Finally on the Culinary Map, An Elegant Inn Delights

It was well after sunset as we drove around Lake Waramaug in Northwest Connecticut on a recent evening, and the smell of campfires hung in the air. If people were not cooking steaks and hamburgers under the trees, they could be seen under the mosquito netting of their tents, playing cards and board games by the light of Coleman lamps.

“Don’t you wish we were camping out tonight?” I asked.

“No!” replied everyone in unison, including my young son. We were tired and hungry, and it was my fault. I’d suggested a shortcut. Everyone knows there is no surer way to get lost. For the past hour we had been driving hopelessly through a maze of back roads, one of which had simply given up altogether, disappearing into a field. And we’d narrowly missed bagging a deer in the process. Finally, we came upon the sign for the Lakeview Inn. “Casual fine dining,” it said underneath. At that point, we could have eaten anything.

When I first started coming to Northwest Connecticut nearly a decade ago, the high points of casual fine dining were saltines in cellophane packets and chicken salad with pineapple chunks. Not anymore. Now instead of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing and imitation bacon bits, you will more likely be served organic greens picked that morning and topped with a local goat cheese. Saltines have gone the way of the hula hoop, to be replaced by baskets of focaccia, baguettes or crusty sourdough bread. Now if they could just do something about those bright green trousers and Muffy’s velvet headbands …

The Lakeview Inn, one of the largest in the area, first opened in 1876. I’d never been there before since it didn’t appear in any of my guidebooks–from which I could only surmise that the food was something to be passed over in silence. But this year the inn was bought by Dorothy and Doug Hamilton, owners of the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Someone told me they bought it because they lived next door and got tired of the noise. Whatever the reason (and it’s no longer an inn, just a restaurant), they are clearly serious about the food, for they brought in the dean of the institute, Alain Sailhac, who was formerly the chef at Le Cirque and the “21” Club, as executive chef. Now, many of the very same people he cooked for in New York are showing up here (in green trousers instead of gray suits). On warm days, they eat out on the large veranda of the imposing white clapboard building that overlooks a sweeping lawn flanked by tall trees and the lake in the distance. “Look at that moon!” I said one evening, staring at the light coming through the trees and feeling romantic. Then I realized it was a street lamp.

Inside the inn has three comfortable lounges with fireplaces (one for smoking, where moguls can put themselves to good use after dinner by personally destroying a Cuban cigar) and three dining rooms, done up in a restrained elegance with the latest fabrics from Cowtan & Tout. Just before you go into the dining room, there is an impressive large square zinc bar that, if it isn’t quite “21,” was certainly a convivial place when we walked in, full of people being tended by a jocular barman who was telling them stories about the area. The main dining room, which has a ceiling two stories high, is painted white and hung with delicate wrought-iron chandeliers, each shaped like a giant lady’s bonnet. Small glass vases of flowers and candles decorate the tables, which are placed far apart.

The restaurant has been open only since the beginning of August, so the kitchen, with William Lopata as chef, is still settling down. But already some of the food is so good that I decided to write about it, anyway. It would be too bad to miss the chance of coming here in summer. The service is very friendly and helpful–even a little too helpful. “This cranberry juice tastes awful,” complained my 10-year-old son one night after taking a sip through his straw. “I’m sure it has liquor in it.” It was Campari.

It’s been a while since I had a really good coarse country pâté, but it’s a great way to begin dinner here, with toast, gherkins and a mustard sauce. I also loved the smoked salmon with a crisp potato cake surrounding a salad of cucumbers in sour cream with dill. Juicy sautéed shrimp were excellent, heaped around a smooth avocado mousse. A napoleon of mushrooms and spinach was light and feathery, the vegetable filling very fresh, as was a terrine made with spinach, eggplant and red peppers and encircled with a tart tomatillo sauce.

The grilled Black Angus sirloin was perfectly cooked, nicely seared and juicy, topped with porcini butter and with wonderful fries. The veal medallions were tender, with a summery sauce of basil and roasted corn with tomatoes and a gratin of zucchini. Rack of lamb with oven-roasted beets and white beans was also good, although it didn’t have quite the flavor of the other meat dishes. The only real disappointment was the roast chicken, which was mushy and dry.

“If we hadn’t wasted that hour driving around, they wouldn’t have had time to overcook it so much,” said my sister, who had ordered the dish.

My favorite fish was the grilled wild striped bass, a snowy chunk topped with a garlicky aioli sauce. I liked the pan-roasted salmon with couscous and mint, too, a better choice than the sautéed trout with potatoes and artichokes (it would have been better whole instead of filleted) and the linguine with steamed clams and mussels, which was disappointingly bland.

Dessert included crème brûlée, light and creamy under its glaze; a rich, dark devil’s-food chocolate cake; and a fine shortcake with mixed berries. Everyone loved the frozen peanut butter mousse, which we couldn’t stop eating.

At the next table, a couple of families were having dinner and telling jokes. A young girl, who must have been about 10, had such an infectious laugh that soon everyone at the other tables was joining in. Nobody else had heard the joke, but it didn’t matter.

Lakeview Inn

* *

107 North Shore Road, New Preston, Conn.

860-868-1000

Dress: Casual

Wine List: Reasonably Priced and Well Chosen

Noise Level: Fine

Credit Cards: All Major

Price Range: Lunch Main Courses $6 to $14, Dinner $17 to $28

Lunch: Monday, Wednesday to Sunday Noon to 3 P.M.

Dinner: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 5:30 P.M. To 9 P.M., Friday and Saturday To 10 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

Finally on the Culinary Map, An Elegant Inn Delights