Restaurant Review: Old Drovers Inn

Comfort food and historic charm at Old Drovers Inn.

Impressive Inn

Built in 1750, the Old Drovers Inn combines authentic Colonial charm with a contemporary American menu 

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By Ken Charney

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It’s been said that first impressions are lasting impressions. If this is true, I think I’ve started a beautiful friendship with the Old Drovers Inn.

 It was a cool, picturesque fall evening when my wife and I set out for Dover Plains, Dutchess County. Our destination: the 256-year-old inn, previously a stopover for hard-drinking New England cattle handlers on their way to New York City. A nearly full moon — big and bold in the night sky — would have served as a beacon for our entire journey if not for the dubious directions from an oft-used (and oft-cursed) mapping service. We got lost.

We called the restaurant from the road, were given directions and assured that “our table would be waiting.” But somehow in the dark night, we lost our way again and placed a second call. “Would our table still be available and, um, could we get directions… again?” We finally made it, albeit an hour and a half  late. Proprietor David Wilson approached us, declaring “You must be our lost guests. Welcome! Have a cocktail and relax.” Our night suddenly took a sharp turn for the better.

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Upon entering, we immediately felt as if we’d been transported back to pre-Revolutionary America. The floors in the snug cellar dining room are uneven and creaky. The doors are low, as are the smoke-blackened beams of the ceiling (actually, pretty darn low for someone over six feet tall). But the overall warmth, the cozy old fireplace, the low lights, and the glowing hurricane lamps at each of the four tables in our section of the room kept my focus off a knock on the noggin and squarely on the meal ahead.

 After being seated and tucked into our booth, we ordered vodka martinis. With a lemon twist and the ideal shot of vermouth, they were perfectly created by bartender Mike. Our young busgirl dropped off roughly cut crudités, deviled eggs, and a side of hickory-smoked salt. The eggs were satisfying, especially with a pinch of the salt.

We decided to give the inn’s famous cheddar cheese soup a go because, well, it’s famous; any dish that’s been on the menu since before Prohibition seemed worth a try. At first, it seemed too salty, but by my second spoonful, I was addicted. The soup’s creamy consistency contrasts with its sharp cheddar cheese bite; the Port drizzled on top was the perfect accent. If you’re hungry and enjoy a savory, filling start, don’t miss it.

Next up was a jumbo lump crab cake on a bed of local organic greens with julienne cucumber and lime-parsley aioli ($15). The crab cake was sweetish, smooth, tender — and chock-full of crab. The aioli, however, was a tad bland. We would have preferred it to have a more distinctive flavor, perhaps accented with citrus and garlic or maybe a pinch of fresh minced chile.

For the salad course, I ordered organic frissee, which was served with roasted baby beets, sweet red onions, herbed goat cheese croutons, and sherry vinaigrette ($9). My wife opted for the baby arugula with Red Delicious apple strips, walnuts, raisins, Gorgonzola and walnut-balsamic vinaigrette ($9). These were accompanied by steaming hot popovers. The frissee salad was exceedingly fresh, and included a small bunch of organic microgreens from Laughing Duck Farm in Westport, NY. Executive Chef Deborah Arriaga (who came to the inn last July after a nine-year stint at New York’s Union Square Café) culls a good deal of her organic produce from local outlets. Before we ordered the salads we specifically asked about the Red Delicious apples. Neither of us could recall having had a good one since we were kids. We were assured that Arriaga buys local fruit in small batches, and tastes it before using in her dishes. The apples were indeed crisp and tasty, and the salad was well done (although the raisins added a bit more sweetness than we thought necessary).

We decided to share jumbo sea scallops and baby artichokes (served over cannelloni bean ragout with saffron-caper butter sauce; $35); and the Inn’s longtime staple, rack of lamb, which is plated with mashed potatoes and asparagus ($38). The New Zealand-raised lamb was perfectly cooked: medium-rare, crisp on the outside and tender inside. The mashed potatoes were actually smashed potatoes: chunky-country style, with the skins mixed in. Very nice. Meaty and moist, the scallops were slightly sweet (and, we felt, slightly overpriced, considering we only got four). The accompanying sauce was nutty and mildly seasoned. But our favorite part of that dish was the artichokes and the cannelloni bean ragout — they were just bursting with robust flavor.

The restaurant has a solid international wine list with a wide range of eclectic choices, including bottles of rare, limited reserve. We asked Wilson to select a red wine in the $30-$40 range that would work well with our diverse entrées. He accepted the task enthusiastically and made an outstanding choice with a 2002 Julienas from Beaujolais, France ($38). It was medium-bodied, rich, smooth, and delicious.

At this point, as you might imagine, we were stuffed. For me, that has never been an impediment to ordering dessert, especially one with a name like “Real English Sticky Toffee Pudding with Warm Toffee Sauce.” It was warm and luscious with a rich maple flavor, and so sweet, it was like eating a piece of candy ($8).

The food at Old Drovers Inn is clearly made for comfort. It is fresh, appealing and well-presented. The place appears to cater to regulars who have been ambling in to this home-style spot for many years. But others also visit for special occasions. In fact, we completely understand why Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor escaped to this captivating inn for several days in 1962 after filming Cleopatra.

            But it is the service that turns a meal at the Old Drovers Inn into an exceptional experience. Fearing we might get lost again on the way home, we asked for directions for the return trip. Before we knew it, our waiter, the owner, and Mike the bartender were all hovering around our table with a map, offering to highlight the roads for us. Mike urged us to come back for the first snow, when the bar would be overflowing with hot cider and good cheer. We promised we would, and thanked them all for this great first impression.

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