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Great Country Inns

Top chefs are bringing their talents to rural retreats, upstaging even the four-poster beds and the glorious views

Few things in the world are more comforting than a country inn. What could be better than fresh coffee and cinnamon rolls to start the day, a brisk walk in the woods to pass the afternoon and a good book by a fireplace to wind up the evening? And yet something could turn out to be wrong with this picture. That heartily anticipated and well-deserved dinner at the inn's charming restaurant all too often becomes the weekend's low point, as if gastronomic anticlimax were the price of rural peace. But the happy news is that more and more talented chefs are leaving their jobs in big cities and taking up posts at inns, lured by the pleasures of country life: privileged access to wild creatures from waters and pastures, more leisure time to contemplate the perfect plate and space for a generous herb garden. The three inns on these pages promise old-fashioned pampering and incredible food that will surprise even the most jaded urban palate. Although they might be country cousins, they're anything but provincial in taste.

Vancouver Island
Hunkered down on a rocky headland near the quiet town of Tofino on Canada's Vancouver Island, the Wickaninnish Inn fits as naturally into its setting as the spruce fringing the nearby beach. Built in 1996, the inn is rustic yet sybaritic, with each of its 46 guest rooms offering an ocean view.

A nature theme pervades Wickaninnish. Hand-hewn cedar beams and woodwork by Pacific Northwest artisans decorate the inn, and the brand new Ancient Cedars Spa offers beauty therapies inspired by the forest and the sea. And then there's chef Rodney J. Butters's cooking at The Pointe restaurant. Butters relies almost exclusively on British Columbia suppliers, such as foragers who hunt for chanterelles, matsutakes and other wild mushrooms. Fishmongers sell him giant oysters from Clayoquot Sound (he grills them in the shell until they're firm and meaty) and acorn barnacles as big as fists (he steams them in their own succulent juices). Butters also pairs local smoked black cod with a silky pudding of organic corn, red pepper, onion and milk and tops a Parmesan-crusted vegetable torta with rainbow-colored strips of beet, yam, parsnip and potato. Add the wild Pacific surf as a backdrop, and life at Wickaninnish couldn't get much better.
(500 Osprey Lane at Chesterman Beach, Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia; 250-725-3100.) --Providence Cicero

Prince Edward Island
Mention Prince Edward Island on Canada's Atlantic coast and bivalve buffs start praising the area's blue mussels and Malpeque oysters. But chances are they won't have heard of The Inn at Bay Fortune, where chef Michael Smith has fashioned a fantastic restaurant on a remote harbor almost an hour's drive from Charlottetown, the capital.

Smith, a native New Yorker, has gained a name in Canada for his TV series, The Inn Chef. He signed up with Bay Fortune soon after his 1991 graduation from New York's Culinary Institute of America, thinking he'd be living on the West Coast. (He realized his mistake after pulling out a map to plot the cross-country drive.) When he arrived at the inn, he found his kitchen in a shingled 1910 building, with 17 Shaker-style guest rooms, which attracts a well-heeled clientele "from away" (as the locals put it).

At first, Smith's suppliers considered him odd. As he says, "I'm fascinated with anything that fishermen normally throw back, like sturgeon or urchin. I got a reputation as someone who would buy anything." He is also delighted by the local cheeses, and he grows his own vegetables in a three-acre garden. These ingredients are the basis for his cuisine, inspiring such dishes as sweet-potato chowder with mussels, terrine of roasted carrots and goat cheese, and molasses-glazed pork tenderloin stuffed with Cheddar.

Smith became a co-owner of the inn a year ago, and he remains its culinary adviser, even as he opens a second restaurant, Maple, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (His former sous-chef, Jeff McCourt, now runs the Bay Fortune kitchen.) That's not bad for someone "from away."
(Bay Fortune, Prince Edward Island; 902-687-3745. Open from May to mid-October.) --Monica F. Forrestall

Rural Massachusetts
The 10-year-old Stonehedge Inn in the Massachusetts woodlands got lucky last September when chef Jon Mathieson decided to get back to his country roots. Mathieson's style--sophisticated yet unpretentious, an all but oxymoronic combination--certainly shows off his five years as sous-chef at Manhattan's haute Lespinasse. But it also reflects a childhood spent milking cows and canning preserves on his grandfather's farm.

Stonehedge had been a farm, too--a 33-acre horse farm. Thoroughbreds, now retired, still graze picturesquely behind white fences, which is perfectly in keeping with the equestrian theme of Mathieson's restaurant, Silks. The dining room has a vaulted, oak-beamed ceiling, an L-shaped conservatory terrace, banquettes big and squashy enough for napping and a swarm of tuxedoed waiters schooled in European silver service. The sommelier is especially important, as the 43,000-bottle list is encyclopedic, with depth and brilliance and some bargains to boot.

Mathieson's food is as impressive as the wine list. His menus, which are written in French, are simple, and his cuisine is so delicious that it's impossible not to wipe every plate clean with his fabulous nutty seven-grain rolls. One of the best dishes is the broiled shrimp wrapped in nori and accompanied by avocado, chives and jewels of chive oil. Another standout is the satiny white bean soup spiked with lemon preserves and cilantro. (Mathieson grows his own herbs and trawls the Hudson Valley for produce.) There are "How does he do that?" moments with his grilled lobster, haricots verts and baby turnips and his rose-pink rack of lamb on couscous with eggplant and bell peppers--so much better than the sum of their parts. Even a lunchtime sandwich of baby spinach, braised wild mushrooms and herbed goat cheese rolled up in lavash is sublime and worth every one of the 40 miles from Boston.

In addition to Silks, the inn also has 30 guest suites decorated in a beautiful French-country style and a pretty spa in which to work up an appetite.
(160 Pawtucket Blvd., Tyngsboro, Massachusetts; 978-649-4400.) --Kate Sekules

Published March 1999
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