Flavor: Continental with regional American influences
Ambiance: Appalachian elegance
Service: Attentive but unobtrusive
On a recent foray to Flat Rock, my Picky Companion and I checked in for dinner at the Woodfield Inn. Driving into the place made for a good first impression, because the property is lovely. The grounds encompass 23 acres some wooded, some landscaped surrounded by an aura of romance and timelessness.
The inn, which was built in 1852 and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been lovingly restored. (Or, rather, it’s still being lovingly restored, if the nerve-rattling roar of the power sanders on the veranda was any indication.)
Once we were inside, the charming attendant at the front desk led us past the inn’s pub, where the flickering light from the fireplace and the warmth of the decor threatened to lure us away from our mission in the dining room. We walked through a fairly formal dining room with wide-planked wood floors and antiques to the “Garden Dining Room,” which was carpeted, painted in warm tones and graced with tall windows offering garden views.
The only thing that intruded on the atmosphere of peaceful elegance was the irritating sputter of a speaker in the corner, which incongruously churned out pop music from the 1950s. At one point, a Sinatra song offered some respite, but much of the time I had an urge to throw the speaker out the door.
For its part, the menu offered luxurious promises like Foie Gras Brioche with brandy-preserved local berries, Roasted Colorado Rack of Lamb “Persillade” with fava bean puree and port essence, veal, and two dishes that feature lobster. The Carolina Soft-Shell Crab Salad, with its local micro greens and blood orange/fennel vinaigrette, looked inviting, but when we asked him our server informed us that it was “too early in the season” for that dish.
I appreciated the waiter’s candor and ordered the Living Bibb salad instead. When it arrived, I was glad that I had. The leaves were tossed with a surprisingly mild blue cheese dressing, a delicious Stilton, tart apples and honey-toasted hazelnuts. A dish that one might expect to be boring was well-balanced and delicious; indeed, the salad would prove to be one of the high points of the meal.
Our waiter, whose style I had begun to admire, helped us along in our decision-making for the next course. “If I had my druthers,” he said, “I would have the wood-grilled prawn.” The appetizer, stuffed with lobster and lump crab and finished with a roasted garlic and basil aioli, did indeed look quite good.
We took his advice, and turned to the wine list. The restaurant offers a good assortment of mostly midpriced whites, though the list is decidedly red heavy, with a small assortment of very nice Spanish reds, some affordable but good-quality labels, and some high-end wines like the Viader Red from Napa Valley.
Though the menu offered half-bottles, only full ones were available during our visit. At first, this was a disappointment, but after we sampled the reasonably-priced Yalumba Viognier from Eden Valley, Australia, we were glad that we had a full bottle in front of us.
The prawns arrived quickly, and we were surprised by the massive size of the appetizer. Along with a generous portion of rice, fresh and crispy julienne vegetables, we were served two behemoth prawns that were butterflied and curled around a savory lobster-and-crab filling, and finished with a perfectly garlicky and herbaceous aioli and frizzled leeks. It was definitely an appetizer to split, as it was a meal-sized portion.
The overall effect was great; I nearly licked the plate clean of the aioli. Picky, for his part, thought it good, but “nothing incredible.”
He had a point. What was missing from the equation was the smokiness that one would expect from an item that is billed as “wood-grilled.” I looked for grill marks, and found only a light tan ghost of a line on the bottom of one of the prawns. Pity, as wood-grilling would have pushed the envelope for this dish, from simply “good” to something much more.
We selected two entrees: The European Butter-Poached Alaskan Halibut with rock shrimp/spinach crepes and celery root puree, and the pan-seared Maple Leaf Farm duck breast with wild mushroom and Bing cherry ragout.
Both dishes differed a bit from their descriptions on the menu. The halibut was indeed very tender, as one would expect from a poached dish. But it seemed that whatever had been done to the fish to cook it was a bit more aggressive than gently poaching it in fat and liquid, because the outside of the halibut was browned as though pan-seared. Though the end result was quite good, it was not what I expected.
The duck breast, garnished with an unwieldy but beautifully fragrant lavender branch from the inn’s garden, was cooked perfectly medium-rare, as requested. But the “wild mushroom and Bing cherry ragout” turned out to be quartered cremini mushrooms with dried cherries. Still, the flavors meshed quite well with the 2003 Hartford Coast Pinot Noir that our server suggested, and the accompanying vegetables a handful of especially dainty haricots verts and a couple of tender, whole baby carrots were obviously cooked with reverence. (Picky Companion remarked that his gratin was “dry and too cheesy,” but I thought it was decent.)
After our meal, we retreated to the pub, a cozy, inviting little spot staffed by an immensely amiable bartender who reminded me a bit of the actor Owen Wilson. As we sat at the polished wood bar bathed in a warm fire-glow, we learned that the inn was under the relatively new ownership of a youngish couple, Eric and Jodi Myers.
These facts led me to consider that the Woodfield Inn, which has hosted guests for more than 150 years, is perhaps in a transitional period, a new becoming, of sorts. Any shortcomings at our dinner seemed to be rooted in how the restaurant’s execution sometimes fell short in meeting the expectations raised by the ambitious menu. With a little fine-tuning, I expect the Woodfield Inn will become a local destination of even higher caliber.