Article and photos by Josette King
When I headed for the verdant shores of Squam Lake on a recent summer road trip, my main purpose was to escape for a few days in the southern foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains the brutal heat wave that had been roasting New England for the previous couple of weeks. I hadn’t given much thought to food, and since it was my first visit to the area, I figured I would have to rely on word-of-mouth, sometimes a hit-or-miss proposition. This time was definitely a hit. My local hosts pointed me to some exciting eateries that in and of themselves would have justified my visit to the area.
The Corner House Inn in Center Sandwich
Although they differed widely in cuisine and atmosphere, my favorites turned out to have some significant commonalities: all were chef-owned, with unpretentious menus based on high-quality locally-gown organic products. And all were reasonably priced to boot.
The Corner House Inn
The Corner House Inn is located in a former inn
Built in 1849, the “house on the corner” managed to survive the Civil War and some major town fires to become the foremost eatery and boarding house in Sandwich. Current owners Don and Jane Brown acquired the property in 1981. Over the next two decades, Chef Brown’s cuisine drew an ever-larger following and one by one, the guest rooms were converted into dining space. I especially enjoyed the historic house surrounding and the room-sized dining areas that made for an intimate, casual atmosphere.
Chicken Rosa is a favorite dish at the Corner House Inn
I found it hard to get past the appetizer offerings. Should I have the lobster bisque (one of the Inn’s signature dishes) or the fried oysters with their aioli dipping sauce? But then, what of the crab cakes, and the intriguing sweet-potato polenta in roasted red pepper and orange ginger sauce? Mercifully, my understanding server arranged for a sampler of all. My espresso-cup size lobster bisque had enough bouquet to fill a bowl, and nuggets of fresh lobster aplenty. Each appetizer was beautifully executed and delicious. I especially enjoyed the oysters, each a soft morsel that had retained a hint of briny ocean taste within its crisp golden crust. Having also succumbed to the fragrant home baked bread and the delicate field greens salad with its light buttermilk-dill dressing, I felt already satiated. But there was still the imaginative Chicken Rosa, in a creamy white wine sauce, served on fresh vegetable ravioli. I could manage only a few bites. I was saving myself for the chocolate ganache terrine, served with a dollop of white chocolate mousse, and was glad I did. The Corner House Inn (15 Oak Street, Center Sandwich, New Hampshire, + 1 603 284 6219, http://www.cornerhouseinn.com/, email@example.com)
Squam Lake Inn Café
Although the surroundings were decidedly New Hampshire, with a big red barn turned gift shop at the edge of the Inn’s parking lot and Walter’s Basin, Holderness’ main harbor, a short walk away, the atmosphere of the Squam Lake Inn Café channeled Napa Valley to me. On the deck, tables were neatly lined under two rows of green market umbrellas for al fresco dining, while inside, the light-filled dining room had the uncluttered charm of a garden porch. The menu, changed daily to take advantage of the best seasonal offerings from local organic farmers and freshly caught sustainable seafood, reinforced the impression. And in addition to the meat and fish dishes, the Café featured a number of tempting vegetarian options.
The Squam Lake Inn Café has scrumptious crab cakes
The wine list focused mainly on California wines, rounded with a few interesting foreign labels. The emphasis was on artisan wines from small production vineyards that favored sustainable farming. I was not overly surprised to discover in the course of the evening that the owners, Rea and Cindy, had relocated from Orange Country, California, when they purchased the Inn in 2003. Rea and daughter Taylor officiated in the kitchen while Cindy managed the dining room.
Glazed scallops at the Squam Lake Inn Café
I have a special fondness for fresh crab cakes, which I order at every opportunity. The ones served as my appetizer were exceptional. Two delicately seasoned patties of the freshest crabmeat, pan seared to a light gold, served with a tangy remoulade sauce. Perfection in simplicity. My dinner companion’s appetizer, a crisp mesclun salad with red onions, sliced almonds and crumbs of feta cheese, glistening with a light poppy seed dressing and garnished with slices of ripe peaches was another fine example of Chef Rea’s fresh and simple approach. My entrée of seared and lightly glazed scallops was served over sautéed baby spinach and grape tomatoes with just a hint of chopped mango. Light and satisfying, just right for a hot summer’s evening, as was my friend’s roasted portobello caps layered with artisan Vermont goat cheese, sliced tomato and basil, drizzled with a balsamic reduction. We finished our meal with a fruity wild strawberry sorbet and an ice cream sandwich of molasses spice cookie and ginger ice cream respectively. Squam Lake Inn Café (28 Shepard Hill Road, Holderness, New Hampshire, +1 603 968 4417, http://www.squamlakeinn.com/dining.html, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Although not located in the immediate vicinity of Squam Lake, the Coyote Grill was warmly recommended to us and proved well worth the 30-minute drive to the nearby mountain sports resort of Waterville Valley. Chef Sean Stout, a graduate from Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute in Providence, Rhode Island, honed his skills in several fine restaurants around New England before he and his wife Barbara opened the Coyote Grill almost two decades ago. Chef Stout relied on local sources for his meats, fish, dairy products and produce. He developed menus that varied with seasonal availability and created his own recipes, adding an original twist to New England favorites.
Coyote Grill sole and grilled asparagus
I especially enjoyed my appetizer, a terrine of summer vegetables that would have been at home in a ratatouille Niçoise, but had been thinly sliced, stacked and baked with goat cheese, then served cold on a balsamic glaze. Meanwhile, my friend’s simple sliced heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella took on a new dimension with its roasted garlic and fresh basil dressing. After several days of eating our way round the area, we fancied a somewhat light fare. My main course of pan-fried filets of sole drizzled with a tangy lemon butter sauce and served with grilled asparagus and yellow peppers was delicious, as was my friend’s grilled chicken breast on a pinwheel of finely diced vegetable rolled in a tortilla, also served with grilled asparagus. My desert was a gourmet take on the traditional strawberry shortcake, a fluffy genoise layered with pureed fresh strawberries and whipped cream; a lovely, light ending to an enjoyable summer’s meal. Coyote Grill (98 Valley Road, Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, +1 603 236 4919, http://www.wildcoyotegrill.com/, email@example.com)
Coyote Grill vegetable terrine appetizer