Archive for the ‘fine dining’Category

Natalie’s celebrates lobster on its home waters

Shelby Stevens and Chris Long, co-chefs of Natalie's at the Camden Harbour Inn
Natalie’s co-chef Shelby Stevens is a Mainer, but she’s not from lobster country. She grew up in Farmington, an inland town where mountain timber meets upcountry lakes. But perched on the hillside over picturesque Camden harbor, Natalie’s occupies a prominent spot on the Times Square of Lobster Land. Roughly half of the state’s annual lobster catch—130 million pounds in 2016—is landed at Penobscot Bay ports. Stevens and her husband, co-chef Chris Long (pictured above in their official portrait), naturally developed an extensive repertoire of lobster fine-dining dishes to wow the guests at the tony Camden Harbour Inn (camdenharbourinn.com). When the crustacean is in season, Natalie’s offers a five-course tasting menu of four lobster dishes and a dessert as one of its menu options.

When we visited the Danforth Inn in Portland for the Natalie’s popup in March, David ordered the lobster tasting. It’s easy to go gaga for lobster, as it’s a luxury ingredient. But many years ago, David was a Maine lobsterman and, as it will, familiarity bred contempt. We figured that any chefs who could overcome David’s blasé attitude about lobster were doing something right.

Stevens and Long won a convert. They have put a lot of thought into their lobster dishes. Many are classics of European fine dining given a modern presentation. Others are true originals in the spirit of the classics.

Drawing from the nearby sea and woods


As they enter their fifth season at the Camden Harbour Inn, Stevens and Long have set down culinary roots. Their menus speak with a local accent because many of the ingredients are either caught or foraged in the immediate environment.

“Our next-door neighbor is a lobsterman,” Stevens says. He also brings them a lot of his bycatch—mostly sweet Atlantic rock crab, aka “peeky-toe crab”—that they cook at home. “He’s really proud of his shellfish,” Stevens notes. Maine lobster is in season, even now, thanks to the Monhegan Island lobstermen. Finding ingredients to complement the crustaceans is more challenging, but the Natalie’s chefs were up to it.

lobster beet salad at Natalie's at the Camden Harbour Inn

Lobster and golden beet salad


Clever presentation made the first salvo in the lobster tasting menu a genuine surprise attack. The elegant salad was served with the crisp half round of bread (on the left) laid over it like a lobster shell . Smile one. Alternating wedges of red and golden beets and pieces of lobster claw created another visual joke. Smile two. Liberal use of Urfa pepper elevated the usually earthy beetroot into something more complex. Urfa is a moderately hot Turkish pepper with overtones of chocolate and a touch of smoke. It also produces a slightly rasping, puckery mouth feel like the tannins in red wine. That helps open up the otherwise unctuous quality of the fatty lobster claws and sweet beets. Smile three. Pairing beets and lobster isn’t common, but U.K. and Scandinavian chefs do it on occasion—usually in a heavier presentation. Kudos to Stevens and Long for keeping it light.

deconstructed lobster chowder from Natalie's at the Camden Harbor Inn

Deconstructed lobster chowder


There’s something inherently funny about chowder. Maybe it’s the look of the word, or the way we say it—as if we were already chewing the dish. Philosophically, deconstructed chowder is the ghost of that joke—an ironic rendering of what is typically the most straightforward food in the lexicon of New England eating. The biggest complaint about lobster chowder in most restaurants is that there’s too much chowder and not enough lobster.

As befits a deconstructed version, Natalie’s turns that upside down with a heap of claw and knuckle meat atop the fine dice of onion, celery, and (we think) parsnip. The decorative squid rings on top are a nice nod to the other seafood that usually finds its way into chowder. The actual “chowder” was more a velouté based on shellfish stock and thickened with butter and cream. If there had not been more courses coming, we might have asked for more chowder.

poached lobster bisque at Natalie's at the Camden Harbour Inn

Poached lobster bisque


Any restaurant that serves a lot of composed lobster dishes has mounds of lobster carcasses and bits and pieces of shell left over from the prep process. The classic French response to all this chitinous material kicking around is to throw it in a stew pot with a mirepoix of onions, celery, and carrots. Simmer for hours, and strain, strain, strain to get a gorgeous lobster stock. Add heavy cream, sherry, and some cooked lobster, and Voila! You have lobster bisque. This version is a little more complex, and we suspect Madeira pinch-hit for sherry. (Several other dishes used Madeira as well.) It was also laced with spicy Urfa chile pepper. The ultra-rich bisque with a side of shredded lobster, some greens, and paper-thin slices of pickled Jerusalem artichoke made a nice interlude.

Lobster with fennel and seaweed at Natalie's at the Camden Harbor Inn

Butter-poached and grilled lobster


After three dishes with claw and knuckle meat, it was time for the tail. The meat was simultaneously buttery and smoky, so we’re guessing it might have been first grilled, then removed from the shell and poached in butter. Judging by their recipes, Stevens and Long sometimes cook lobster in pieces. It’s a logistical nightmare in the kitchen but allows them to cook the tails less than the claws or body. That keeps the proteins in these long-fiber muscles from overcooking. In other words, they stay tender.

Lobster heated in butter is always good, but to make it into a fine-dining dish, the chefs pulled out all the stops. It was paired with finely shaved raw fennel, placed on a cooked fennel purée, topped with a piece of salty-cracker crisped seaweed, and arranged in peekaboo fashion beneath a cloud of seaweed foam. All that made for a great visual presentation. Better yet, the elements came together nicely in the mouth.

One final note: We enjoyed some terrific wine pairings by the new sommelier at the Danforth Inn, Ryan Eberlein. Working with a wine cellar built for Southeast Asian and Indonesian cuisine, he plucked some amazing, often obscure wines that complemented dishes perfectly. Perhaps observing the chefs’ fondness for Madeira, he paired the final lobster dish with a Verdelho—the principle grape of Madeira. It happens to make amazingly complex, zesty white table wine when grown in Australia. The Mollydooker 2016 Violinist had a crisp lemon and lime palate followed by the flavors of ripe pineapple and lychee. It couldn’t have been better if it had been grown for the dish.

08

04 2017

Popping into Portland’s Danforth for Natalie’s popup

Danforth Inn exterior in Portland, Maine
With nine handsome rooms in an 1823 Federal mansion, Portland’s Danforth Inn (danforthinn.com) is a nifty hideaway in Maine’s biggest city. That’s what hoteliers Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest, owners of the Camden Harbour Inn (camdenharbourinn.com), had in mind when they purchased the Danforth in 2014. Their extensive upgrades included creating Tempo Dulu (tempodulu.restaurant), a fine-dining restaurant focused on Southeast Asian, Indonesian, and Malaysian cuisines. Chef Michael McDonnell recently got a few days off from riffing on rijsttafel. At the end of March, Tempo Dulu hosted a popup of Natalie’s (nataliesrestaurant.com), the Camden Harbour Inn’s gastronomic showcase. It was a homecoming of sorts. Natalie’s co-chefs Shelby Stevens and Chris Long were married at the Danforth last year. (That’s a picture of the dining room below.)

Stevens and Long serve a thoroughly modern New England cuisine. Their dishes are very seasonal and rely heavily on local ingredients. Both chefs trained at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. Stevens also worked under Daniel Boulud at Restaurant Daniel in New York. And Long was a kitchen leader under perfectionist Charlie Trotter at his eponymous Chicago restaurant. A stretch in San Francisco (“nothing beats the San Francisco farmer’s markets,” says Stevens) rounded out their fine dining influences. Both joined Natalie’s in 2013. In their first season, Long’s inventive treatment of the state’s signature crustacean won him the Maine Lobster Chef of the Year title. (We’ll post that recipe in a few days.)

Since we’re usually to be found eating at Waterman’s Beach Lobster when we’re anywhere near Camden, we thought we’d take advantage of the late March popup to sample Midcoast Maine’s fine dining leader. In summer, the chefs draw extensively from the Camden Harbour Inn’s kitchen garden. They also rely heavily on local foragers, and we wondered they would do in mud season.

Dining room in Danforth Inn, in Portland, Maine

What’s local in Maine right now?


Maine overflows with corn, blueberries, tomatoes, and heaps of lobster in the summer. In late March, not so much. Part of the fun of eating the Natalie’s dishes was seeing how the chefs used the current provender and found ways to incorporate preserved provisions. To that end, one of us ate the tasting menu described below. We’ll talk about the lobster tasting menu in the next post.

Razor clams as hors d'oeuvres from Natalie'sBut we shared a plate of hors d’oevres that included two revelatory mini-dishes. Dark, lumpen roasted Jerusalem artichokes initially seemed unpromising, a kind of seasonal vegetable consolation prize. But they were stuffed with sweet foie gras that played perfectly against the earthiness of the tubers. The delicate razor clams were an even bigger surprise. Once relegated to the category of “bait” by most denizens of the Penobscot Bay, the Atlantic jackknife clam (to keep from confusing it with the Pacific razor clam) has been making a culinary comeback in recent years. It is milder and more tender than a quahog. Finely sliced and drenched with yuzu juice, it made a ceviche that was a great palate opener for both tasting menus.

fried Maine oyster from Natalie'si

Fried Maine oyster with osetra caviar


The seven course tasting menu started off with a real bite of Maine. The chefs served a plump local oyster (Damariscotta, we’re guessing) with all its flavor sealed inside a crisp crust. Little black pearls of osetra caviar tumbled off the top from beneath fronds of microgreens. The rich mouthful swam in a pool of buttery oyster velouté almost rich enough to be a bisque.

Two more plates followed—truffle-scented panna cottas on a purée of caramelized onion and a rather traditional French flounder-wrapped crab with grapefruit and lobster bisque.

frilled maitake from Natalie's

Grilled maitake evokes taste of the woods


Serving a trio of “entrée” dishes was a nice touch in a tasting menu. The triplet began with the flounder-crab dish and ended with a perfectly grilled piece of farm-raised ribeye steak with a black garlic demiglace.

The surprise came in between. “Maitake,” as Japanese mushroom farmers call it, has become all the rage in fine-dining restaurants. Mainers know it as “hen of the woods,” so-called because it looks like a chicken with all its feathers fluffed up. The clumping mushroom grows on decaying main roots of hardwoods like oak, maple, beech, and birch. It’s widely distributed in northern New England and clumps can reach up to 30 pounds. Its “leaves” have no gills (it spreads its white spores through tiny pores), so they are very meaty and perfect for grilling.

The grilled mushroom perched atop a mushroom risotto. It was drizzled with a Madeira emulsion. Shavings of P’tit Basque ewe’s milk cheese played up the earthiness of the hen of the woods—one of the rare mushrooms that keeps very well in the freezer for cooking all winter.

The table was too dark to capture an image, but the Natalie’s cheese course was another unexpected surprise. Rather than just another plate of cheese, it consisted of an open-faced caramelized onion tart oozing with melted Vermont raclette cheese. It was described as a tarte tatin, but the crust was more bread than pastry and apples were nowhere to be seen. It was closer to an Alsatian flammeküche. By whatever name, it was a great way to present a cheese course.

orange blossom panna cotta from Natalie's

Something sweet (and complex)


The tasting menu dessert was big and complex, incorporating roasted butternut squash and chocolate ice creams along with candied pecans. After six other courses and assorted intermezzos, we wished we could have saved the big finish for another night. The perfect ending for a large meal was the dish presented as a pre-dessert (pictured above). The small jiggle of orange blossom panna cotta, pictured above, was flecked with ground black pepper and topped with a tart dot of lemon curd. It sat on a rhubarb sauce with small bits of citrusy Buddha’s hand fruit and itty-bitty but peppery nasturtium leaves on top.

And it tasted every bit as good as it looks.

05

04 2017

Oceania’s ‘Marina’ features fine dining five ways

Grand dining room on Oceania's Marina
Experienced cruisers expect a Grand Dining Room—and that’s exactly what Oceania Cruises (oceaniacruises.com) calls its spacious and glittering Continental dining venue. It has the requisite fine linens and crystal chandeliers. A full armada of water and wine glasses gleam on the tables. The menu borrows a little from Italy and a lot from France. It includes a few Jacques Pepin signature bistro dishes (steak-frites, roast chicken, poached salmon). Or diners can go fancier with lobster bisque and venison medallions. The menu even proffers spa-inspired “healthy living choices,” such as steamed artichokes, chicken consommé, and simple roasted fish. In short, there’s a little something for everyone in a very pleasant and lively room with excellent service. Although the GDR is larger than most other restaurants on board the Marina, it is only one of many fine dining choices.

Jacques aboard Oceania Marina

Dinner with a French accent at Jacques

Although he consults to the entire Oceania dining program, Jacques Pepin’s personal stamp is most pronounced in the restaurant that bears his name. Jacques serves what might be called the greatest hits of French cuisine, from baked escargots with garlic butter or foie gras terrine with candied black cherries to bouillabaisse or baked onion soup topped with stringy Gruyère. The classic preparation of Dover sole makes superb dinner theater—the waiter fillets it tableside before serving. The dessert menu is a delectable class in French pronunciation: baba au rhum, pot de crème, mousse au chocolat, tarte au pommes, and—of course—crème brûlée a la lavande.

Photographing the lobster at Toscana on Oceania Marina

Mangiare come un italiano at Toscana

The menu at Toscana is nominally Tuscan, but the kitchen balances the Tuscan grill with a choice of no less than ten pastas. They are all beautifully executed in generous portions, making them suitable as secondi instead of primi. The risottos (asparagus or lobster) arrive with the rice slightly soupy and al dente. (Bravo!) The grilled veal chop with wild mushrooms is a quintessential representation of the Tuscan countryside. One of the most popular dishes at Toscana (besides the incredible breads) is the lobster fra diavolo served over fresh tagliolini. Presentation is so striking that even in the romantically low light, it’s hard to resist taking a photo (above).

Polo Grill on Oceania Marina

Polo Grill celebrates American steakhouse

The steakhouse is possibly North America’s greatest contribution to the worldwide constellation of restaurant types. Polo Grill is arguably better than many steakhouses found back on land. It serves generously cut and perfectly cooked beef, veal, and lamb. (Three people at our table one night ordered filet mignon—one medium rare, one medium, and one medium well. They arrived at the table exactly cooked, which is no mean feat since meat keeps cooking between kitchen and table.) Polo also has the full range of rich salads—Caesar prepared at the table among them.

Beet appetizer at Polo Grill on Oceania Marina

But Polo truly excels in the attention paid to sides and appetizers. The napoleon of roasted beet layered with garlic goat cheese and dressed with a Champagne and truffle vinaigrette (above) was a work of art that tasted as good as it looked. Side dishes even included lobster mac and cheese. Huge porterhouse steaks are a big hit at Polo, but it seemed like every table had at least one person wearing a bib and a satisfied smile while tucking into an entire steamed Maine lobster.

Red Ginger dining room on Oceania Marina

Red Ginger conjures flavors of East Asia

All the specialty restaurants can be booked by advance reservation, and some passengers make those reservations when they buy their cruise tickets. As a result, Red Ginger is one of the hardest reservations to score aboard the Marina. With glittering gold walls, a proliferation of shiny lacquer, and the dramatic spot lighting, it is also perhaps the most glam of the shipboard dining rooms. The sharing plate of appetizers called “Skewers, Sushi, and Tempura” sets the pan-Asian tone for the menu. It’s easy to mix a Southeast Asian spicy duck and watermelon salad with a second starter of Japanese tuna tataki, as shown below.

Red Ginger plates on Oceania Marina

The main courses at Red Ginger are similarly international. They range from rib-eye beef prepared as Korean bulgogi to a roasted rack of lamb rubbed with seven spices. The lobster that’s such a big hit in Polo, Toscana, and even Jacques, makes a cameo at Red Ginger as lobster pad Thai. The tamarind and lime make it sweet and tart at the same time—an excellent way to treat the rich flavor of lobster. One of the culinary classes focuses on Red Ginger favorites. The lobster pad Thai recipe below is exactly as it’s taught.

Lobster pad Thai at Red Ginger on Oceania Marina

LOBSTER PAD THAI


Serves 2

Ingredients

For sauce

1/4 cup tamarind juice
2 tablespoons each palm sugar, fish sauce, nam prik pao (Thai chili-garlic paste), and creamy peanut butter
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon ginger juice

For pad Thai

2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons ginger juice
1/4 cup scallions, thinly sliced on diagonal
1/4 cup leeks, thinly sliced on diagonal
1 cup lobster pieces
2 eggs, beaten
4 cups rice noodles, softened
1/2 cup bean sprouts
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
4 lime wedges
1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts

Directions

Whisk together all the sauce ingredients until smooth. If needed, thin with warm water. Reserve.

Line up the ingredients in order, with 1/2 cup of the prepared sauce between the eggs and the noodles.

In a wok over high, heat the peanut oil. When the oil is hot, begin adding the garlic, ginger, scallions and leeks to the wok in sequence. Use two spatulas and continuously toss to cook evenly and keep ingredients from burning at high heat. Slide the vegetables up the sides of the wok and sear the lobster. Slide the lobster up the sides of the wok and add the egg to scramble.

When the egg is just cooked, bring back the vegetables and lobster and add the ½ cup of the sauce, noodles and bean sprouts. Using the spatulas, gently toss the ingredients to cover them with sauce, adding more if needed, being careful not to break the noodles. When heated through, divide among two serving dishes. Finish with the sesame oil, lime wedges and peanuts.

24

03 2017

Eat, drink, and be merry in New Orleans at the holidays

New Orleans is always ready for the holidays
As a New Englander, I always secretly pitied people who had to celebrate Christmas in a warm climate. But after one day in New Orleans, I realized the error of my ways. Even in December, potted trees and ferns flourish on wrought iron balconies and poinsettias and camellias bloom profusely. All it takes are a few red bows and some twinkling white lights to deck the city for the holidays.

With decorating out of the way, New Orleanians can spend more time at the table. Great food is a city birthright and I can’t think of another place where you can eat better—or at a more reasonable price—than New Orleans at Christmas.

Until the Civil War, Creole families enjoyed lavish feasts after Mass on Christmas Eve and again on New Year’s Eve. Today’s chefs have improved on that tradition. Now more than 50 restaurants—including many of the city’s best—offer four-course, fixed-price Reveillon menus throughout the holiday season. (See holiday.neworleansonline.com for a full list.) The term “Reveillon” refers to a late night meal. But today’s diners don’t have to wait until after midnight to feast. Moreover, they can choose between contemporary cooking or the city’s signature Creole cuisine, which blends French technique, African tradition, and Spanish spices. Reveillon menus are almost evenly divided between the two.

Tujague's is the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans

Celebrate at venerable Tujague’s

For tradition, it’s hard to beat Tujague’s (823 Decatur Street, 504-525-8676, www.tujaguesrestaurant.com). Founded in 1856 by immigrants from Bordeaux, Tujague’s is the second oldest restaurant in the city. The long wooden bar in the front room was brought from France that same year. The bar is a lively place for a drink, but the dining room with historic photos on the walls is a better choice for a leisurely meal. The Reveillon menu hits on many of the city’s classics. Fresh local seafood finds its way into bacon-wrapped oysters en brochette or crawfish and goat cheese crepes. One of the entree choices is Chicken Pontalba, a city favorite featuring a chicken breast on a bed of crunchy fried potato cubes, ham, and mushrooms—all topped with Béarnaise sauce, that piquant daughter of Hollandaise.

Making Café Brûlot at Arnaud's

Drink to the season at Arnaud’s

Tujague’s was into its seventh decade when Arnaud’s (813 Bienville Street, 504-523-5433, www.arnaudsrestaurant.com) was founded in 1918 by a French wine salesman. An attention to fine libations has always been part of the Arnaud’s experience. The best way to start a Reveillon dinner is with a French 75 cocktail: cognac and lemon juice topped with champagne. Menu choices usually include a version of Arnaud’s signature dish of shrimp in remoulade sauce. (Made with mayonnaise, Creole mustard, paprika, chopped pickle, and a slew of spices, Arnaud’s remoulade is the standard by which all Creole versions of the French sauce are measured.) The most satisfying and dramatic way to end a meal is with a cup of Café Brûlot. The mix of black coffee, lemon and orange rinds, cinnamon sticks, and orange Curaçao is prepared tableside and flamed with brandy (above).

Filet Wellington at Broussard's

Broussard’s strikes French pose

Broussard’s (819 Conti Street, 504-581-3866, broussards.com) was founded in 1920 by chef Joseph Broussard, who merged his classical Parisian training with the flavors and flair of Creole cuisine. Still located in a mansion owned by his wife’s family, Broussard’s is formal enough to make a meal feel special and casual enough to make diners relax. The Reveillon menu includes such classics as Creole Turtle Soup—a rich, almost gumbo-like soup always topped with sherry—and such celebratory dishes as Filet Wellington accompanied by blue cheese puff pastry and wild mushrooms. Broussard’s also served my favorite dessert of my Reveillon dining: peppermint stick panna cotta topped with chocolate ganache, a few raspberries and a dab of whipped cream. (Next post will have a recipe!)

appetizer sampler at Tableau

Tableau makes holiday stage set

The latest venture from Dickie Brennan (a scion of New Orleans’ dominant restaurant family) is Tableau (616 St. Peter Street, 504-934-3463, www.tableaufrenchquarter.com). Brennan purchased part of the Jackson Square property of the historic Le Petit Theatre (www.lepetittheatre.com), renovated the building and created a contemporary restaurant with an open kitchen in the main dining room. The renovated theater space presents all manner of performing events. Tableau is a great spot for a pre-theater dinner or for dining on a balcony overlooking Jackson Square on a warm evening. It’s also a perfect place to enjoy a contemporary interpretation of time-honored Creole cuisine.

Chef John Martin makes the most of local products. His rich Gulf Oyster Stew, which gets a sassy anise hit from Pernod, comes topped with a Southern black pepper biscuit. His mixed grill of Gulf pompano and Gulf shrimp (with a side of roasted root vegetables) pops to life on a base of citrus gastrique and satsuma gazpacho.

The inventive pairings certainly give diners a lot to talk about. In fact, wherever you choose to eat, expect to be drawn into conversation with diners at neighboring tables. The holiday season only enhances New Orleanians’ gregarious nature and the Reveillon menus are such a good deal that many locals dine out as often as possible in December.

Belfast holidays close out Year of Food and Drink

Belfast City Hall at holidays

With no Thanksgiving to break up the autumn, folks in Northern Ireland start looking ahead to Christmas as soon as Halloween is over. That doesn’t mean that Belfast lacks for reasons to give thanks. With all its occasional rough spots, Northern Ireland has enjoyed nearly a generation of peace since the Good Friday Peace Accord of 1998. The Peace Wall (below) has become a huge tourist attraction.

At the Peace Wall in Belfast Belfast has blossomed as a cosmopolitan, sophisticated city proud of its Irish roots. Nowhere is the renaissance more obvious than on the gastronomic front. Ireland north and south spent 2016 celebrating the island’s great provender, amazing farmers, and legendary fishermen during the Year of Food and Drink.

fish supplier in BelfastBelfast’s chefs have broadly embraced that renewed local pride, and menus across the city proclaim the provenance of every meal’s raw materials. That focus on fresh and local has meant an auspicious year for Belfast’s food and drink scene, including stronger international recognition. Walk through the restaurant neighborhoods early in the morning, and you encounter vans delivering sides of dry-aged beef, huge sacks of newly dug potatoes, or some of the world’s prettiest salmon.

Great dining bargains

Bread and soup at Vin Cafe in Belfast When the Michelin stars were announced last spring, Belfast gained a second starred restaurant, Ox, to complement Michael Deane’s Eipic. Many of the city’s best chefs, Deane included, have complemented their fine dining with more casual spots where it’s possible to get a bargain lunch or pre-theater dinner. For example, the parsnip soup and wheaten bread lunch here was a weekday special at Deane’s Vin Cafe (44 Bedford St., 028 9024 8830, www.michaeldeane.co.uk/vin-cafe). It cost a measly £5. (The glass of rosé was £5.50, but it was worth it.) As visiting Americans, we enjoyed the additional advantage of a weak post-Brexit-vote pound—about $1.25 to £1.

As Belfast celebrates its local foods, many of the city’s best restaurants are also drawing up special holiday menus for the Christmas season. It’s a great time to eat in Northern Ireland’s capital city. In the upcoming posts, we’ll be outlining some places to go and tastes to enjoy. To explore a little online, be sure to see www.ireland.com.

19

11 2016

Lincoln Inn emerges as Vermont’s gourmet destination

Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont
The Lincoln Inn in Woodstock is among the most European of the little inns in Vermont, and not just because chef Jevgenija Saromova hails from Latvia. She and innkeeper partner Mara Mehlman describe the property as a “restaurant with rooms.” That’s a model common in the European countryside, and often signals great dining. Think, for example, of Maison Troisgros, one of the pioneers of modern French cuisine.

Woodstock isn’t Roanne, of course, and Jevgenija Saromova (or Chef Saromova, as she prefers) isn’t Jean or Pierre Troisgros. Not yet, anyway. But she has impressive classical culinary credentials and a personal style unique in northern New England. She worked in top restaurants in Italy, France, and England before joining Mehlman in Vermont. The two women have applied the model of the French “auberge” to an 1875 farmhouse with six charming, carefully decorated rooms and green lawns that roll down to the Ottauquechee River.

Innkeeper Mara Mehlman of the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont A native Californian, Mara first dreamed of living in Vermont when she took a Vermont foliage bicycle tour. Years later, she purchased the property, thoroughly renovated the building, and re-opened the inn rooms in July 2014. It became a gastronomic destination when Chef Saromova arrived from England a few months later. The women clearly love Vermont—skiing in the winter, kayaking in the summer—but they have no intention of replicating traditional New England fare.

“We’re not about maple syrup and cheddar cheese,” says Mara. “This is fine dining.”

Chef Saromova explains. “I don’t like boring food plates,” she says. “I like to combine textures and flavors.”

Refined Dining


Chef Jevgenija Saromova of the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, VermontChef Saromova spent nearly two decades as a member or leader of a kitchen brigade, but she works alone in the Lincoln Inn kitchen. Every dish is created to her taste and executed precisely as she envisions it. In effect, every diner gets the personal attention of the master chef. During most of the year, the restaurant serves a four-course prix fixe dinner Thursday through Sunday, with a more casual tavern night on Wednesdays. During foliage season, nights for dinner increase and tavern night goes on hiatus. The four-course meals—$55 per person—are gourmet pleasures. The menu changes daily. True to Chef Saromova’s word, it’s anything but boring. The Inn at Woodstock and other area lodgings send their foodie guests here for the full-blown fine-dining experience—complete with an excellent and surprising wine list.

Paul Newman Dining Room at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont In addition to the main dining room tables, one party per evening can book the Chef’s Table for a seven- or twelve-course tasting menu. Some of the plates are variations of those on the four-course menu, while others include specialized or especially precious ingredients. The Chef’s Table is served in the Paul Newman dining room (left). Newman and his family used to vacation here and a previous owner enclosed a side porch as their private dining room. One diner at the table faces a photograph of Newman in his prime, and some ladies have been known to fantasize that they were having dinner with the actor. We enjoyed a seven-course meal that ranks as one of the most memorable we’ve eaten stateside in a long time. Each course demonstrated another aspect of the chef’s ability to exploit taste and texture combinations for yet another striking composition.

Gazpacho served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Chilled Gazpacho and Olive Tapenade Crostini


Chef Saromova grows her own kitchen garden in the river bottom land behind the inn. Despite this year’s drought, she had good crops of tomatoes. Her take on chilled gazpacho is especially sweet from both the tomatoes and the roasted red peppers. It also has just a hint of red onion. The saltiness of methodically hand-pitted ripe olives (Kalamata and Niçoise by the taste) in the tapenade brings out the fresh vegetable flavors, while the paper-thin crostini give visual interest to the composition of the dish and a satisfying crunch. The dish was reveille for the taste buds: Fall in and stand at attention.

Lobster served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Lobster and Mascarpone-Enriched Orzo


Butter-poached lobster tail is a classic of French haute cuisine. The technique demands a low temperature to keep the butter from browning. Lobster cooked this way is more tender than boiled or steamed. Orzo and chopped mild greens mixed with a judicious bit of mascarpone form a presentation base for the lobster meat. The sweetness of the cheese calls the lobster’s sweetness to the fore.

Sea bass and scallop served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Sea Bass and Seared Scallops


Neither sea bass nor scallops strike any diner as unusual, but Chef Saromova’s approach to serving them together as a fish course speaks volumes about her classical training and her command of technique. The sea bass—striped bass, in this case, rather than more conventional farmed sea bass—is roasted in a persillade. Traditionally, persillade is a chopped parsley and garlic preparation that most chefs use throughout a meal. This version was light on the garlic and included enough mustard and breadcrumbs that it sealed in juices of this sometimes dry fish. The scallop was perfectly seared—just barely cooked through. For contrast, the sea bass came with stewed black-eyed peas. The legumes emphasize the meatiness of the fish. The scallop sat on a pasta-like salad of thin strips of cucumber and white radish lightly dressed with champagne vinegar—sharp flavors that highlight the scallop’s delicacy.

beet and goat cheese salad served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Beet, Goat Cheese, Granita Salad


The photo above doesn’t really do justice to this inventive salad where so many things were happening on the plate. The slices of red and yellow beet (left side) were sweet and delicious. They paired nicely with fresh lettuce leaves and a slice of soft goat cheese. The pomegranate-orange granita, however, elevated everything with a tart punch. The pickled cherry was, well, the cherry on top. The “dust” on the plate was dehydrated beet that had been pulverized in a blender. It was a pretty touch. The salad completely refreshed our palates before the meat courses began.

Filet and escargot served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Filet Mignon, Ravioli, and Escargot/Oyster Fricasee


This dish is an embarrassment of riches. Fortunately, each of the premium ingredients was restricted to a small portion. The raviolo atop the small piece of perfectly cooked, perfectly salted filet mignon was filled with an explosive mix of truffle and foie gras—pretty much an orgy of umami. Surprisingly, the oyster shell filled with a fricassee of escargot and oyster was equally dark, savory, and garlicky. Even more surprising, the snails were juicy and tender. (Face it—snails are usually rubbery.) The sweet potato purée provided a contrast of smooth and sweet to chewy and meaty. It was a brilliant dish.

Lamb two ways served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Lamb Chop and Smoked Lamb Breast


Lamb two ways is another Escoffier classic, but Chef Saromova’s variant is pure Vermont country. The lamb chop here is cut from a roasted rack. It was perfect. The second lamb dish was the breast—or brisket. She boned, rolled, and tied it up with string. After brining it for 20 hours, she cold-smoked with cherry chips for two hours, and braised it six hours until it was falling apart. As if the meats weren’t unctuous enough, Chef Saromova served them with figs poached in port wine. The little “berries” are actually balsamic glaze mixed with agar-agar and olive oil, then frozen so that they form little beads of explosive flavor. It’s just proof that such touches predate so-called molecular cuisine.

Chocolate delice served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Chocolate and Fruit


Chef Saromova clearly favors creamy desserts. The chocolate delice—essentially a chocolate terrine with cookie crumb base and chocolate icing—is the ostensible star of this plate. The “bars” are a champagne and strawberry terrine. The flavor favors the wine over the fruit. By contrast, the strawberry sorbet tastes more intensely of strawberry than most fresh strawberries do. Capping it all off, the sweetened vanilla yogurt has a skin that makes it explode in the mouth.

Coffee, anyone?

Lincoln Inn & Restaurant at the Covered Bridge, 2709 W. Woodstock Rd., Woodstock, VT 05091; 802-457-7052; www.lincolninn.com.