Sunday, July 6, 2008

A birthday celebration and top 10 meal at the Elm Court Inn

The time has come. This post is a report on the Elm Court Inn in North Egrement, my very favorite restaurant in the world. Before I start, I offer this disclaimer, which will become increasingly self-evident shortly: this is not an unbiased review. I've been going to the Elm Court since I was very young, and the proprietors and most of the waitstaff know our family. But it is a restaurant of the absolutely top caliber, and this time around I had three outsiders to corroborate that declaration.

View from the parking lot

Gorgeous gardens

The Elm Court is a delightfully adorable small country inn in the tiny town of North Egremont, Massachusetts. Our party arrived and immediately the hostess inquired whose birthday it was-- a sure tip-off that my mother had been arranging things behind the scenes. After the requisite birthday wishes were bestowed, we were led to our table, where I was greeted with my own personal menu. Yes, my mom had them print menus. Wow. Both hilarious and ridiculous in equal measure.

Yes, it says "Happy 23rd Birthday Janine" at the top. I can't explain.

Our waitress, a friend of the family, came over to offer the specials, which all sounded pretty delicious. We pondered the specials and the non-specials as the wine list arrived. I selected a California Sauvignon Blanc to start. It had a good aroma but was a tiny bit too oaky for my taste. After we finished that bottle, I chose the other kind of Sauvignon Blanc, which was better received-- it had a darker, golden color and a pure, clear taste.

Quivira Sauvignon Blanc, in an ice bath to stay cooool

As we were making our menu choices, the bread basket arrived. There were two kinds of bread on offer, a seeded multi-grain bread and a rosemary white with an intoxicating fragrance. The bread was warm and soft in its napkin-shrouded basket, and though it came with a bottle of olive oil for dipping, we requested good ol' butter (hey, this was not going to be a healthy meal... might as well go crazy). Both types of bread were incredibly good, fresh and high quality with good crust and satisfying chew. The butter was cold, but since butter is not standard for their bread basket (so they wouldn't necessarily have it out at room temp), we cannot fault them for that.

Multigrain on the left; rosemary on the right

The butter. I'll admit we artfully arranged the little pats before taking this picture.

After much agonizing (some of the specials sounded reallllly good), we finally placed our order and waited just the right amount of time for the appetizers to come. The first to arrive was S's selection, one of the specials: a strawberry soup. We all oohed and ahhed when we heard the dish on offer, and it arrived pretty much as had all expected: a strawberry...soup. With a dollop of whipped cream on top. S dug in; as she described, and as the taste I sniped from her corroborated, it tasted like a smoothie. Yum. I would gladly have had that for dessert. But more on that later...

Like melted strawberry ice cream

My dad got the French onion soup, one of the restaurant's specialties. When I was younger, I used to love this soup-- but since it's made with beef stock, the current vegetarian version of me can no longer indulge. But Dad reported that it was as good as ever.

Onion soup with gooey, caramelized, bubbling gruyere

Both SL and A got the porcini mushroom ravioli with sage butter. I tried a tiny taste, and these were powerfully good, with an intensely savory filling that screamed "umami." SL and A both sang the praises of this dish, and rightfully so.

Flecks of sage atop mushroom-stuffed parcels

Mom and I had gotten the Elm Court Inn House Salad. This is one of my favorite salads in the world; it's pretty basic, with mesclun, a few endive garnishes with cherry tomatoes, and a creamy herb dressing. The magic happens with the celeriac, which, unlike at the Swiss Hutte, was an assertive and ample tangle atop the greens. For some reason, maybe because this salad tastes like my childhood, it's just so good. I couldn't ask for anything more.

If there were another tomato peeking out, it would look like a rabbit

But, of course, we still had the entrees to come. After the appetizers were finished, we had a leisurely break between courses, during which we sipped our second bottle of wine and chatted as only four twenty-something girls and a set of parents can. But make no mistake-- when the entrees began to arrive, we were all business.

My dad had gotten the Weinerschnitzel, another one of the Elm Court's specialties. I also used to love the Weinerschnitzel, which makes the current vegetarian me cringe a little bit... but it was just so good, crispy with the thinnest piece of veal and a savory brown sauce that just completed the whole dish. I know what this tastes like, so I didn't have to get a full report from my dad-- only confirmation that it was as good as ever (it was). The Weinerschnitzel also comes with roesti potatoes, which are miles and miles better than the Swiss Hutte version.

Weinerschnitzel with a bit of roestis in the back

My mom ordered the soft-shell crabs. This was a fairly sizeable portion of pan-fried crab, and it was cris-crossed with a creamy sauce. My mom loves soft-shell crabs, and she really enjoyed this dish.

My dad said this looked like roadkill

All three other girls-- S, SL, and A-- ordered the rack of lamb. It was three hefty lamb portions, bone-in, accompanied by roestis (of course). Obviously, I didn't taste this, but the chorus of enraptured noises emanating from the three of them as they tucked in spoke for itself. Let me just say that as we rode home after the meal, stomachs distended, they were still reminiscing about this lamb.

Tender rack of lamb... with a rosemary feather in its cap

Entrees at the Elm Court are always accompanied by veggies for the table. This time it was zucchini, carrots, and fingerling potatoes. I cobbled together a bunch of these veggies-- cooked perfectly, of course, with a bit of butter to enhance the flavor but not enough to drown them-- as my entree, supplemented with a bit of roestis.

Glossy zucchini matchsticks

A dam of steamed carrots

Collectively, this was my entree

And even though that was a truly stunning entree course, the dinner was far from over. When the Elm Court appears in my dreams, it appears in dessert form. One particular dessert, in fact: The Almond Cookie Cup. Even though the Swiss Hutte has a cookie basket, the Elm Court version is playing in a different league. The cookie is crisp, thick, and tasty, with bits of almonds embedded in the almost fortune-cookie like texture. A boule of sweet vanilla ice cream sits under strawberries and raspberries, glossed with raspberry sauce and buried under whipped cream. And of course, this time, mine came with candles and the requisite off-key chorus of "happy birthday." I demolished this cookie cup and never looked back.

Birthday cookie cup!

SL and Mom both ordered the cookie cup, but with chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla and no whipped cream. It looks a little spare, but they both enjoyed it (as well they should).

The chocolate version... sans whipped cream

S ordered the Coupe Denmark, with is a dish of vanilla ice cream and a boat of chocolate sauce. She requested coffee ice cream instead, so in the end she basically had the most luxe mocha sundae imaginable. This chocolate sauce was thick and dark and had the unmistakable taste of real Swiss chocolate. When we were nearing the end of our cookie cups, SL requested an extra boat of chocolate sauce for us to dip our cookie remnants in. That was a good call.

This image will stay with me for a long, long time

The only non-winner of the evening was A's gingerbread. It was powerfully gingery, but I've never had gingerbread before so I'm not sure whether that's normal. There was a pool of something on the bottom-- A guessed it might be maple syrup, but she said she was trying to "avoid it." I think this dessert was just too intense, and it went unfinished. Oh well...

Gingerbread. Meh.

So in the end, gingerbread aside, we were full of food, wine, and good cheer. The Elm Court Inn is a truly special place, and this was pretty clearly the best birthday dinner I've ever had. It's always nice to have a place where the people know you (like Cheers, I guess), and the Elm Court always makes us feel like honored guests. And the food-- oh the food-- is incredible. I can't stress this enough-- if you're ever, ever in the Berkshires, go out of your way to go to the Elm Court. You will have a meal that will remain a pleasant memory for a long, long time. I believe it goes without saying that this is a five Offset Spatula place, but I'll make it official.

Elm Court Inn
Route 71, North Egremont, MA

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