Taste: Room for the Inn
The Inn at St. Peter's Village brings upscale dining to deep Chester County.
We have come to St. Peter's Village to escape the city, driving past malls and sprawl, then farms and fields, so deep into Chester County that we are nearly in Berks. Center City is more than 50 miles from this cluster of Victorian cottages overlooking French Creek, built in the 1800s to house mine workers and businesses essential to their daily lives. But King of Prussia is much closer, and with new townhouses soon to rise nearby, the cottages are being restored to accommodate businesses essential to life in the 21st century: an organic grocery, a bakery, boutiques, a day spa and a yoga studio.
A dramatic transformation of the village inn is already complete. Nearly a year of down-to-the-bone renovations have turned a scruffy biker bar into the Inn at St. Peter's Village, a refined hotel and restaurant with three terraces overlooking the creek, and seven sumptuously furnished rooms for overnight guests. New owner Martin Gagné, who made substantial quality improvements to SoleFood at the Loews Hotel during two years there, is in this for the long haul: After moving to a farm in nearby Glenmoore six years ago, he was eager to give up his cumbersome commute to 12th and Market. Gagné hopes to market the inn as a spot for destination weddings and private parties, as well as a tranquil place to dine splendidly, filling a void left in the Pottstown area after the Coventry Forge Inn closed five years ago.
Gagné merges the relaxed vibe of a rural retreat with sophistication fit for a country squire. Tables in the butter-yellow dining room are double-draped with lovely French linens; heavyweight cutlery and crystal stemware gleam in the glow cast by a fireplace crafted from local stone. Twenty years ago, this sort of setting would have been a safe haven for shrimp cocktail and veal Oscar, but Gagné is having none of that. His repertoire of complimentary pre-_appetizers includes icy tuna tartare with pineapple, as well as slender shooter glasses filled with cucumber or asparagus aspic, wearing frothy heads of locally made yogurt infused with appropriate herbs – fresh dill for the cucumber, lemon verbena for the asparagus. The upscale-contemporary bent carries over to the casual-dining menu in the Fox Bar, home to fancy pizzas but no bottle beers, just six artisan brews on tap.
Gagné's grounding in French technique is evident in his love for sauces, which go beyond the usual suspects. A zingy pineapple and fresh ginger puree partners with a buttery, light-as-air foie gras mousse; Malpeque oysters pureed with oil and other ingredients to make mayonnaise lend briny elegance to a bistro-ish plate of seared sardines. At brunch, the hollandaise that gilds a pair of poached eggs over crab and potato hash is lightly tinted a Seuss-ian green, taking its cheeky color from blanched and blenderized scallions.
Nor is Gagné's terrine the usual thing. Rather than using pork, veal or duck, the chef fashions a richly textured loaf from chanterelle mushroom caps, gelled chicken broth and a touch of grainy mustard, serving the warm slices with slender green beans and house-made parsley oil. Soups are poured at tableside around a key ingredient already in the bowl. A small crabcake takes very well to the sweetness of cream and butternut squash, but I was less enthralled by the pairing of smoked wild salmon and a chilled asparagus soup; the salmon's strong flavor obliterated the subtlety of the vegetable.
My favorite entrée is a crowd-pleaser carried over from SoleFood, a thick cut of Alaskan halibut speckled with cracked pink peppercorns, resting on a creamy white pillow of risotto with sweet rock shrimp and watercress. But I'm also quite fond of the house-made rigatoni, crimped at the ends to contain a ricotta cheese filling, tossed with generous amounts of Kennett Square chanterelle mushrooms and asparagus.
Game wasn't yet on the menu when I visited, though Gagné has since introduced rabbit, pheasant and venison. The plump veal medallion with braised leeks, carrots and brussels sprouts was the best of the autumn meat dishes, and I give Gagné extra props for not reflexively using bacon with brussels sprouts, as too many chefs do. Slices of lamb loin with fava beans were pleasant enough, but the dish lacked the truffle flavor it was supposed to have, and the wow factor that a $39 entrée absolutely must have. A crisp potato cake accompanies the filet mignon, though the seared foie gras on top feels like an afterthought.
The knockout desserts will astonish anyone who isn't aware that pastry chef Peter Scarola previously worked at Lacroix, and at Jean Joho's Everest restaurant in Chicago. They are works of modern art, particularly the caramelized Bartlett pear “pearls,” pea-size scoops of pear turned to gold by exposure to high heat, butter and sugar. Banana crème brûlèe is served in slices, like a terrine, with crisp edges. A deep parfait glass of saffron-tweaked peach melba is dotted with raspberries. House-made ice creams and sorbets, particularly one made with passion fruit, are extraordinary.
If this were the old days, when veal Oscar was king, a couple of foil-wrapped chocolate mints might come with the check. But Gagné serves up the tab as many French restaurants do, with a small bonus tray of miniature pastries and fruit jelly candies. Scarola's bite-size chocolate ganache tarts, peanut butter cookies and cassis-flavored gumdrops will leave you wanting more, and I am happy to report that if you come for brunch, you'll be able to help yourself to a sweets table heaped with them.