treat themselves to the "palette" of house made seasonal fruit sorbets garnished with fresh berries and raspberry coulis ($7.50).

Despite the general overall quality of the cuisine, however, there remain a number of inexplicable and frustrating ghosts in the machine. The aforementioned strange case of the disappearing fried green tomatoes, for instance, or the obviously stale sourdough bread that should never have been allowed to make its way to table.

And there are also more serious issues: Apart from the aforementioned red snapper, finny creatures don't seem to fare terribly well. Halibut isn't a terribly exciting fish -- always in dire need of a persuasively puissant pick-me-up -- but the innocuous representative encountered here is strictly the bland-leading-the-bland. Served on a bed of angel hair pasta and surrounded by a sea of uninspiring lobster consommé, it is famine for both the eye and the palate ($26.00).

But the real culprit is the porcini powder-dusted George's Bank grey sole ($26.00). Set on an herb vinaigrette-infused mishmash of roasted fingerling potatoes, asparagus, and hen-of-the-wood mushrooms, the overall presentation is depressingly dark and brooding. And not only is the sole completely tasteless, its off-puttingly mushy consistency is sufficient to repulse the likes of a starving yak.

How a restaurant of this caliber can turn out something so utterly horrific is one of those unfathomable mysteries. Although, I harbor the suspicion that Mr. Ingenito may be spending a considerable amount of time at his new venture, the nearby Grand Colonial, perhaps leaving the kitchen in less accomplished hands.

The Perryville Inn has enjoyed a justifiable reputation for excellence precisely because of Mr. Ingenito's constant presence as the power behind the stove. I would humbly submit that patrons would be better served if he spent as much time romancing his old flame as he did courting his new love.

Cuisine: New American
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the bar and lounge only.
Reservations: Highly recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; extensive wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web site: http://www.theperryvilleinn.com.

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