A Movable Feast
Al Forno Restaurant
Providence, Rhode Island
If we had an Italian grandmother, we bet dining at Al Forno in Providence would be just like taking a seat at her table for a home-cooked, old-country meal. Situated along a scenic strip of the Providence River in a converted horse stable, Al Forno (owned by food-world stars and sweethearts Johanne Killeen and George Germon) has been dishing up authentic Italian cooking for almost 25 years. So it was with great anticipation that we drove down I-95, a golden sunset beyond our windshield, on our way to this dining institution.
Easy to find from the highway, the two-story restaurant exudes charm, from the grape-arbor-covered patio to the exposed wooden ceiling beams. Though the first floor dining room gave us an unrestricted view of the open kitchen, we were drawn upstairs to the intimate fireside tables.
Having heard rave reviews about the wood-grilled pizza, we immediately ordered the seasonal option: a freeform native corn pizza with San Marzano tomatoes. The flatbread pizza was perfectly crispy, and the fresh vegetable toppings sang with flavor. Another appetizer of tomatoes poached in olive oil served on grilled crostini with a dab of goat cheese was almost enough to leave us full. But we pressed on. Baked pasta smothered in Gorgonzola, crisp green beans, and pancetta bubbled and oozed from its browned baking dish. But a daily special of a Tuscan filet in a sweet balsamic glaze perched on roasted fingerling potatoes was overcooked and too much food for one serving.
Desserts have to be ordered at the same time as the entrées, ensuring an expertly executed, if not overindulgent, finish. The wine list, while it concentrates on Italian reds, matches the restaurant's ingredients in its thoughtful selection. Casual and well informed, the service gives the place a neighborhood-tavern feel, but it's the careful attention to each handprepared dish that gives Al Forno a simple, grandmotherly magic.
>> Where: Al Forno, 577 South Main St., Providence, RI, 401-273-9760, www.alforno.com. >> The drive: An unremarkable but quick 50 miles south, Al Forno is close enough to visit on a weeknight and affordable enough to make a habit. >> Is it worth it? Germon and Killeen have mastered the freeform flatbread pizza. The happy, simple Italian-country vibe of this restaurant makes it a pleasure to visit.
Past visits to Arrows always produced memorable meals, every bit worth the drive to just-over-the-border Maine. Set in an attractive farmhouse off a winding road just outside the center of Ogunquit, the restaurant is serious about its commitment to fresh ingredients in the style of Alice Waters's Chez Panisse. Here the produce is supplied for the most part by the extensive seasonal gardens and orchards on the grounds, giving salads and sides a just-picked, fresh-from-the-earth, sun-warmed flavor. The restaurant is open through mid-December before closing for the off-season until April, so a late autumn meal is a chance to savor the last of the harvest before winter arrives and digs in its heels.
But what had been delightful on earlier visits was now slightly less so. The shabby-chic dining room is still alluring, but before we could even be admitted, we had to promise to follow the many rules laid out by the reservationist. (Casually dressed diners would not be seated, no-shows would be charged $50 per person, and confirmations were required with a credit card at least 24 hours in advance.) Once seated, we were offered a premium water service (San Pellegrino and others, the price of which was not disclosed to us) and a premium butter service (including imported French butter and Vermont cultured butter, an unusual twist on the water upgrade, and, again, with a mystery price). The menu, too, offered plenty of upgrades, but was more up front about the cost of the fresh ingredients: A beef entrée, already a steep $43.95, could be fancified with imported Kobe beef for another $27, pushing the already sky-high price into the stratosphere.
We stuck to the more reasonable choices, beginning with an heirloom-tomato gratin prepared with a balsamic vinegar and simply seasoned with fresh pepper. The tomatoes, colorful and thinly sliced, had a disappointing texture, warmed by the gratin that covered them, which had the appearance and consistency of Cheez Whiz (a thought a diner at another table loudly echoed when his arrived). A creative take on a minestrone soup did better, but the creamy spinach broth was lacking in pure vegetable flavor. Entrées were more satisfying, but both a duck preparation and a serving of line-caught tuna could have benefited from more of those simply prepared, just-picked vegetables we were craving on the drive.
Service was slow and overly solicitous (our waitress repeat edly called only one of us “the lady,” leaving both ladies at the table uncomfortable, and preferred such stuffy, old-fash ioned phrasing as, “Will you partake in cream for your coffee tonight?”). We left Maine feeling that Arrows had shifted the focus from fresh ingredients to big profits — understandable enough for a seasonal restaurant in a relatively isolated location. Having been there before — and having savored the intense flavors of the food, the simple, casual setting, and the comfortable service — we missed the rewards of the earlier harvests.
>> Where: Arrows, Berwick Road, Ogunquit, ME, 207-361-1100, www.arrowsrestaurant.com. >> The Drive: Once clear of traffic and past the New Hampshire line, the road turns scenic, the land rocky, and the pace peaceful. Ogunquit is a charming seaside town at any time of the year. >> Is it worth it? Dinner at Arrows is pricey, with most entrées around $40. But the 72-mile journey from Boston is manageable, making a return trip possible in one night. It's best to visit in July and August when the gardens are at their peak and the menus loaded with fresh produce.
Old Inn on the Green
Housed in a secluded 240-year-old inn at the crossroads of what must have once been a busy town, this restaurant is equally lonely and imposing. There's no large sign to advertise it, and because the place is illuminated entirely by candlelight, it's hard to imagine that much is happening on the other side of the darkened windows. This creates an atmosphere in the dining room that is otherworldly quiet (there's no electricity for music), and, on an early fall evening, a little off-putting. No matter. Chef Peter Platt, who came here from the nearby Wheatleigh inn, prepares food that is warm, hearty, and welcoming enough itself.
Platt's food is simplicity at its best, relying on the freshness of the ingredients and the cleanness of the flavors. It's a strategy that works to stunning results, producing the kind of memorable dinner that makes us eager to return — despite the two-hour trip from Boston — to discover what he'll cook up next. In one trio of salads, tangy, tart, and perfectly ripe marinated red-and -yellow cherry tomatoes were placed alongside cucumbers tossed in olive oil and dill and tender-crisp green beans lightly dressed in crème fraîche infused with lemon and thyme. A simple bruschetta of heirloom tomatoes — placed atop imported buffalo mozzarella and basil and drizzled with the kind of olive oil you find on country tables in Italy — let the tangy flavor of the fruits sing. An entrée of fillet of Scottish salmon was perfectly cooked, resting on a bed of Israeli couscous, the firm texture of the plump, round grains a pleasant complement to the rich, unctuous fish. The surprising Asian flavors of a simple chicken breast ballottine with a soba-noodle salad and miso vinaigrette somehow fit right in with the more traditional New England recipes.
Wines at the inn are reasonably priced, and interesting (French and American bottles dominate the list), and go perfectly with the simplicity of the food. And pastry chef Shirl Gard's desserts make good use of the season's fruits. A warm old-fashioned blackberry cobbler and vanilla ice cream was so deliciously American and simple, we could have cried. (A fallen chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream and crème anglais was just as sumptuous.) Platt and his wife are purchasing the inn at the beginning of January and plan to keep the 11 rooms on the property on hand for guests like us who wish they could hang around and sample his cooking for just a little longer.
>> Where: Old Inn on the Green, Rte. 57, New Marlborough, 800-286-3139, www.oldinn.com. >> The drive: It's a long 145 miles west from Boston to this tiny hamlet in the Berkshires, but with so much to do in the area — even in the symphony and theater off-season — it's worth the weekend trip. If the Old Inn is booked, stay in nearby Great Barrington at the historic Red Lion Inn and explore the shops of the town or the excellent hiking and cross-country skiing trails . >> Is it worth it? Absolutely. Platt's cooking is the kind of clean, flavorful food we wish we could have every day, and the charms of the area make the inn a perfect weekend destination .
A block from Portland's famed Fore Street Grill is the lesser known but equally celebrated Hugo's, open for 16 years but operated for the past four by chef Rob Evans and his partner, Nancy Pugh. This year Food & Wine named Evans one of the country's top new chefs, a distinction that focused the klieg lights of the food world on this unassuming little restaurant and its simple, honest food. Evans hasn't let all this attention faze him or go to his head; the prix-fixe, four-course menu is still a reasonable $55 and focuses on simple New England food prepared at this unpretentious eatery.
An appetizer of organic Maine tomatoes caught the fruit at the peak of its flavor, heightened only by a smear of organic garlic mousse, a sliver of blue cheese, and a smattering of pink peppercorn brittle. (A shooter of refreshingly pure tomato water washed the whole thing down.) Weightier dishes aimed just as high in showcasing the freshness of their ingredients and hit the mark more often than not. One that soared was sea bass seared until its skin was perfectly crispy, nestled atop herb gnocchi. A preparation of pan-roasted Maine rabbit saddle was disappointingly dry, but an entrée of braised veal cheek and rare seared rib-eye was rich and expertly cooked, enhanced with locally foraged mushrooms, parsnips, and a tomato-sage fondue.
Desserts are straightforward and perfectly portioned: A flourless El Rey chocolate cake made the most of its premium ingredients, delivering transporting chocolate flavor in bite-sized squares. The wine list is affordably priced and offers plenty of surprises, including a lively grüner veltliner that perfectly complements the fresh vegetables and ingredients on the menu.
>> Where: Hugo's, 88 Middle St., Portland, ME, 207-774-8538, www.hugos.net. >> The Drive: It's best to plan a weekend of a trip to Hugo's, a long 107 miles from Boston up crowded I-95. With plenty of affordable hotels and inns and the charms of the growing, rapidly gentrifying old city, there's more than enough to fill a few days of sightseeing. >> Is it worth it? It's always a thrill to taste the creations of a rising star of the food world, and, refreshingly, it's still relatively easy to get a reservation at Hugo's. A trip north to see what the fuss is all about lets you in on the secret.
Bedford Village Inn
Bedford, New Hampshire
When word spread that chef Joe Brenner, formerly culinary director at Todd English's Olive Group, had been tapped to take over the kitchen at this sprawling New Hampshire inn earlier this year, Olives fans made tracks north. How would Brenner fare in a new setting after all of those years of cooking rich, hearty, Mediterranean-inspired food at Olives in Charlestown and the company's many other restaurants? The answer is, just fine, thank you. Brenner's menu at this quaint inn is decidedly reminiscent of English's menu at Olives. An appetizer of braised short ribs was sweet and smoky in its full flavor, the meat perfectly cooked and rich, while roasted figs stuffed with Gorgonzola and wrapped in prosciutto recalled the earthy, hearty recipes of Brenner's former kitchen. Each menu item is seductive in its ingredients. Native lobster tempura is crisply fried and doused with sherry sauce and served with fresh parsnips, while simple, slow-roasted chicken comes with a lusty garlic custard. Both were rich in flavor and a delight to eat, but afterwards left us with the feeling that we'd overindulged — even though our plates were still half full.
Desserts, too, were rich. A small trio of desserts (coconut ice cream, orange-Grand Marnier crème brûlée, and toffee-crunch chocolate fudge cake) was enough for two. Add the heady selections of an extensive and reasonably priced wine and cordials list and what we really needed afterward was a soft, fluffy bed in the newly renovated inn to rest our filled-to-capacity stomachs. When the inn expands its spa next year, staying the weekend after gorging on Brenner's cooking will be easier — and more relaxing.
>> Where: Bedford Village Inn, 2 Olde Bedford Way, Bedford, NH, 800-852-1166, www.bedfordvillageinn.com. >> The drive: A maddening, commuter-clogged 55 miles up 1-93 makes this short drive much longer than it ought to be. Still, this restaurant is a perfect stop before or after a flight from the Manchester airport, or on the way to or from a New Hampshire ski resort. >> Is it worth it? Chef Brenner's rich, soul-warming food is perfect for a winter weekend, but be sure to plan an overnight stay.
Spiced Pear Restaurant
Newport, Rhode Island
It's only fitting that the restaurant inside one of Newport's most sumptuous new hotels — the Chanler at Cliff Walk, itself a throwback to the Gilded Age — would be luxurious enough for a Vanderbilt. If the stunning water views aren't alluring enough, the restaurant's décor whispers of Old World money and sophistication. Banquettes for two give both diners a view, and, just this once, sitting side-by-side seems not corny, but romantic. Chef Richard Hamilton, who has won rave reviews since opening the restaurant last year, trained at the Cordon Bleu and the Ritz-Escoffier schools as well as a French restaurant with three Michelin stars. It's not surprising, then, that some of the dishes are rich and overindulgent in butter content. But this is balanced by a subtle Asian hint in many of the recipes and a devotion to fresh ingredients. At $79, the four-course prix-fixe menu seems an affordable treat. And the presentation is just as thoughtful and enticing as the food. Here, as at Arrows, there are plenty of chances to upgrade your dish with luxury ingredients (though none of the mystery about the pricing). Menus change daily, but dishes like a fresh Stonington lobster — wrapped in prosciutto, served with mission figs and doused with lime cream — showcase the flair here for combining flavors in unexpected ways. An entrée of squab — rubbed with Moroccan spices and resting on celery purée and radish greens and flavored with a raisin emulsion — is succulent and earthy, full of autumn flavor. The European-style service is professional, exact, and keeps the pace of a meal moving at a not-too-leisurely clip. Desserts make the most of seasonal ingredients, but it's the cheese service (fitting for a French-trained chef in a European-style restaurant) that's truly not to be missed.
>> Where: Spiced Pear Restaurant, at the Chanler at Cliff Walk, 117 Memorial Blvd., Newport, RI, 401-847-2244, www.spicedpear.com . >> The Drive: The 71 miles from Boston to Newport go quickly once you're cruising down Route 24. With plenty to do, even in the off-season, it's an ideal weekend trip. Book a room at the Chanler and live the Gilded Age life in full. Lavish rooms in the inn start at $395 per night . >> Is it worth it? L uxury like this is hard to find these days. The Spiced Pear offers a taste of the good life without charging an outlandish price for it.
White Barn Inn
Our nearly two-hour drive from Boston to Kennebunkport was filled with conversation about the menu that awaited us at the White Barn Inn. We'd gathered overwhelmingly positive reports from the dozens who gushed about the exquisite details of the dining room, the superb service, and chef Jonathan Cartwright's dexterous use of local and seasonal ingredients. We were out-and-out giddy by the time we reached the entrance to the giant barn-turned-dining room. Perhaps our high expectations were just one of the things that ultimately led to such an underwhelming meal.
The dining room — actually two rooms — is indeed a well-appointed space that oozes a quixotic ambiance suggesting both, “Behave yourself,” and, “Relax. You're in Maine, for goodness sake.” The service, too, is more or less as we expected — heaping spoonfuls of niceties and graciousness — but lacked confidence and emotion.
When the amuse bouche arrived, we were so full of optimism that we tried our best to enjoy the bland and dry sausage of “foie gras” and chicken. It tasted as though it contained neither foie (liver), nor gras (fat) — two ingredients that would have assisted in the pre-appetizer's failed purpose of gently awakening our palates for the meal to follow. In retrospect, we were lucky that our palates weren't awake, as what followed was an appetizer course including flabby, undercooked scallops, chased by an intermezzo course highlighted by cold corn-and-coconut-milk soup. We were let down again by grayish-brown medallions of veal that were difficult to cut and harder to chew. An entrée of halibut, which lacked in flavor, was served over ravioli of “smoky scallops,” whose taste was reminiscent of faux smoke flavoring and whose texture made them feel undercooked. The meal was punctuated by desserts that further fueled our disappointment — cookies whose cool temperature and strange flavor smacked of having sat uncovered in a refrigerator too long, for example. A late-autumn fruit cobbler was tiny and puzzling in its price, given the simplicity of the ingredients. A chocolate rice pudding- sushi concoction was off-putting in both taste and gluey texture.
Things go wrong sometimes. Mistakes happen. We know that many hundreds of diners have swooned over their meals here. We look forward to being able to do this, too, yet at the outlandish $88-per-person price tag for four courses (one of them a spoonful of sorbet or a sip of soup), there should be no room for a mistake, let alone many. At least Kennebunkport is close enough to make it an easy day trip from Boston, and there's plenty to see and do, from visiting historic sites to beach walking and shopping.
>> Where: White Barn Inn, 37 Beach Ave., Kennebunkport, ME, 207-967-2321, www.whitebarninn.com. >> The drive: The 85 miles from Boston to Kennebunkport feel somehow longer than any of the other drives to our restaurants. Maybe it's the slow pace of the twisting roads that take you through small, picture-perfect towns after exiting I-95. Taking the time to explore the town and surrounding areas makes the trip at least worthwhile. >> Is it worth it? So many who have gone before us say it is, but at such steep prices, you can't afford to have a miss.
Portland is a great city that seems constantly on the brink of becoming a major player on the Eastern Seaboard. While we wish it all the best, we want to keep some of Portland's secrets entre nous . We don't want everyone flocking to those great bookstores, coffee shops, shoe boutiques, and art galleries. And we certainly don't want to have trouble getting a table at the outstanding downtown restaurant Fore Street.
There are no bells or whistles at Fore Street. Chef and co-owner Sam Hayward sticks to his mantra of fresh and local (which consistently wins him the accolades of the James Beard Foundation). His menu is riddled with points of origin including Damariscotta (river oysters), Bang's Island (mussels), and Wolfe's Neck Farm (beef). Not only does this punctuate a sense of place for out-of-towners like us — you are indeed in Maine — but it subtly underscores chef Hayward's commitment to his community.
We caught the tail end of the tomato harvest, but the kitchen managed to breathe a few more weeks into the season by baking “jetstar” tomatoes just until the skin puckered, bumping up the natural sugars in the fruit. Paired with local goat cheese in an upside-down tart, this was Fore Street in a nutshell: It's about the ingredients and having the skill to know how to work with them. The menu does offer more complicated and substantial courses, but never without balance or reason. Any selection from the wood-fired oven, turnspit, or grill — especially if it's a seafood option — is good reason to fill the tank and head north.
>> Where: Fore Street, 288 Fore St., Portland, ME, 207-775-2717. >> The drive: See Hugo's, above. >> Is it worth it? Sam Hayward isn't the New England darling of the food world for nothing. Make a reservation and plan a weekend in Portland. (The superb Hugo's is just down the street.)
Home Hill Inn and Restaurant
Plainfield, New Hampshire
Who better to whisk us off on a French retreat than a Ritz-Escoffier-culinary school-trained chef and her Provençal husband? Victoria and Stephane du Roure own and operate Plainfield, New Hampshire's Home Hill Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property, where every detail — from the seven-course menu dégustation to the inn's French-country fabrics and quaint toile drapery — made us feel as if we'd somehow landed on foreign soil.
When we stepped inside Home Hill's main building, a stately, restored 1818 homestead surrounded by 25 acres of rolling hills, we swooned over the plush, French-country print furnishings and honey-brown hardwood flooring. The dining room was equally cozy and warmed by a fire in the traditional fireplace. Chef du Roure uses classic elements of French cooking to dress up a combination of rare, innovative, and local ingredients that somehow all work well together. The signature saffron-ricotta gnocchi came layered with marinated octopus under fresh basil and scallions while the chilled corn velouté surrounded an island of Peekytoe-crab salad topped with zucchini pesto. Both are part of the tasting menu. The playfully creative trilogy of foie gras made the perfect appetizer for an entrée of tender grilled Kobe flatiron steak over lemon-porcini risotto.
The seasonal tasting menus, available nightly, are fairly priced (the vegetarian menu du potager is $59; the seven-course menu dégustation, $89). Stephane du Roure stood by with wine recommendations at the ready. Attentive service crowned the meal.
We would have preferred to make a weekend out of it, cozying up under the covers in one of the inn's feather-soft queen-sized beds surrounded by French and American antiques, but life in Boston called us back. Still, for a two-hour drive, the journey felt as satisfying and authentic as a passport stamp.
>> Where: Home Hill Inn and Restaurant, 703 River Rd., Plainfield, NH, 603-675-6165, www.homehillinn.com. >> The drive: It's a long 133-mile drive to Plainfield, New Hampshire, which, after clearing all that nasty traffic on 1-93, puts you almost on the border with Vermont. Nearby are the adorable towns of Queechee and Woodstock, with their artists' galleries and shops and proximity to great winter skiing. In short, it's a destination that's perfect for a weekend trip, too far for just one night. >> Is it worth it? Home Hill Inn couldn't be more welcoming and relaxing, and the same could be said for its restaurant. Book a room and enjoy some of the best French cooking the region has to offer.
Silks at Stonehedge Inn
Aside from the Stonehedge Inn, it's a bit difficult to think of another good reason to head up Route 3 to Tyngsboro. There's nothing wrong with this quiet town that hugs the Merrimack River. But there's not a lot to do there. Therein lies the beauty of Stonehedge: It's a peaceful inn with an excellent restaurant and a luxurious spa perfect for relaxing the spirit and pampering the palate.
Owners Levent and Dawn Bozkurt pay close attention to detail, something reflected in the formal, but not stuffy, service. (Every employee is a graduate of some form of hospitality boot camp, and all exude self-assurance.)
There is quite a bit to say about executive chef Andreas Mensch's menu of contemporary American cuisine. The room-temperature braised-quail appetizer, a rich and earthy plate, was so good we wanted to savor each Alba truffle-laced bite and at the same time stuff the whole portion into our mouths. The same goes for the profiterole of duck confit, the gently poached halibut with leeks, and the pan-seared veal chop with creamed morels.
The real attraction at Silks, however, is the wine list. Levent Bozkurt is an internationally recognized wine connoisseur, and his more-than-2,000-bottle list (an underground wine cellar on the property holds some 100,000 bottles in all) makes this commitment obvious. Perusing the massive list can be a job, but sommelier Michael Otaka (or Bozkurt himself) is at the ready to suggest selections. This is not a place where you'll be hoodwinked into a pricey wine from a lengthy list that could trip up even a learned oenophile.
The food is rich, and the wine adds another layer of indulgence, so it makes sense to book a room here.
>> Where: Stonehedge Inn, 160 Pawtucket Blvd., Tyngsboro, 978-649-4400, www.stonehedgeinn.com. >> The drive: Silks is a short 36 miles north, easy distance for a return trip. >> Is it worth it? With so many wines to sample, we recommend not only a visit to the restaurant, but an overnight stay at the inn.