The Woodward House adds fine dining and the luxury of a cheese course to the mix.

The Woodward House

The Woodward House

Litchfield County used to be dairy farm country and still has the rolling green landscape and the occasional long stretch of feed corn going for it, although you are almost as likely now to see a former secretary of state or Oscar-winning actress as you are a Holstein in some towns these days, as the area has increasingly become a second-house market for our betters (OK, not a Holstein, but a Brown Swiss? Forget it.)

Bethlehem, just north of Waterbury and the gateway into farm country, has, however, managed to hang on to its rural, cow-town character. It has a flashing red stop light in the center of town, a grocery store, a pharmacy, a breakfast joint, a pizza place and a monastery, and that’s about it. And now it has Woodward House, an elegant and inviting new restaurants palm springs on the town green.

The house originates in 1740–which makes it one of the town’s foundation buildings and used to be called Bird Tavern, though in recent years it served as a rental house.

But you get the sense, frankly, that the house is happy to have been restored to its original purpose to be a place of hospitality. Certainly, it glows now with warmth. You’ll notice as you go in how thoughtfully designed it is. The walls in one dining room are a cheery, late-sunset red, in another, the room is gold, in another yellow. The moldings are crisp white. The glassware is elegant (heavy bottomed, serious cocktail glasses, tall, Reidel-quality wine glasses ) and sparkles, the carpets are thick, lovely and appropriate. The table linen is white and well ironed. I don’t know about you, but for Lisa and me, these kinds of things go a long way. You know you are in good hands when care has been taken to get the details right.

As an amuse-guile, as I had my nose in a lovely, austere glass of Medoc, our waiter brought to us a smoked salmon mousse on a slip of waffled potato, delicious. We took some time with the menu. There is a foie gras crème brulée with pearl-onion jam on the “starters” menu that I will be returning for. I’d bet the shrimp and Maryland crab cakes with mango and pineapple salsa are pretty amazing too, but I started instead with the five onion soup with cilantro cream, while Lisa had a summer salad with strawberries, mangos, walnuts, and brie in a sherry vinaigrette.

Lisa’s salad was very nice, very balanced. My soup was deeply satisfying, like French onion soup but with more softness and character, the cilantro cream rounding the edges. I was particularly won over by the bowl, a white rectangular, terrine-shaped thing on a saucer.

I was torn. Part of me wanted to move next to the lobster summer stew, with fennel and tomato, but I have this foie gras thing, and I saw there was roasted duck breast with foie gras and sweet mashed potatoes in an apple cider sauce. It was very good. Lisa had a filet of beef tenderloin with a mint and Bing cherry demi glace, served with horseradish mashed potatoes. I kept hoping she wouldn’t finish it so I could, but it had been a long day and she wolfed it down.

And what a joy to find a restaurant with a cheese option on the dessert menu. I had that, with a glass of port, while Lisa had the lemon curd tart with blueberries. “Very lemony,” she said approvingly. “These things are almost always too sweet.”

We had a cappuccino, and our waiter came by and told us that the chef makes fresh truffles every day, and left two on our table.

So this was all very good. The service was extremely professional as well. If you do plan to spend a day in the countryside, you would do well to end it with a dinner here. If it is a date or a kind of date you’ll have impressed her or him, trust me. It just has something great about it that will make you feel that life is good.

Food With a Funny Bone

Funny Bone

Food With a Funny Bone

American classics with a twist that’s the theme at The Elbow Room in West Hartford. The logo on the menu shows a picture-book house whose sides are a little askew and sort of rhomboid, the idea being perhaps that the comfort foods of home are what you’ll find, if a little off kilter. That was the sense that Lisa and I had when we stopped into the bustling Restaurants Rancho Mirage. That’s pretty much what we found too. The Elbow Room does a better job of not messing up the old familiar favorites than many other places tinkering with the Classic American style. In fact, the secret seems to be to pretend like you are fiddling with Betty Crocker and Fanny Farmer’s turf but to simply serve good solid American favorites. No, you don’t need to throw any chipotle in my mac and cheese, but thanks. That’s not to say that The Elbow Room toes the no-nonsense line completely — the chefs break out the goat cheese and the balsamic vinegar glaze when the spirit moves them. But The Elbow Room sticks to the pleasing regularity of the meat-and-potatoes meal.

Straightaway, Lisa and I ordered the fried oysters, and arugula salad and a pair of Stella Artois on draft. A roasted beet and goat cheese salad also looked nice. While we drank our drafts, I noticed that I felt a draft. But if our seats were a tad nippy, the atmosphere was warm. The medium light inside The Elbow Room is inviting. Inside there are tilted mirrors hanging off the walls, providing infinite reflections for people-watching, and lopsided shapes give character to the little nooks. Model helicopters and airplanes hang from the ceiling in the larger area toward the front. For two-person dining, there are a series of small stalls along one wall, with thin partitions adding a sense of privacy but reducing the sense of space.

Our oysters were served with a stainless steel ramekin of mild remoulade sauce. There were five fried oysters and a faux-folksy folded wax paper bag. The oysters were fried with an expert’s touch an outer crispness giving way to a little substance, then to the almost nonexistent resilience of the oyster. The oysters were served beside a small mixed green salad tossed with a lemony dressing.

With the arugula salad, our waiter was kind enough to split the whole onto two plates, each still pretty big. The salad was basically arugula, walnuts, and a warmed cheese dressing that the menu called a “goat cheese fondue.” It was simple and good. The nutty flavor of the arugula was well matched with the robust goat cheese.

We were debating the merits of trying steak gorgonzola cheese and pears, or a grilled striped sea bass on a scallion and potato pancake, among other things, but, in the context, we decided to exercise a little restraint. Lisa ordered “TV dinner” with meat loaf, and I chose the cornmeal encrusted roasted chicken.

Lisa’s dinner was more like an elegant Japanese bento box than a dinky tin foil tray. The TV dinner came served on a handsome lacquer platter, with separate little partitions for each item. There was a slab of meat loaf, a drop biscuit flecked with cheese, a moist cube of dark gingerbread topped with real whipped cream, some sauteed green beans, and mashed potatoes. This was a full meal. Some in the make-it-new camp get carried away with meat loaf, doctoring it up with roasted peppers and pine nuts, but the meat loaf at The Elbow Room didn’t flaunt its components. It was firm and short on filler, with a hint of what tasted like sage. Read more 

The chicken was steaming hot, right out of the roasting pan. Two golden boned breasts, leaned against each other on top of a base of mashed potatoes, with a layer of peas and red peppers between. The chicken was tender, with the cornmeal crust adding an earthy flavor, and the mashed potatoes were creamy but not without substance. This too was a significant portion.