The Windowed Hearth: A Review

Not much time to blog for the next few days so here is an old restaurant review I wrote. Enjoy!

The Windowed Hearth at the Lord Jeffery Inn, 30 Boltwood Avenue, Amherst, MA

Visited on: 17 March 2006

Having grown up in a nearby town, I always wanted to stay at the famed Lord Jeffery Inn in Amherst, MA. When I had to attend a conference at UMASS Amherst last week, I did the next best thing. Rather than giving in to the buffet dinner, with its mass-produced food, cash bar, and schmoozing with the colleagues, I made a reservation for dinner at the Inn’s fine-dining option, The Windowed Hearth.

On the website, one can find a great explanation of the restaurant’s name: “In colonial times a windowed hearth served as a guiding light for travelers, beckoning from a distanced flickering assurance that warmth, hospitality and a fitting end to the day's journey were within reach.” The page goes on to promise an “offering of local products prepared with heartfelt care, a combination of the traditional with the innovative…the finest fare New England has to offer.” A large promise, indeed, but one that, by the end of the evening, I felt was definitely fulfilled.

It was freezing cold in downtown Amherst, and I could see my breath as I walked from my convenient parking space in a small lot across from the Inn. I entered at exactly 7 p.m., and the hardwood floors creaked the way they do in colonial homes. The front desk staff welcomed me with a smile and pointed me to the small, firelit room on my left, the one that I had walked right by. This was The Windowed Hearth. To my dismay, not a soul was present. Empty restaurants make me nervous. I wonder, “Does everyone else in the world know something I don’t?”

The host/server/bartender appeared. A courteous, handsome, warm young man, he was the consummate professional during my visit. After joking about my having a reservation, he sat me right in front of the roaring fire. He handed me the menu, and the winelist, and informed me that the restaurant doesn’t have specials. This was fine by me, because I had seen the menu online, and had been thinking about certain items since then.

The menu is not vast, but it is complete. We’ll start at the beginning. Appetizers range from $5 to $9.95 and include the traditional New England Clam Chowder, the ubiquitous Crab Cakes with Remoulade Sauce, and an interesting Baked Camembert Cheese, “topped with brown sugar, toasted almonds and honey oven baked and served with inn-made toast points.” I had my eye on the Lobster Ravioli, however. They were served in a pasta bowl, three large diamonds overlapping each other. The pasta had black stripes made of squid ink, and the contrast with the white plate was dramatic. There were large chunks of lobster in the warm, creamy filling, and the accompanying sauce, described on the menu as a sherried cream sauce, did not disappoint. To go with my appetizer, I had inquired about sparkling wines by the glass and was offered Cook’s Champagne. I don’t usually follow the white-with-seafood rule, as I am not a big fan of white wine, so I went ahead and ordered the Cook’s. It was delivered to me in a white wine glass, a service error to some, but a bonus to me, as it offered a much larger portion than a flute would have and complemented the raviolis well.

Entrée choices are very reasonably priced and included beef (Filet Mignon - $26, Tenderloin Tips - $21), chicken (Pecan Encrusted Chicken - $19), and several seafood choices (Herb Seared Shrimp - $21, Fire Roasted Salmon - $20, Grilled Scallops - $22). There was a unique version of surf-n-turf called One by Land, Three by Sea ($26), that was a petite filet mignon served with three lobster ravioli. According to the menu, their signature dish, priced at $21, is a 16 oz. Braised Lamb Shank that is “slow braised at low temperature in lamb stock and red wine flavored with garlic and green olives which results in remarkably tender and flavorful lamb.” Although it sounded quite delicious, I don’t do lamb.

Which brings us to the Culver Duck Breast ($20), my final decision. The menu informed me that the Culver is a strain of Long Island duckling known for its larger breast.. When it was delivered to me, I understood what they meant. Medallions of perfectly seared, medium-rare duck breast were fanned in such a way that they made a whole semi-circle on the large round plate. Never have I received so much duck for the buck. It was cooked to a spot-on medium rare and was fork-tender, well-seasoned, and simply delicious. In the center of the plate was a generous portion of creamy garlic mashed potatoes, and at 6 o’clock, five crisp, perfectly cooked asparagus spears. A demi-glaze made of cranberries and port wine, and a garnish of round red grapes not only gave the plate beautiful color, but enhanced the flavor of the duck. I followed the menu’s wine suggestion and partook in a glass of the very versatile red zinfandel, of which only one choice was available by the glass. Lush and lively, with strong dark berry and pepper undertones, the wine brought out the cranberry port glaze and was an excellent choice. I wish I knew the name of it!

I forced myself to finish the duck, leaving behind a few bites of potato and a couple of asparagus spears in doing so. The server cleared and brought the dessert list. I didn’t think I could do it, but I would give it a go. He ‘strongly recommended’ the Peppermint Ice Cream Pie, made with ice cream from a local dairy farm. This tugged at me. I am a fervent supporter of using local products, and had it been any flavor but peppermint, this would have sealed the deal. However, having had a French favorite for my main course, I settled on the Crème Brulee. Again, the portion size amazed me. I have had dozens of crème brulees in my life, always served in a shallow ramekins of varying shapes. The larger area of the shallow dish allows for more of what makes crème brulee such a prize – the burnt sugar. This version was served in what I can only call a “tea-cup without a handle.” Rich, thoroughly chilled, creamy and full of vanilla flavor, it was among the best I have had. Although there was less sugar, what was there was caramelized to the ideal crunchiness, and there was more of the delicious custard to enjoy in the larger-sized cup.

As I watched the fire flicker and sipped a cup of Earl Gray, I realized I was completely and utterly satisfied. I imagined the many travelers who, having been drawn in by the fire in the window, felt this same contentment after their meal. The food quality and freshness was excellent, the portions were large enough that I felt I received a deal for the price, and the service was first rate. I will most definitely be back to The Windowed Hearth.

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