Leaving the city for the peace and contentment of country life sounds like a dream. To Will Dodson and Ruth Schimmelpfennig, its a dream they made a reality.
The two young chefs, who met at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., enjoyed a level of accomplishment that many in the business would envy not one, but two successful places in the restaurant mecca of San Francisco. But they found themselves spending all their free time escaping the city, exploring wine country and other more rural areas. When they decided they wanted to change focus, they could find nothing available north of the Bay Area. A teasing note from Schimmelpfennigs father about a more affordable property in the hamlet of Barnard, Vt., about 8 miles north of Woodstock, led to an exploratory trip. Vermonts April weather didnt cooperate, says Dodson, but despite hail, thunderstorms, and power outages, they immediately fell in love with the 1796 brick building, which houses the main part of the Barnard Inn Restaurants dining rooms.
Dodson and Schimmelpfennig, who live above the restaurant with their four children, opened in 2000, and later added a tavern to the business. Not far from both Killington and Woodstock, the restaurant and tavern attract skiers, second-home owners, and tourists, Dodson says. But a lot of locals also frequent the restaurant, giving it a much different feeling than many resort-only places.
The Barnard Inn charms immediately, its warm lights and equally friendly greeting enticing us in out of the chilly night. Theres a low fire in the fireplace and a 50th wedding anniversary party in one of the dining rooms. The wine list is expansive, offering a fairly good range of prices. And the wait staff, which seems to be stretched a little thin this evening, is nonetheless eager to please.
Surprises can be good or bad in restaurant dining. When you read creamy lobster soup, you invariably get a mental picture of what you think youll get. But instead of a pale chowder, this is a deep, dark soup. Yes, Dodson says later in a telephone interview, there is a little cream in the soup, but the concentration and body comes from distilling lobster bodies and caramelizing vegetables to release their essences. The flavor that comes through is layered and complex, its intensity and sweetness finished off with finely minced shrimp and shaved black truffles. This is a winter soup, made for dark nights.
The chefs riff on Caesar salad, the classic salad currently in vogue, is also a bold one. Long, ruffled leaves of romaine are sprinkled with focaccia croutons and crumbled sheeps milk cheese, then dressed with a lemony mayonnaise dressing spiked with capers and anchovies. Wed be happy to eat the eggy, vividly flavored dressing with a spoon, we all decide, as we pass the salad around the table one last time.
Crab cakes, another perennial favorite, are plump and meaty, with a texture that crumbles as soon as the fork digs in, conclusively showing theres virtually no filler. Tiny gnocchi pass the lightness test easily, although its really the dark ragout of wild mushrooms that makes the dish. The menu carefully lists the varieties maitake, honshimeji, porcini, and French horn and I find myself trying to distinguish, without much success, between the subtleties.
Dodson says that he and his wife consider their cuisine American, with French and Italian influences woven in. Thats most apparent in the entrees, which are straightforward and strongly emphasize the main protein on the plate. Salmon is crisp-skinned and delicately moist inside, with a mound of whipped potatoes and just enough creamy, chive-flecked sauce. A game hen boasts mahogany skin and a square of focaccia and fennel sausage stuffing that might be good to remember next Thanksgiving. A special of cioppino, or fishermans stew, recalls the couples San Francisco days with its deep tomatoey broth and wealth of fish and shellfish. A hunk of salmon, clams, big shrimp, and toasted focaccia make for another dish perfect to chase away chill.
But the real star is the lamb, which is purchased from a local farmer. Each rib chop, its long bone intact, holds a few tender bites of meat, rosy and moist. Just lightly seasoned with a hint of chili along with salt and pepper, the lambs true flavor sings, and a simple zinfandel reduction helps emphasis its meatiness.
Desserts are on the homey side, pretty but very different from the intricately structured style prevalent in Boston right now. Vanilla creme brulee has a light crackly top and pleasantly creamy center. A pippin apple crumble spreads across a bowl, enough to feed several, and is sweetly satisfying.
As we gather up coats and scarves to head into the night, I mentally review the evening: Another server in the dining room might have meant less waiting for wine and water glasses to be filled, as the two servers seemed to race from room to room all evening. But its food ranks high, and the charm and friendliness of the place are winning. The owners retreat from the city to the Barnard Inn is a boon to New England.