MENDON, Vt. - “Oh, wow, I really like this one,’’ says Arabella Stewart, a fork poised in one hand and, in the other, a glass of The Bookmaker, a California red blend from the boutique winemaker Parlay. Stewart, a physician who moved to Vermont from New York City last summer, is at a five-course wine dinner at the Red Clover Inn in Mendon, a tiny hamlet just outside of Rutland. She tucks her nose into the glass and inhales, furrowing her brow. “Mmmm, spicy,’’ she muses. “Is anyone else picking up thyme?’’
We have been here less than two hours and I am already inking The Red Clover Inn into my little black book of wonderful places to stay. The rambling 1840s-era farmhouse has an idyllic setting (cue barn, little pond, and apple tree out back), with 14 lovely guest rooms, no two decorated the same. Public areas are inviting and gracious, done up in buttery creams and sage greens, and furnished with simple pine antiques and built-in bookcases aplenty. There’s a sitting room for reading and playing board games and a lounge where comfy couches and a window seat flank a large fieldstone fireplace. Everything here says slow down, relax, enjoy.
Even the address is a winner: convenient yet off the beaten path, right off Route 4, but with no signage to mark the secluded drive leading to the inn. And yet, like any secret too good to keep, word is getting out.
Tonight’s wine dinner is a sellout. My husband, Emmet, and I are among the 30 or so guests who signed up for the event, held on the first Friday of each month. We are seated at two long tables draped in white linen, atop which scores of wine glasses are laid out in neat, diagonal rows. The inn’s chef, Dennis Vieira, has prepared a menu pairing Napa Valley vintages with dishes that complement his selections. The room is lively with chatter, candlelight dancing off the glassware. From time to time, Vieira emerges from the kitchen to introduce the next course. He is young, personable, and clearly passionate about his craft. We listen up; a woman at the end of our table even takes notes. “With a meal like this, each pairing of wine and food is a progression,’’ Vieira tells me. “It takes your taste buds on a ride.’’
But not just any ride. Think Formula One, not NASCAR. While Vieira grew up in a suburb outside Providence, his approach to cooking is undeniably European. His parents are Portuguese, and he first learned to cook as a teen at his mother’s side. After graduating from the New York’s Culinary Institute of America, he bounced between the United States and Europe, working in haute-cuisine restaurants in Italy and France before making his way back to New England. His cooking is inventive and sumptuous, borrowing from around the world and frequently using high-end ingredients such as truffles and sweetbreads. This is fine dining, yes, but without the trappings of a dress code or overly elaborate service - what trend watchers like to call haute-casual.
Seated to my right are Caroline and Ralph Schneider, native New Yorkers who have been living in Vermont for over a decade. Like many of our dining companions, the Schneiders have been here before. “We came to the wine dinner last month and the meal was just so incredible that we had to come back,’’ says Caroline. “And before we leave, I’m going to reserve our places for next month. I heard the theme is going to be Italy.’’
By the time dessert arrives, a light-hearted debate is brewing over which course was the most incredible. I join the majority vote for the delectable three-squash risotto topped with slow-braised pig and foraged late-harvest oyster mushrooms. But it’s a close call. My favorite wine of the evening is the full-bodied Bookmaker, which had melded fabulously with a skillet-seared sirloin served with a dollop of parsnip purée and confit of cipollini onion. (Why did I think I hated parsnips? Vieira’s velvety purée, laced with green apple peel and truffle, is bliss. )
After a night of indulging, Emmet and I are grateful to have a room at the inn. We are on the second floor of the carriage house, in Claire’s Room, spacious quarters with a king-size bed piled high with crisp linens and pillows, a fireplace, and a whirlpool tub. I step out on our balcony, which overlooks the apple tree and little pond behind the inn. “The sky here is just incredible,’’ Stewart had said, when I asked what she loved most about living in Vermont. Tonight it is black as pitch and full of stars, with Orion’s belt popping so vividly that I can almost reach up and grab it.
Perhaps the inn’s most impressive accomplishment is being at once upscale and unpretentious, epicurean and easy-going. That’s not easy to pull off. But the Tyler family, who purchased and renovated the inn in 2009, happen to know a thing or two about hospitality, having owned and run the Tyler Place Family Resort in Highgate Springs for nearly 80 years. “We’re not corporate and we really enjoy our guests,’’ says Quintin Tyler, who lives on the property with his wife and two children. “It’s important that people feel relaxed and comfortable, have a nice place to stay and enjoy some really fantastic food.’’
Indeed, whatever your idea of the perfect getaway, the Red Clover can make it happen. At breakfast (yummy homemade waffles and a goat-cheese omelet) we overhear a couple asking where they can rent bikes. “Oh, I’m sure we have some here that you can use,’’ says Tyler. “Would you like a trail map? I’ll find you one.’’ Snowshoes? Cross-country skis? Just ask. Nearby trails cut through forests of birch and pine and eventually connect with the vast network in the Green Mountain National Park. Downhill skiers are spoiled for choice, with Killington Resort and Pico Peak each within a five-mile radius. The inn offers ski packages with discounted lift tickets and a shuttle service to and from the mountains.
Instead, Emmet and I spend a luxurious afternoon just reading and napping. Eventually I catch up with Vieira and wonder what’s for dinner. He sources over 90 percent of his ingredients locally and plans his menu based on what he discovers that morning. “When it comes to finding really great ingredients, Vermont is the most European state there is,’’ he says. “The farms and farmers markets here are impeccable and so it’s very easy to get fresh, organic produce and excellent meats. The oyster mushrooms in last night’s risotto were foraged between here and Manchester, in our backyard.’’
The dinner menu looks tantalizing from the get-go, with each dish sounding more appetizing than the last. Starters include a bacon and three-cheese pizza; homemade ricotta cavatelli with braised ox tail; and a salad of greens, beets, and roasted pistachios, served with a thyme and goat cheese vinaigrette. For the main course, Emmet chooses a veal chop served with parsnips roasted in duck fat. I opt for the even-more-sinful rib duo: an oven-roasted ribeye and Asian-marinated short rib served with a Gruyère-scented potato purée. Both dishes are so delicious that we are rendered momentarily speechless, resorting to eye rolls and swoons as we trade forkfuls off each other’s plates.
When we recover, we start planning a return visit.
The Red Clover Inn
7 Woodward Road
www.redcloverinn.com Rooms $100 -$340, depending on room and season. Includes breakfast and all-day tea and coffee. Dinner, $45 per person before wine. Monthly wine dinner, $75 per person. The next three wine dinners will be held on Jan. 6, Feb. 3, and March 2. Reservations required.Suzanne Rowan Kelleher can be reached at srkelleher@hotmail .com.