A Beautiful Disappointment

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hilltoppers at the Goodstone Inn & Estate
36205 Snake Hill Rd., Middleburg

* (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 69 decibels (conversation is easy)


It's possible. Even dull pizza somehow tastes better when it's eaten in view of ruins in Rome, and wine that you might dismiss at home becomes more intoxicating when it's sipped at a sidewalk cafe in Paris. Similarly, the same brand of hot dog you grab from a city street vendor approaches poetry when it's snatched instead from a campfire in the woods.

To get to Hilltoppers, the Wednesday-through-Sunday restaurant at the Goodstone Inn & Estate in Middleburg, you first pass the rolling hills and low stone walls of Virginia's hunt country. There might also be deer sightings interspersed with flashes of grand houses set back from the road.

The supreme treat awaits at the top of a hill. That's where visitors catch sight of a large carriage house painted a soothing shade of green and graced with a small fountain. Together with the golden summer light and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background, the grounds conspire to seduce you. So does the host, even as she steps outside the entrance to inform you that the windows you're peering into on either side of the fountain are guest rooms. (Sorry!)

Would we like a cocktail? We would. Moving into the foyer, friends and I sink into chairs and couches arranged in front of a hearth as a young server shakes and stirs our drinks from a nearby buffet that doubles as a bar. The libations are impressive. A sip of a sidecar reminds me why the blend of brandy, triple sec and lemon juice remains a classic, and my margarita flecked with ice crystals is neither too sweet nor too tart. No one offers us popcorn with truffle shavings, but I still nod when a friend leans over to whisper his initial reaction to the place: "Poor man's Inn at Little Washington."

Like the world-acclaimed inn in Washington, Va., this one sits on some beautiful grounds. Like the inn, Hilltoppers offers a fixed-price menu that is more expensive on weekends: four courses (with four choices per course) for $69 weeknights and Sundays, $10 more on Fridays and Saturdays. It's irritating, however, that, unlike the inn, this restaurant tacks on an 18 percent gratuity, no matter the size of the party.

The Goodstone Inn is 10 years old, but only recently has it been promoted as a dining destination. Previously, meals were limited to breakfast for overnight guests or dinner for special events. That began to change when the food and beverage director, Christopher Carey, assumed kitchen duties in October 2006 and a new general manager, Simon Smith, arrived in May. Carey joined the business in 2005 after cooking at the Ashby Inn in Paris, Va.; Smith hails from Blackberry Farm, a Relais & Chateaux property nestled in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee.

Our drinks finished, we're led into the dining room. Palladian windows make rich frames for the outdoors; 13 tables create the kind of intimacy you find more often in Europe than the States. Out comes an amuse bouche, golden beet borscht decorated with salmon caviar and fresh herbs, that continues the theme of indulgence.

Initial anticipation leads to disappointment, though, when the first and second courses start landing on the linens. Chilled cucumber and yogurt soup sounds like the perfect foil to a warm August night. But it appears to be missing the second ingredient; the soup isn't the least bit creamy. Drops of herbed oil and sparkling roe enliven the soup's surface, but it tastes like something dreamed up by Jenny Craig. Another starter, crawfish nestled in a bowl with white beans and minced vegetables, is similarly mute. Maybe the orecchiette with pesto will be better? Tough, ear-shaped pasta stained with a dark, flat-tasting pesto dashes our hopes. When it comes to seasoning, this kitchen shows too much restraint.

Having eaten his honest, unfussy food at the Ashby Inn, I know that Carey can do better. And having tasted his scallop appetizer at Hilltoppers, I know he's not that shy around the spice cabinet. Tender Maine scallops are lightly seared and placed on ribbons of delicately crunchy collard greens enriched by ham hocks. The arrangement includes a bold twist: a sauce of chicken livers pureed with onions, balsamic vinegar and chicken stock. Carey's food looks good, too. Every American restaurant seems to put beets and goat cheese together, but I'm partial to this chef's treatment, which alternates a beet with a square of cheese in a perfect row on a rectangular plate. Straight lines of beet juice continue the precision.

But good looks don't always translate into good taste. Salmon with fennel salad and a shimmer of tomato-butter sauce looks as if it had a date with a food stylist before it left the kitchen, but no one wanted more than a bite of what tasted like spa fare. The kitchen can also be careless. Seared ahi tuna, served with wilted spinach and a sauce of black olives, resembles an overcooked airplane meal. Since when does "medium-rare" mean "cook till gray"? Yet a salad of pole beans, gathered from the estate's garden, features beans that must have been merely passed over a pot of boiling water, not cooked in it. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. My jaw gets a major workout.

Just when I decide this isn't worth the hourlong trek from Washington, I slice into herbed pork tenderloin and

reconsider: The meat is moist; its fig sauce flatters; and a potato gratin and fresh spinach make good company on the plate. On the way out, however, I'm inclined to grab a few cookies from a platter left in the foyer for guests. They're not Mom's, but they're more satisfying than the doll-size carrot cake with watery carrot sorbet or the three flavors of pasty creme brulee on the dessert menu.

Stars fill the sky as we take one last stroll around. Crickets accompany our conversation. We're tempted to take a dip in the inn's pool, surrounded by wisteria- and ivy-draped trellises, but home (and better sense) calls.

We've not eaten particularly well, but we've had a pleasurable time. Wine helps. So does a bucolic setting. Yet neither can erase the reality: Coming and going tend to be the best courses at Hilltoppers.

Open: dinner Wednesday through Sunday 6 to 9 p.m. All major credit cards. Free parking. Prices: four-course menu $69 Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; $79 Friday and Saturday.

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