(Hartstone Inn Dining Room)
The Hartstone Inn is located in a 19th century house in Camden, Maine. It has a AAA 4-Diamond rating, which attests to a high standard of service. The cuisine has also received strong reviews and Chef Michael Salmon cooked a dinner at the James Beard House in 2011. However, I had been once before and was only mildly impressed by the cuisine—my halibut had been well-executed, but the pasta was overcooked and the dish suffered from too much cream. The restaurant had fallen off my radar but the pleasant setting and bargain price of $24.50 for two courses lured me back, and so my mother and I made a reservation for September 1.
With an idyllic setting in a New England hamlet, Hartstone Inn passes the ‘eye test’ and looks like the embodiment of what people pine for when they want to escape to a New England bed and breakfast. One enters into the foyer and is led through the house to the dining room, which looks out onto the well-manicured garden. In general, I am drawn to restaurants located in houses as they combine the familiar and the unfamiliar in comforting ways—it’s this contrast that I enjoyed with Charlie Trotter’s, for example. However, I’ve also found that such restaurants run the risk of being too dull, and so the main issue for me was whether Hartstone Inn would be able to generate enough stimulation.
At the time of our 6:00 reservation, there was only one other occupied table; the dining room is long and narrow and may have served as a porch in a previous incarnation of the house. This was one of the smaller dining rooms I’ve dined in and it carries the connotations of a dinner party. As one can see from the picture below, the table setting was very elaborate, with silver utensils, china bread plates, etc. There is definitely a ‘polish’ to the setting that creates the expectation for similarly pristine cuisine. However, while the thick menu book suggests an elaborate menu, there is very little decision-making to be done on the part of the diner.
Although there is a five-course option at the later seating, the 6:00 time slot involves a predetermined starter and a choice between three different main dishes. The starter was a Greek salad with feta cheese, kalamata olives, and tiger shrimp. For the main dish, I selected the beef tenderloin with mushroom ravioli. Meanwhile, my mom went with the haddock dish, which was accompanied by Gulf of Maine shrimp, buttered English peas, and an herb butter sauce.
The bread service consisted of crusty whole grain bread. I was actually familiar with the bread as it was sourced from a local bakery, and I have used this bread many times in the past for sandwiches at home. Ordinarily, I would have no problem with sourcing one’s bread from an external supplier, but I also feel like the conservative setting of Hartstone Inn—in which no apparent attempt is made to ‘wow’ the diner—needs to at least make more of an effort with basic culinary preparations like the bread service. Although I genuinely enjoy this particular bread, I did not care for it in the context of this inn. This really reminded me of Restaurant Michael in Winnetka, whereby the restaurant establishes a shiny façade that wears off upon close examination.
The appetizer arrived in a nice composition with an edible flower; it was dressed with a garlicky balsamic dressing that, while applied a bit liberally for my taste, held stronger flavor than anything I had consumed on my previous visit. The highlight of the dish was the tiger shrimp, which had an intense olive oil/garlic flavor. I did find it a bit uncanny how much this dish felt like the first course of a dinner party; compounding this was the fact that everyone in the 6:00 seating was served this more or less at the same time. While the cuisine was not overly interesting, the ambience was comfortable and demonstrated an interesting balance (or confusion) between public and private that I have rarely witnessed in a restaurant.
Our main dishes were large in scope, with more accompaniments than specified on the menu. Unbeknownst to me, there were carrots, broccoli, and zucchini, and these same vegetables arrived on my mother’s plate as well. This rubbed me the wrong way since perhaps my greatest restaurant pet peeve is when the same accompaniments arrive on dishes that otherwise have no relation to each other—it felt as though the vegetables were an afterthought and that they had a need to simply fill space on the plate. While the composition was not displeasing to the eye, I really wish that they had found some means of individualizing the vegetables to the rest of the dish, or simply used a smaller plate and disregarded the vegetables altogether. I don’t typically order steak but I do enjoy it and I figured that the traditionally-minded kitchen would execute a comfortable steak preparation. I was, therefore, disappointed when the steak was not tender and had very little flavor—this did not even taste like beef tenderloin. Therefore, I took it upon myself to inquire as to the grade of the meat and was informed that it was USDA Choice. (Even though I was disappointed by the beef, the service was gracious and my server graciously fielded my inquiries with a calm disposition.)While this explained the shallow flavor, it also felt like an example of the restaurant maintaining a superficially luxurious appearance that disguises what was not a particularly high-quality cut of meat. For a restaurant that maintains a luxurious, vacationland façade, I would have preferred either a locally-sourced grass-fed beef or a Prime cut. Although the vegetables tasted like they could have been cooked in a microwave, the mushroom ravioli was quite nice, however. Still, with all of the different components, this dish felt as though the components had been conceptualized in isolation, adhering to a protein/vegetable/starch framework while disregarding whether they worked in relation to one another.
My mother’s haddock arrived ample in portion and was breaded, which had not been stated on the menu. While fried haddock is obviously commonplace in New England, in the context of what is purportedly a “Fine Dining Inn” it is not self-evident that the fish would be fried. Fortunately, the breading was very light and the herb butter sauce nicely unified the different components without overwhelming the fish. Based on this haddock preparation and the halibut I enjoyed on my prior visit, I would order the fish option on future visits.
Adding to the dinner party vibe, the chef/owner made his way to each table, stopping at ours after we had finished our entrees. His didn’t have the alpha male personality one finds in some chefs and his gracious, jovial demeanor created the impression that he was operating as both chef and host.
Although I had not been terribly impressed by the cuisine, the experience was quite pleasant and so we ordered dessert. I chose the housemade sorbet trio, while my mom went with the Maine blueberry crème brulee. This was a good choice on my part. There were three sorbet preparations with citrus tuile: lemon, pineapple, and rhubarb; it was intense and still held vestiges of the fruit inside. There were also diced kiwi, pineapple, and strawberry below the sorbet, which created a nice textural contrast. I do feel as though the diced fruit is the sort of touch one would find at a dinner party and to this extent, there is an aspect of Hartstone Inn’s cuisine that is pleasantly amateurish.
I don’t care for crème brulee and so I passed on trying my mom’s dessert; she informed me that the blueberries were quite nice but that the texture of the dessert was a bit too soft.
This was a pleasant meal and a real bargain; at $24.50/2 courses and $29.50/3, I would return for the fish preparations and the sorbet. The ‘cozy New England retreat’ ambiance was pleasant and service operated at a high standard. I do feel, though, that the kitchen does not give their patrons enough credit—I find it hard to believe that people would not be disappointed by the tenderloin preparation, and the hierarchical segregation between protein, starch and vegetables suggests a lack of inspiration. This meal clarified the impact that price can have on an experience; although I am satisfied by the meal, if I were paying double the price (which is what one would expect to pay given the 4-diamond rating) I would have walked away quite displeased. My impressions are definitely similar those of my meal at Restaurant Michael, in which the restaurant provides a clinical exercise in ‘fine dining,’ maintaining a handsome sheen that is backed by little actual stimulation and substance. Still, Hartstone Inn is a comfortable experience, and its attractive space and lip service paid to fine dining ingredients ensures that it will likely remain popular.