The Old Inn in Candlelight: Sophisticated and Simple

Lafeu: ‘Twas a good lady, ’twas a good lady: we may pick a thousand salads were we light on such another herb.

Clown: Indeed, sir, she was the sweet marjoram of the salad, or rather the herb of grace.

Lafeu: They are not herbs, you knave; they are nose herbs.

Clown: I am no great Nebuchadnezzer, sir; I have not much skill in grass.

– All’s Well That Ends Well , by William Shakespeare

It was a Saturday afternoon and we were in a stable at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s former estate in Lenox, Mass., watching a performance of Shakespeare’s comedy about a lady doctor who pursues and traps the lord of her choice. (Wharton would never have allowed her heroines such luck.) After the performance, we traveled back another hundred years, down Route 7 to the Old Inn on the Green in New Marlborough, a small village in an unspoiled landscape of rolling hills, cornfields and blue mountains. The inn, built in 1760, is a former stagecoach relais and its dining rooms have no electricity but are lit by candles. We sat outside on the terrace overlooking the village green and watched the sun disappear behind the imposing white clapboard town meeting house, as horses trotted briskly past to their stables.

“This beats the beach any day,” I said. (Like Woody Allen, I don’t tan, I stroke.) The only problem with summers here is that even though the area is riddled with farms, you have to drive 10 miles for a decent head of lettuce. Like Shakespeare’s clown, the stores in my Connecticut neighborhood of West Cornwall and Sharon do not have much skill in “grass.”

Of all the villages around here, New Marlborough, which is a few miles from Great Barrington and close to Tanglewood, is my favorite. The landscape is less manicured than across the border in northwestern Connecticut and the village is remote enough that every time we drive home from here in the dark we get lost. (On this evening we ended up at the Southfield dump.) The inn, which was restored by Brad Wagstaff and Leslie Miller (who also own Gedney Farm, a guest house nearby) and opened as a restaurant in 1982, is as unself-conscious as the setting–you don’t immediately think “Ralph Lauren” when you walk in. It is a warren of small, wood-paneled dining rooms with low, beamed ceilings, polished wood tables, creaking wood floors and a bar with a copper sink.

A hundred years ago, when Edith Wharton was spending her summers at the Mount, if she had stopped for supper at the Old Inn on the Green, she would have had a choice of mutton broth and boiled cod with parsley sauce, or roast saddle of lamb with boiled onions, followed by blancmange or bread pudding. Now on Saturday nights there is a $48 prix fixe three-course menu (with three choices for each course) of rather lighter fare.

I asked our waitress, wearing a natty uniform of white starched shirt, black pants and a black-and-white striped apron, whether she recommended the rabbit. “When the chef says that the best thing on the menu is the rabbit, then get the rabbit,” she replied cheerfully. It seemed the appropriate dish for this part of the world, so I ordered it.

Chef Kristofer Rowe uses a great deal of local produce–including cheeses and maple syrup, and corn picked in the fields across the way–and his cooking is both sophisticated and simple. I began with lobster, tender chunks in a light herb puff pastry triangle on a pool of saffron cream. I also liked the grilled vegetable tart with roasted pepper coulis and a chiffonade of mustard greens. Mesclun salad with smoked fish and sauce verte was excellent, the greens having that just-picked quality so sorely missing in my part of the region.

Main courses were good, too. A generous hunk of poached halibut, perfectly cooked, was served in a light summer savory broth, with basmati rice and crunchy sea beans. A glazed veal rib chop scented with lemon thyme and grilled over hardwood would have been first-rate had it not been a trifle overcooked, but it came with a delicate garlic flan and truffled potatoes. The chef was right about the rabbit; it was the best dish, fricasseed with sweetbreads, and served with lentils, roasted Japanese eggplant and braised fennel.

For dessert, there was choice of baked whole peach with caramel sauce and cinnamon pecan ice cream; wonderful cornmeal poundcake topped with a compote of berries with crème fraîche; or a sampling of farmhouse cheeses.

While rabbit fricassee and baked peaches are the sort of food you’d expect in a village like New Marlborough, black bean soup and fried plantains are not. Down the street from the Old Inn on the Green, Parada Vida, at 229 Route 57 in New Marlborough (413-229-2743), is one of the most unusual restaurants I’ve encountered, certainly in this context (the name, translated on a sign outside as “Life’s Stopping Place,” makes it sound like a cemetery). But it is charming. In a low brown building–basically a screened lattice-work porch–it is the sort of place you’d expect to find on a beach in Puerto Rico, not in a New England garden. Salsa music vies with the whir of the blender making margaritas and daiquiris, which are eventually brought to your table by a waiter somewhat like Manuel in Fawlty Towers . Even odder, it’s a vegetarian restaurant. No pork skins or ropa vieja (though salmon and calamari did appear on the menu of the day), but beans and rice, fried plantains, fresh, generous salads and a delicious black bean soup. Among the “Caribbean curiosities” for sale are santos, Madonna candles, Dragon’s Blood incense and various herbal remedies and medicines. “Jinx Removing Powerful Indian House Blessing” bath and floor wash sounded the most promising. “Stir the mixture while reading the 23rd Psalm and concentrate on your desire while bathing.”

The Old Inn on the Green

* *

Route 57, Village Green,

New Marlborough, Mass.

413-229-3131; 800-286-3139

Dress: Green trousers, plaid shirts, print dresses

Noise level: Very low

Wine list: Well chosen and reasonable

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Saturday prix fixe $48, Sunday to Thursday main courses $19 to $24

Dinner: Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 P.M.; Sunday to Thursday (à la carte) 5:30 to 9:30 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor