Rethinking the Hotel Dining Room
The cozy dining rooms at country inns are evergreen favorites, but rarely do we think of larger hotels as the venue for an evening out. That’s a mistake in New Hampshire, where some of the biggest hotels have outstanding restaurants. Long gone are the days when the White Mountain resort hotels depended on having a captive audience at dinner; today all these grand dames use their dining rooms — and menus created by their award-winning chefs — to lure guests. The Balsams (877-225-7267, www.thebalsams.com) in Dixville Notch has put food first for decades, and it was Phil Learned, father of the current Executive Chef Steven Learned, who put The Balsams on the culinary map. The current Chef Learned keeps it there, maintaining as well the resort’s signature display of plated samples of each item on the menu. It’s much easier to choose from selections — from a salad of spring greens to grilled tenderloin or antelope and ostrich medallions in a vodka-blackberry sauce with wild mushrooms. Executive Chef James Dyer of the Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods (800-314-1752, www.mtwashington.com) entices guests to the elegant main dining room (American-plan guests can choose from other options in the resort) with dinners that might begin with a timbale of roasted vegetables with toasted walnuts or truffled seared quail breast with celery gnocchi. The more intimate Bretton Arms, just below the main hotel, has a more intimate dining room, but a menu that’s just as alluring. In Jackson, Chef Mark Prince has already made big changes at Eagle Mountain House (603-383-9111, www.eaglemt.com), with fresh dining room décor for a bistro feel and a menu that might feature braised Vermont lamb shank with a gratin of purple potatoes or venison medallions sautéed with roasted shallots and served with a lingonberry demi-glâce. He’s kept a trio of the old favs from the hotel’s previous life, including the roast turkey dinner of slow-roasted turkey breast with stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce. True to the bistro theme, each night a couple of chef’s specials are offered. Just down the road at The Wentworth (383-9700 or 800-637-0013, www.thewentworth.com), also in Jackson, NECI-trained Chef Brian Gazda creates a menu as elegant as the crystal-and-linen dining room. It might feature a tenderloin of pork rubbed with coarse mustard and parsley served with cranberry Port wine sauce and sweet potato pave, or a perfectly-grilled North Atlantic Salmon filet with spelt risotto and grilled asparagus. Big changes are happening at the Mountain View Grand Hotel and Spa in Whitefield (837-2100, www.mountainviewgrand.com), where Chef Kevin Cottle has opened the new Maples restaurant. His own forte is with seafood and wild game meats, and one side of the new menu will offer about a dozen of his signature dishes. The other side will change weekly, following the seasons and “what’s in bloom and what the local farms offer,” according to Chef Cottle. He is already working closely with local producers and with the Department of Agriculture and plans to have 80 percent of his menu based on locally produced ingredients. So much is said of the view from the dining room of Sunset Hill House in Sugar Hill (823-5522, www.sunsethillhouse.com), the food has to be good to compete. Chef Joe Peterson makes sure it always is, beginning meals with appetizers such as crêpes with roasted red peppers and asparagus in a creamy avocado-sherry sauce. His signature dish, which never leaves the menu, is Bombay duck, smoked and roasted with bacon and almonds and served with a brandy-mango sauce. Duck is also a favorite of Chef Dana Lunn of The Ledges, in North Conway (356-7100, www.whitemountainhotel.com). It is usually featured as both an appetizer and entrée, the former as thin slices of duck that has been cured in-house before slow roasting, served with a pomegranate molasses. Friday Night’s popular seafood buffet has an assortment of dishes, as well as stations for a cooked-to-order shrimp and a raw bar that includes peel-and-eat shrimp and clams and oysters on the half shell. Smart diners don’t need a Dartmouth degree to know that the Daniel Webster Room (643-4300, www.hanoverinn.com) at the Hanover Inn is the Upper Valley’s upper crust. Chef Michael Gray welcomes spring with an appetizer of warm crabmeat salad in an artichoke bottom in basil oil. Entrées could include macadamia-crusted red snapper with Wehani rice and a salsa of tropical fruit. In another college town, at Durham’s Acorns (862-2815, www.acornsrestaurant.com), Chef Rick Smith keeps guests at the New England Center home with seafood dishes such as diver scallops, sautéed with fingerling potatoes, asparagus tips and sun-dried tomatoes in a Chardonnay cream, or halibut with morels and apple wood-smoked bacon. At the Sheraton Harborside in Portsmouth (431-2300, www.sheratonportsmouth.com) Executive Chef Garth Lyndes of The Harbor’s Edge dispels any notions about the sameness of big hotel chains with appetizers of chili-garlic shrimp, made with shaved garlic, jalapeños, olive oil and parsley, or a heartier starter of Caribbean blackened lamb chops served over rum-glazed sweet potato and tropical fruit salsa. The White Mountains don’t have a monopoly on grand old resort hotels ever since 2003, when the Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle (603-422-7322, www.wentworth.com) re-opened. Executive Chef Dan Dumont welcomes spring with starters of chilled cucumber and tomato gazpacho with cumin crouton and red pepper oil and salads of baby greens, chive blossoms and baby tomatoes. After a main course guests can finish with Pastry Chef Perrie Purcell’s signature lemon curd tartlet with strawberry, almond and honey tuile. Most of the clients in The Speaker’s Corner Pub (886-1200) at the Crowne Plaza Nashua Hotel are locals, reports Executive Chef Martin LeGay. He credits this to his policy of making everything in-house. Although the pub is busy most of the time, it is best known for the bounteous Sunday brunch buffet. This goes much farther than the usual spread, with limitless shrimp and a fresh seafood entrée of the week. Chef LeGay keeps the feeling of the grand hotel buffet with a giant ice sculpture in the center of the table and a glass of champagne welcoming guests as they are seated. Each of these hotels welcomes dinner guests who are not staying at the hotel, although reservations are necessary at many of them. NH Barbara Radcliffe Rogers is author of “Eating New England,” a food lover’s travel guide.