A Light in the North

Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective to make things happen.The sun was rising over the Franconia Mountain Range as New Yorker Karen Melanie LaRocco gripped her morning coffee. It was then that she knew this was the porch, this was the inn, this was the space she wanted to call home. Soon she was the owner of the white clapboard Ammonoosuc Inn set on a hill over the Ammonoosuc River in Lisbon.The year was 2004 and she had been on a coastal search from the Carolinas to Maine to fulfill a dream to live in the country and run an inn with a restaurant. The restaurant was the most important part. Karen had already owned a successful bistro on Long Island when she was only 24, just a few short years after she graduated from the French Culinary Institute of New York.Growing up in a family where food was important, Karen early on found her passion working in the kitchen. Even though she was raised a city girl, summer visits to family in the country offered direct eye contact with food sources and a glimpse of life without honking horns.Five years later Karen and her partner Peter Whitelaw are in the groove as innkeepers at the Ammonoosuc Inn. She enjoys innkeeping as much as the food service. The two have completely renovated the place, from porch to portal and beyond. Together, they have fully restored a dilapidated structure, peeling back 60 years of wallpaper and replacing carpets and adding new and antique furniture. Karen admits the whole episode was like the movie “The Money Pit,” except the floor, thankfully, didn’t cave in. All the rooms now have a fresh new look.Peter, coming from a corporate world, quickly picked up the tools of the handyman — from running the snowblower to turning fancy cornices on the crown molding trim. “I had never driven a nail into a piece of wood before,” he says. He runs the front desk, mans the bar and has developed the inn’s Web site. In the morning he seems pleased to offer couples another cup of “caffee.”How has the transplant taken? “I love it here. I don’t miss the traffic jams or endless noise one bit. Frankly, my first visit was the first good night of sleep I got. The serenity is everything,” says Karen.Getting to the Ammonoosuc Inn and Melanie’s Bistro is an “over the river and through the woods” experience. The journey is part of the fun. The country lane to the inn is lined with split rail fences and runs along the Ammonoosuc River.Actually, the property was once part of the Bishop Farm and later the Lisbon Country Club. It now sits adjacent to a few links that skirt the river.After five years in the kitchen, Karen has found a balance that satisfies her need to be creative and pleases the palate of the clientele.She admits that northern New Hampshire is not New York City and yet she is able to create dishes that surprise diners but not confound them. North-of- the-notchers are looking for new experiences, not pretensions. Fortunately, Karen believes in simple preparations presented simply. No over-dressed plates, just a nice mix of properly prepared foods with plenty of flavor from creative combinations of fresh and made-from-scratch ingredients. She uses her French classical technique, but not the heavy sauces. And definitely not any French names on the menu. Finding the right menu was a learning curve, but she acknowledges that the tastes of diners have changed, especially in the past two years, allowing her to broaden the horizons of the menu. Guests have come from all parts of the world to stay at the inn and dine at the bistro. ‘‘I enjoy that additional challenge,” she says.Karen calls her cuisine New American, but what does that really mean? After all, America is the melting pot of cultures and her menu reflects that diversity. She may create empanadas one day and Asian pot stickers the next. It is basically the same concept — dough and a filling — but the tastes are completely different, giving the menu a chance to vary.The kitchen features local foods — apples from Windy Ridge Orchard or cheeses from Vermont. Karen is continuing to explore the nearby culinary landscape. She has skills as a pastry chef, too. The bread basket may feature focaccia, dinner rolls or even a nice semolina. You will find her ravioli are made in-house, also. She takes pride in her from-scratch offerings.In the restaurant the wine list is a bit short, especially by the glass. Choices here are just Woodbridge varietals, but bottle choices seem more interesting.For dinner on a recent evening, Melanie’s Bistro featured a carrot-ginger soup served with grilled bread. Arancini was supplied with a nice bright marinara sauce that tasted like it was cooked all day, but looked like it wasn’t.Fresh salmon was plated with fresh brightly-hued green beans. Good color is always a good sign of proper technique in the kitchen. I was beginning to think if I was going to be snowbound this wouldn’t be a bad place to be.
Moments later a shrimp and pineapple dish arrived. The fruit had a nice char. Karen likes to flirt with that fine linebetween char and burnt, where caramelization adds another dimension to food. It really works!Karen is a one-woman show in the kitchen. You can take the New Yorker out of New York, but not the urban energy out of Karen. She speaks quickly and works even faster. “You have to be organized in this business,” she adds, and carries on in the kitchen while plotting the next project for Peter.Yes, there is a lot of Karen on each plate, but bless her heart, she does it all in fine form. The North Country should embrace all the fresh young talent that has gravitated to the area. It’s not just urban areas that need renewal. In fact, bless everybody with that comes to New Hampshire with a cogent vision and a shiny new hammer. NH