Worth the Trip
The road to a great chef’s home is never long.
THE SCENE: The drive to Saint Peter’s Village is daunting, with its dark, winding roads, scant signs of life or directional cues, and eerie quietude. For us, 35 miles of driving rain were rewarded with a postcard vision of a handsome, dramatically lit 1800s structure and the soothing sounds of French Creek rushing nearby. Despite the raw weather, our thoughts turned to cricket-filled, rose-scented summer nights and visions of the inn’s inviting Victorian porch crammed with patrons sipping cocktails and peering up at the stars. Thus, the mystery of why anyone east of Paoli would make this drive began to unfold. Quickly we slipped inside to escape the chill. To the right, the Fox Bar beckoned with its refined macho décor and cushy club chairs (think English manor house meets Chester County hunt club). A pair of huge wooden doors (once returns to an 18th-century fireplace) adorned with brass fox-head knockers retrieved from a bag of “junk” found in the basement lead to the masculine den—its rich mahogany and walnut woods, dark fabrics and leather accents evoking phantom images of red-jacketed riders and women in long dresses.
The main dining room (above) could be found just beyond the imposing staircase. Its prim, chromatic décor was a stark contrast to the brawny lounge. On this particular evening, the focal point was a centrally located round table set with a two-tiered multi-colored arrangement of long-stem roses in a remarkable state of bloom. A single rose on each table added a sense of composure that tied the room together.
Wide-striped gold-on-gold wallpaper; elegant, curvaceous ultra-suede chairs and banquettes; long, patterned floor-length tablecloths topped with bright white overlays; color-coordinated window treatments; and a tasteful gas fireplace channeled warmth and elegance. Though a minor quibble, the near-magical atmosphere could’ve benefited from more subdued lighting.
THE FOOD: The formal dining room’s lavishness belies chef/owner Martin Gagne’s minimalist style. Where you might expect frilly china with ornate patterns, he surprises with snowy geometric shapes—modest canvases on which to show off the quality and simplicity of the inn’s ingredients. Gagne’s anti-fusion philosophy and classic French training is evident from the menu. It’s simple yet sophisticated, refreshingly devoid of lengthy descriptions and absurd combinations.
A lively appetizer of thinly sliced Serrano ham, peppery baby arugula and a plump, freshly-picked fig impressed—its salty-sweet notes embellished by a drizzle of bright green parsley oil. The fig stole the show, with its jam-like consistency and vivid ruby hue akin to a ripe pink grapefruit.
Our second appetizer was an unusual pairing of portabella mushroom mousse and a lone seared diver scallop, served with a saffron fumé (similar in richness and flavor to a buerre blanc but made with fish stock). The brown, spongy mountain of mousse initially came off as unappetizing, but we grew to like its musky taste.
A scant sprinkle of salt and pepper was in order, but as is typical these days, neither was on the table. The velvety fumé pulled the dish together, and its saltiness complimented the earthy mushroom flavor. The saffron, however, was virtually undetectable.
The loin of lamb with fava beans and black summer truffles featured a modest six-ounce portion of USDA Colorado prime cut into long pieces (Gagne uses the saddle and purposely cuts the meat into a uniform shape), sautéed and browned with butter. Noticeably more refined than its New Zealand counterpart, the meat is similar to London broil, but less sinewy Fresh al dente fava beans complimented the rich flavors with a smooth starchiness similar to that of a tamale. The lamb itself was tame, and the too finely chopped truffles failed to make a statement on either the plate or the palate.
The rose pepper-crusted Alaskan halibut that arrived on a bed of shrimp risotto resembled Chilean sea bass in opaqueness and flounder in texture. Flaky, dry and dense, it was enlivened by the chive fumé and sweet, mildly pungent rose pepper.
Risotto is often too pasty, too stiff or too bland. But Gagne’s creamy version—packed with succulent rock shrimp, cooked just enough to have a bite to them—lived up to general manager Robert Amar’s proclamation as some of the best around.
Patissièr Peter Scarola, most recently of Lacroix, deserves kudos for his satisfying and cunning desserts. The intensely flavored milk chocolate crunch bar with homemade mocha ice cream offered bursts of sweet cocoa and crisp hazelnuts balanced by cool creaminess. Its angular shape and geometric trimming—a chocolate square with a smaller circle cutout wedged into the cake—was a delightful display of Scarola’s artistry.
The heartier black mission fig tart (above)—halved figs layered between Fig Newton- like cake moistened with a side of vanilla bean and mascarpone cheese gelato and a drizzle of tart lemon curd—was equally pleasing. A brittle meringue and pepper cigar was a tad jarring, but wryly highlighted the hidden layers of each course. Like Gagne, Scarola changes the dessert menu seasonally and makes room if one of the local farmers makes a surprise appearance with fresh ingredients.
THE EXPERIENCE: Both Amar (Happy Rooster, Solefood, Tangerine) and Gagne (Solefood) made multiple visits to our table, their old-school style of service cultivated during years of restaurant work. (By the end of the meal, we’d seen all the private dining rooms, decks and guest quarters. Our tour that ended with a stunning view of French Creek cascading over massive boulders.)
Virtually everything on the menu is a specialty ingredient. Farmers appear almost daily with goodies—fava beans from Maisie’s Farm in Ludwig’s Corner, organic figs from Scarecrow Farm in Lancaster. Other delicacies include vanilla beans from Costa Rica; Serrano ham from Castilla y Leon in Salamanca, Spain; Valrhona chocolate; and Plugra butter (Gagne’s signature seasoning).
Despite unmatched freshness and Gagne’s efforts to make individual ingredients stand on their own, flavors often benefitted from mixing. Together on the fork, the combinations thrilled. Yet the salty-sweet fumés, present in nearly every dish we had, lost some impact toward the end of the meal, leaving us wondering what else Gagne had up his sleeve.
An impressive meal ended on the right note with a plate of confections—green tea truffles, apple gelée and other indulgences—and two glasses of locally made French Creek Ridge ice wine purchased just up the road.
THE SKINNY: Refurbishing the inn has been a labor of love for Gagne (pictured below, left, with Amar and Scarola). And his attention to detail is formidable. Every inch of the facility, from the ornate bathrooms to the custom background music, bears his stamp. He’s reaching for the stars—five of them to be exact—and my guess is he’ll never lose sight of that. The Inn at Saint Peter’s Village is more than a restaurant—it’s another world. In time, there will be a culinary school, and the village itself will grow to include an organic grocery store and bakery.
In the end, only one minor misstep tainted the exceptional service: After debating entrée choices—the sea bass or the lamb—we ordered the bass. Shortly afterward, Amar came over and announced we were having the lamb, explaining that it had been our ‘gut’ choice. While such confidence is preferable to someone with no ability to guide, taking the liberty of revising our order bordered on presumptuous.
Reasonably priced from $30-$99, the well-rounded selection of wines featured recognizable names and what Amar refers to as “sleepers,” excellent, less prominent wines that offer a great value. Many hail from lesser-known regions in Europe or smaller domestic boutique vintners. Amar’s picks include Guigal Syrah ’01, Croze-Hermitage ($63); Bedford-Thompson Cabernet Franc ’99, Santa Barbara ($57); and Consilience Syrah ’02, Santa Barbara ($55).
Amar is more than happy to guide less experienced guests through the process of choosing a wine, going out of his way to make it fun and educational. It’s an accommodating quality both he and Gagne share—and one that makes what is, in most every respect, an opulent dining experience seem utterly unpretentious.
Be forewarned: The long post-meal drive, with its poorly lit spots, can’t be approached lightly. Those who like to unwind with a cocktail, sip wine through their meal, then linger over an after-dinner drink will appreciate Gagne’s foresight when they opt to cozy up in one of the inn’s plush rooms.
Location: 3471 Saint Peter’s Road, Saint Peter’s Village, (610) 469-2600.
Cuisine: Contemporary American with French influences.
Entrée prices: $26-$34 (new menu); $32-$39 (our visit).
Attire: Business casual to suburban chic.
Atmosphere: Old World charisma with contemporary punch; sophisticated but comfortable.
Hours: Dinner 6-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Extras: Private dining rooms, two decks. Porches, cocktail lounge; seven guest rooms with five more coming soon.