We’ve been known to take a sincere pleasure in driving, despite the untimely fact that the sun has been setting at 4PM around these parts. Still, there’s no denying the smooth rush of bounding over hills and careening around corners to places unknown. We took one of those drives on Sunday night, in the dark, as we headed to Newport for dinner at the Castle Hill Inn, on Ocean Avenue. I was a bit saddened that we were whizzing past the forest and buildings in such a blur, noting how much we’d enjoyed the drive on the way to the festival this summer. That faded away as soon as we approached the magnificent estate, breathtaking alongside the coast. The glory of the inn at daytime was easily matched by it in the night, and we walked indoors, pausing for a moment to take in the saline scent of the ocean beyond us.
The chill of the evening ushered us into the comforts of the estate, led to our table by the sea. I anxiously peered into the night for boats at the suggestion of our hostess before the food came and took center stage. We had a truly perfect server- witty when needed, invisible during conversation, and immediately present to offer wine suggestions, menu guidance, or a good laugh. The menu is split into three, five, and eight-course tastings, with easy accommodation for mixing and matching plates. We chose the five course menu, and made our own wine and cocktail pairings, starting with a Stormy Cider cocktail for me and the ‘infamous’ Oyster Martini for the Bedfellow. Both drinks were brought out swiftly and were beautifully prepared.My cider was rich and spicy in flavor, the only indication of booze the rise in my volume as I spoke and slight warmth at the back of my throat, just how I like it. The Bedfellow found her drink a little strange, with a wan texture akin to consomme and a color identical to a Cosmopolitan, but enjoyed the fresh, meaty flavors and the raw oyster shooter.Over cocktails, we enjoyed our amuse bouche, a rare slice of cherry-laquered duck breast with yuzu caramel, microgreens, and chocolate crumbs. Most of the flavors of the accoutrements dissolved in the shadow of the strong duck meat, but the yuzu and chocolate were most persistent, contributing to the depth of the bite with sweeter notes. At the risk of redundancy, I knew as soon as I saw the menu that I wanted to incorporate seafood in at least four of the five courses, excluding dessert, though I wouldn’t have passed up a chocolate-coated oyster. The seafood was so fresh and paired so well that it seemed alien to resort to much else. We started with a chilled course, a half-dozen oysters with clementine granita for me and a dab of wasabi, and an endive and frisee salad with quince vinaigrette, concord grapes, Boucheron cheese, toast, and cleverly arranged ground cherries. The oysters were plump and fresh, their brine amplified by the sweet citrus essence and heat of the wasabi, and I maneuvered four of them into my mouth with an oyster fork before The Bedfellow had even started. They were tender and silky, and plump in their shells. The salad was another story entirely- each element was outstanding, from the lightly sauced endive to the plump cherries and toast, to the most soft, milky Boucheron I’ve had outside of France. After my third pilfered bite from across the table, I knew it would take another oyster to bargain with The Bedfellow.Our second course went in a meatier direction, though in two decidedly different forms. I chose the roasted squash velouté with candied jalapenos, gooseberry pods, proscuitto, and beads of brown butter, presented beautifully dotted alongside the plate before the sumptuous broth was poured in. It was a belly-warming dish, with added fire and heart from the sweet surprises buried in the soup, and had a perfectly smooth texture, pleasantly contrary to the chunky autumn soups and over-exuberant bisque typical of the season.The server brought out chorizo-stuffed scallops for the Bedfellow, explaining that the restaurant was famed for this very dish. Seared whole scallops were cored and filled with chorizo sausage, topped with apple matchsticks and red pepper foam, and garnished with the cored pieces of scallops, more chorizo, and creamed onions. If the presentation stunned me, the fact that the Bedfellow generously gave me an entire scallop all to myself stunned me even further. The spices and sweet, grassy flavors in the fruit and meat elevated the humble scallops and we all but licked the plate clean.
Alongside the appetizers, we enjoyed two glasses of white wine. It was my aim to pick one classic and one contemporary for a miniature tasting comparison, and the 2010 Trimbach Gewurztraminer and 2012 Kaiken ‘Terroir’ Torrontés played beautifully off each other, but ultimately, the distinctive tropical, honeyed flavors and flinty edge of the Torrontés outshone the refined, reedy notes of the floral Gewurz.We finished our appetizers with a most carnivorous course. The Bedfellow’s warm pork confit with cider glaze, green apple consomme, and semolina dumplings was tasty and basic, but the duality of the two apple flavors- one mulled, the other fresh, impressed us both. The dumplings were tender and toothsome.My beef tartare was minced finely a la française, drizzled with a soy caramel, and served alongside a massive serving of Napa cabbage with chili vinaigrette and small triangles of onion flatbread. The soy caramel was visually present but indistinct in flavor and the ratio of cabbage and flatbread to beef was disappointingly high. I parceled out the meat for the first few bites, then just opted to eat it plain. The meat had a sweet, clean beefy flavor.We dug into our entrees with equal doses of trepidation and excitement, for the food and the inevitable question about how we’d eat it all. As delicate as the portions and pacing of the appetizers, the entrees were as massive and colorful. The Bedfellow’s ‘pork and clams’ was a tantric riff off a traditional Portuguese dish, Carne de Porco à Alentejana combined with a slew of sides straight out of the fifties, boiled potatoes and beds of fresh spinach. The Bedfellow grew up eating many of the components of this dish, and loved how rustic and simple it was, letting the fresh ingredients speak for themselves with a very mild touch of seasoning and flavors. The littleneck clams ‘casino’ were our favorite part of the dish, and were a fun nod to Rhode Island, their birthplace.I just couldn’t get enough seafood that night, so I went for the seafood duet, with diver scallops and butter-poached lobster alongside a curious sweet potato fondant, quince relish, cauliflower puree, and a curry emulsion. As I’d tasted the scallops before, I was confident in their preparation- while these lacked the crispy sear of their appetizer counterparts, they were every bit as tender, and the lobster fell out of the shell, sweet and creamy with a crisp bite. The sides were somewhat ill-matched. I wasn’t quite sure where the sweet potato fondant or curry came in- the fondant seemed to be little more than small discs of torched, caramelized potatoes, which, while tasty, took a good deal of focus away from the more delicate flavors. The unanimously successful pairing was the quince relish, tart cubes of fruit that brought out the naturally fruitier flavors of the fish- a new pairing for the ‘fruits de mer.’
Alongside these entrees, we enjoyed two glasses of red wine- for this, I picked the 2010 Mollydooker ‘Blue Eyed Boy’ Shiraz and the 2010 M. Chapoutier ‘La Ciboise’. This was my second experience with a Mollydooker wine, and it was outstanding- lush, velvety, pungent with pepper and cassis, a wine with flair. The Chapoutier was more restrained, but had an excellent structure and deep, rich berry notes.As the remaining parties trickled out, we found ourselves along in the expansive dining room for dessert, surrounded by the sea. Feeling indulgent, we ordered a piccolo bottle of the Moët & Chandon Nectar Imperial, with two carafes of coffee shortly behind to accompany our desserts. The Imperial is a dessert-style champagne with softer bubbles and a sweeter flavor than their NV brut, and was very pleasant alongside sweeter fare.The Bedfellow enjoyed the pumpkin cake, with cinnamon ice cream, cider-butterscotch glaze, pecan nougatine, and cider-infused apple balls. This was a dish infused with warm spices and rich flavors, cut by the warm fruit and crunch of the pecans. Expertly done and elevated the humble pumpkin bread to an earthy, spicy level.I ordered the PB&J, with concord grape gelée, peanut butter gelato, and baguette tuile cookies. The dessert was smartly organized, and garnished with peanuts, and had a well-balanced, distinctly nostalgic flavor with the peanut cake stripes and intense jamminess of the gelée front and center. The baguette slices, translucent and buttery, were my favorite part of the dish. With a final drag from our French press, we headed into the night. It was an excellent menu. $95 is an outstanding value for five courses, and the restaurant makes it easy to customize and accommodate to your liking. We’ll definitely be back here when the weather warms up and the sun stays out for longer- it’s a marvelous destination property with a fab view and a cozy atmosphere.
Disclaimer: The Castle Hill Inn and their PR firm comped our meal and drinks. We paid the gratuity.