A Cozy Escape From Winter

Fireplace and candlelight bring warmth to the Inn at Turner's Mill.

Open the doors to the Inn at Turner's Mill, and you're likely to think you've stepped into an early American tavern.

On any winter evening, the much-renovated 1852 mill is aglow with candlelight. In the "library," diners pull their black Windsor chairs up to tables draped with paisley-and-white linen before a crackling fire. Dried-flower festoons and antique cabinets fill the corners of the main dining room, while the old brick walls display quilts and naive paintings. In the cozy downstairs tavern room, guests enjoy a light "tavern menu" with musical entertainment on the weekends. Meanwhile, through the huge windows of the enclosed dining porch, patrons can watch the silvery snow as it blows through the heart of this historic Western Reserve village.

All in all, it's about as pretty a picture as you can paint in Northeast Ohio at this time of year. And the food is nearly as attractive as the setting, making the restaurant a pleasant getaway for this otherwise dreary season.

On a recent Saturday night, three dining companions and I set out to Hudson to banish our own case of the post-holiday blues.

Executive Chef Gary Bessette designs relatively short but creative seasonal menus that emphasize the best in American foodstuffs. The winter menu features hearty foods like roasted vegetables, hickory-smoked chicken, butternut squash, apples, walnuts, and cranberries. Beef, seafood, and an interesting-sounding but pricey venison chop also get their due. A few daily specials are listed on the menu to round out the selections.

We began our meal with two soups and two appetizers.
The soup of the day, a coral-hued lobster bisque, was a satisfying starter. A dollop of creme fraiche in the center of the bowl gave the smooth, mild soup an extra boost of richness while creating an attractive color contrast. A hearty bowl of cream of broccoli soup --enhanced with grated Cheddar cheese and three large, crisp croutons--was even better.

An appetizer of three small grilled pierogi stuffed with pureed roasted butternut squash, roasted black walnuts, and mascarpone cheese, and garnished with a tangle of crunchy, fried butternut squash threads, was deliciously different. Served on a pool of Vermont maple cream and dusted with cinnamon, the dish was unusually sweet for an appetizer.

Our final first-course selection was a small "beggar's purse" of phyllo dough drawn around a flavorful filling of hickory-smoked chicken, apples, and herbed cream cheese. The dainty dish, set upon a sauce of savory caramelized shallots and Pinot Noir-flavored butter, had a fine mix of crunchy and creamy textures, and smoky and sweet tastes.

The inn has received Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence each year since 1991 in recognition of its large, inclusive wine cellar. With my appetizer, I enjoyed a glass of 1996 Round Hill Merlot, an outstanding, full-flavored red with a velvety texture, reasonably priced at $4.95 a glass. Bottles of almost everything in the cellar are also available "to go" at state minimum retail prices--a real convenience for those of us who spend precious hours scouring wine stores for vintages discovered during memorable restaurant meals.

Like my glass of wine, most of the entrees represented a good value. Except for a one-pound lobster tail aberrantly priced at $65 (maybe it was a pet?), main courses ranged from $18.95 to $32.95, with fully half of the selections priced at a relatively modest $24 or less.

Three of us opted to replace the standard house salad--crisp mixed greens topped with julienned carrots and dressed in a mild citrus-balsamic vinaigrette--with one of the "specialty" side salads, for an additional $3.95.

The first--romaine lettuce coated in a traditional Caesar salad dressing and garnished with croutons and anchovies--was very good if not unusual.

More interesting was the Boston Bibb Salad--buttery leaves of Bibb lettuce topped with juicy orange segments and toasted pecans, and moistened with a sweet-and-sour poppyseed dressing. Best of all, especially for diners with a sweet tooth, was the evening's special salad: a mound of baby lettuces sprinkled with creamy Gorgonzola cheese, sugar-and-spice-coated walnuts, and cubes of cinnamon-scented poached Bartlett pears, all dressed in a mild balsamic vinaigrette.

With our salads, our pleasant and helpful server brought slices of wonderful housebaked walnut-and-bleu-cheese bread. Dense yet tender, the fresh bread was an ideal complement to the salads.

We selected a New York strip steak, a roasted-vegetable platter, linguine with poached lobster, and a special--Chilean sea bass--as our entrees.

For all the overcooked, flavorless fish to be had, even in some of the region's top restaurants, I am always grateful to be reminded of how light, delicate, and tasty a perfectly done filet can be. And my pan-roasted sea bass was one of the best. Meltingly tender inside its wafer-thin, crisp coating of seasoned flour, topped with more crunchy threads of winter squash, and moistened with a rich Jonah crab-and-sherry cream sauce, it was totally delicious. It floated on a portion of cranberry-spiked risotto that, although flavorful, seemed a little heavy for the fish. The dish also came with a generous portion of fresh, well-prepared green and yellow beans and carrots.

A measure of the quality of the New York strip steak was that, although it was cooked--as ordered--to medium-well, it arrived tender, juicy, and flavorful. Perhaps some of the steak's juiciness was due to the smoky-tasting natural reduction sauce and the ragout of wild mushrooms that accompanied it. In any case, sided by mashed potatoes and green and yellow beans, it was one good piece of meat.

Our third entree was a big bowl of tomato linguine and orange-tarragon linguine with poached Maine lobster in a buttery Chardonnay sauce. We were thrilled by the generous amount of sweet claw and knuckle meat in the dish, especially considering its modest $24 price tag. The flavors of the two types of pastas remained distinct and blended nicely with the finely diced carrots, yellow squash, and zucchini that garnished the dish. We only wished the pasta had been a little more al dente.

Our roasted vegetable platter was tasty and imaginative. Although the dish was described as featuring winter veggies, the kitchen seemed to have broadened its scope in its pursuit of pleasing combinations of flavor and texture. Thin, crisp spears of asparagus and slabs of roasted red pepper commingled with more seasonal baby beets, Brussels sprouts, artichoke hearts, and winter squash in a modest amount of hearty, rosemary-scented broth. Atop the vegetables was a large roasted portobello mushroom cap that, in turn, held up two crisp leek-and-potato cakes. Our diner was pleased to find such a robust but relatively low-fat meal.

Although we were grateful we had been able to leave our kiddies at home for the evening, we were charmed to find that the inn offers chicken fingers, grilled cheese sandwiches, hamburgers, and spaghetti to well-mannered tykes under the age of ten for only $5.95. Taken together with the reasonable prices on the regular menu, this helps make the restaurant a realistic choice for special family celebrations.

Our desserts were the only disappointments of the night. Pastry chef Bob Sferra changes the dessert selections frequently, and this night our choices included a trio of champagne, peach, and cranberry sorbets; carrot cake; Coffee Bean Creme Brulee; three chocolate creations; and Ben and Jerry's ice cream. In keeping with the seasonal theme, we wished there had been something wonderful with apples, pears, or pumpkin. But we made do with the carrot cake, the creme brulee, a wedge of flourless Chocolate Decadence, and a white-chocolate-and-macadamia-nut semifreddo.

We were disappointed in the fudgy Chocolate Decadence. Although it was very dense and rich, it lacked sweetness and needed a sugar glaze or chocolate ganache coating.

The White-Chocolate Semifreddo--a chilled, light-textured mousse--had a better balance of flavors. Studded with chopped macadamia nuts and garnished with choice bits of fresh pineapple, it tasted sweet and rich, but refreshing.

The three-layered carrot cake with pineapple cream-cheese frosting was moist and dense, but not especially flavorful. Conversely, while we loved the coffee-bean-infused flavor of the creme brulee, the custard was a little on the thin side. Next time, we may just skip desserts and pick up a pint of Cherry Garcia on the way home.

On the whole, though, we were pleased with the cozy setting, the flavorful foods, and the hospitable service. We can't wait to see what Chef Bessette cooks up next season; it's just one more reason to look forward to spring.

The Inn at Turner's Mill.
36 East Streetsboro Street, Hudson, 330-655-2949 (Akron) or 330-656-2949 (Cleveland). Call for hours.

Lobster Bisque $6.95

Cream of Broccoli Soup $4.95

Pierogi of Butternut Squash $8.95

Phyllo Beggar's Purse $9.95

Chargrilled New York Strip Steak $28.95

Oven-Roasted Winter Vegetables $18.95

Linguine with Maine Lobster $23.95

Chilean Sea Bass $26.95

Carrot Cake $6

Chocolate Decadence $6.50

White-Chocolate Semifreddo $6.50

Coffee Bean Creme Brulee $6.75

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