Scallop Crudo. Photo: Julie Bidwell
With British chef Annie Wayte at the helm, fellow Englishman Paul Pearson cooking alongside her, and pastry chef Gabby Rios sculpting gorgeous desserts, The Dining Room at The White Hart in Salisbury is as brilliant as it is new, and instantly one of the best restaurants in Connecticut. Wayte, who opened fashion designer Nicole Farhi’s namesake restaurant and 202 Café in London and New York City, also worked with Sally Clarke — the Alice Waters of England — and she’s passionate about cooking with the best local and seasonal ingredients produced sustainably. Pearson “has a very high style of cooking,” Wayte says, and the results of their collaboration are dishes with lush, painterly artistry that embody purity and integrity and taste amazing.
As with the wine selections, the constantly evolving menu is small, fitting on just one page. For gourmets this is often a sign of bliss to follow — but only in the hands of the most talented chefs. (“You shouldn’t have to spend most of your time reading the menu,” Wayte says.)
Chefs Annie Wayte and Paul Pearson. Photo: Julie Bidwel
Choosing brevity is like a high-wire act; no missteps are allowed. And every dish on Annie Wayte’s menu is just right and perfectly balanced. The Dining Room, meanwhile, exudes a quiet country sophistication and is festively open, which makes it happily noisy when full — and in warm weather you can dine outdoors on the genteel porch. In mid-May, with local asparagus just becoming available, one appetizer featured warm asparagus with garlic cremini mushrooms, crispy farro and Parmesan. The flavors were as fresh as spring, with complexity and richness building with every bite. (Choosing the asparagus meant forgoing green gazpacho with king crab salad and lime yogurt, which sounded delicious.)
Tempted by the crispy pork belly with sautéed ramps and cheddar grits, we opted instead for another appetizer, smoked Arctic char with garlic mustard cream, lemon, radishes and grilled toast. Think of a smoked salmon flavor profile ennobled by something like divine intervention. The fish was velvety perfection and every element stood out individually while also blending expertly (which seems to be an Annie Wayte/Paul Pearson/White Hart trademark).
Among entrees, the roasted halibut with braised chickpeas, artichokes and nettle chimichurri has to be one of the prettiest dishes anywhere, and it paired perfectly with the sauvignon blanc on the wine list. Lamb saddle — two pink, thick, juicy pieces of lamb loin with no bones attached — was served with apricot-pistachio couscous, cucumber-mint salad and avocado; amazing flavors that made beautiful music with the Benton Lane pinot noir. It was difficult to pass up the plate of local cheeses, almonds and chutney for dessert, but how can you not order the chocolate cremeux, which is soft and dense pudding, with graham cracker ice cream and (an alchemized) marshmallow? We’ll go to the vernacular on this one: So yummy! Ditto for the passion fruit curd with vanilla chiffon and raspberry granita.
Halibut. Photo: Julie Bidwell
“The dining room is all about working with local purveyors, seasonal flavors,” Wayte says when we chat by phone later. “We embrace anybody who walks through the back door who’s growing anything locally … [and] Paul goes foraging. He picked up some violets last week, which he’s made into a vinegar.”
In late May, Wayte said she was looking forward to working with local tomatoes in season, and noted, “We always tend to do something for two on the menu. I just love sharing when I’m eating with people.” In mid-May the dish for two was a roasted pork rack with arugula, shaved fennel, citrus dressing and red rice. Guests this summer might look for something like a whole tail of monkfish wrapped in Meyer lemon.
“I grew up eating savory pies,” like steak and veal, Wayte says in reference to her British heritage, while noting that she has done large format savory pies for two in The Dining Room, where the menu changes to some degree every weekend. Paired with the food are six or seven red wines by the glass and an equal number of whites. “We focused on keeping the price point good for the area. We focused on small producers,” says Wayte.
Dining Room at The White Hart Inn. Photo: Julie Bidwel
While The Dining Room is the best place to experience the Wayte/Pearson magic, The White Hart has another beloved space that may well be more popular. It’s the wood-paneled Tap Room. “I wouldn’t dare touch that tavern. I’d be in big trouble,” says Wayte. “The Tap Room is less formal,” she adds. “It belongs to the people. It’s a wonderful room. It’s a room I fell in love with years ago. The Tap Room is a place that should [have] accessible food, very simple. I often say ‘typical tavern food.’”
In this case, Wayte says, “typical tavern food” translates into things like snacks and burgers, but “amazing snacks and burgers.” On the Tap Room menu you can also find things like Maine mussels, shepherd’s pie made with duck, black bean chili with cornbread and fish-and-chips with peas. In the near future, The White Hart will present a third option for fine dining, as Wayte has plans to open a shop in a vacant space behind The Dining Room that will have a café aspect with pastries and savory pastries, where people can also stop for freshly-prepared food to take home for dinner. Wayte is working with a graphic designer who creates cool household gifts and that sort of thing for the shop, so stay tuned.
The White Hart — once owned by John Harney of Harney & Sons teas and most recently owned by Scott and Roxanne Bok — was reopened in May 2014 by the husband-and-wife team of Conley and Meredith Rollins and a group of friends that includes best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell and Wayte. Last year on Memorial Day, Wayte previously told Passport, “I made 500 cookies and put lemonade on the porch of the inn, thinking a few people might wander by after the parade to see what was going on. Well, about 1,000 people descended on us and it was wonderful.”
Now, almost 210 years after it opened as a pub in 1806, The White Hart has 16 distinguished guest rooms and new country-sophisticated dining without parallel.
Read the Connecticut Magazine review by Elise Maclay.
To learn more see the website at www.whitehartinn.com. Call (860) 435-0030 for reservations.