Big Fish

The Pond Inn's evolution is going swimmingly

Pond Inn

17250 Manchester Rd.

Kendall Brook smoked salmon $8.95
Pâté de campagne $7.95
Bayou shrimp $8.95
Stuffed quail $24.95
Veal rack chop $27.95
Roasted half-duck $25.95
Grilled salmon $21.95
Fresh raspberries with zabaglione $5.95

636-405-0500. Hours: 5-9 p.m. Wed.-Sun.

We were just wrapping up our desserts at the Pond Inn on a fairly slow postholiday weeknight when a woman sheepishly poked her head around the corner, having navigated past the host's station and back into the small room of which we were the sole occupants.

"You're open again?" she asked, almost flinching.

"Why, yes," replied our waiter, beaming. "Would you like to see our menu?"

With this, the woman's posture transformed. She quickly launched into a story about a previous visit, when she had dropped in with exactly that intent.

"Would it be possible to see your menu?" she had asked the man at the cluttered desk.

"It would be possible if I had the time. But I do not," had come the reply.

And thus it was in the old days. The Pond Inn was an unofficial club, and you were decidedly either in or out: in if you believed that the former owner, the late Anthony Haenni, was a culinary genius (and, in fact, some did); out if you questioned even a spice or a grain of salt or committed the ultimate sin of showing up more than a minute late for your appointed time.

But as all things must pass, so did that owner, and the location stood fallow for about a year after Haenni's death. It was reopened in October by Roy L. Wurst Jr. and Winston Alvarez after some significant renovations. Alvarez -- who used to work, among other places, at another country-retreat-style restaurant, Malmaison -- noted that the exterior and interior are now much lighter while still retaining the building's rustic vintage-1875 feel. And Alvarez took pains to distinguish the tone of the new menu as Continental rather than French, as illustrated by, among other things, a Tuscan rubbed double pork chop.

In another parallel to Malmaison, though, there's now an Andujar in the kitchen at the Pond Inn. Norbert Andujar, son of former Malmaison owners Gilbert and Simone, had left the family biz a couple years ago and built on his name to try to establish his own reputation as chef at The Gallery, which stood for a while where Jackie Smith's new place now packs 'em in. The problem there was that The Gallery tried to stay middle-of-the-road pricewise, whereas Andujar came from a decidedly higher-end pedigree, and the chemistry just didn't work.

At the Pond Inn, though, he's been free to set up the kind of menu that $15-$25 entrees allow for, and judging the four we tried, he ranges from very good to astounding.

What Andujar does with fowl -- specifically quail and, to a lesser extent, duck -- deserves raves. One good barometer of how well a quail is cooked is what happens to those itty-bitty legs when they're in the oven. Andujar's quail included two semiboned birds, the breasts fully sliceable and stuffed with a gently smoky, moisture-retaining mixture of Italian sausage and fennel but with the bones left in the legs and wings. And the tiny drumsticks on the legs came out hot but plump, just a morsel of meat on each but neither shriveled nor picking up the off-bitter taste that often results when the dark meat dries out and collapses.

The roasted half of a duck we ordered on our subsequent visit came from a fairly big bird. Like the quail, it featured a boned center but intact bones in the leg and wing; it had a crisp, shiny skin and lots of succulent breast meat whose flavor was heightened by the green-peppercorn sauce served as an accompaniment in a small silver gravy boat. This dish fell just short of perfection. The leg's dark meat needed about another minute of heat, falling away nicely until we got very close to the bone.

Also up at the high end of quality was the veal rack chop, a good inch-and-a-half thick, served with a gentle sherry cream sauce counterpointed by full-flavored wild mushrooms. The only one of our four entrées that was merely good was the salmon, a fillet cut about 2 inches wide, sauced with a reduction of both pinot noir -- a classic accompaniment to salmon that left a soft cherry essence on the fish -- and veal stock, an unexpected addition that added a bit of roast flavor and a pleasant touch of saltiness.

Our starting courses were OK but somewhat less inspired -- several slices of Kendall Brook smoked salmon, served with the standard accompaniments of thin crisps of bread, onion and capers with a fluffy horseradish cream; a light cream of bits of crimini, portobello and morel mushrooms; five "bayou" shrimp with a warm pink sauce fired up with flakes of hot red pepper. Our favorite appetizer was also simple -- a coarse country-style pâté, shameless retaining hunks of fat amid the meat, wrapped in a bold bacon that gave off a wood-smoke scent when it arrived at the table.

The vegetables, too, were well-prepared -- still-crisp mixtures of carrots, green beans and sliced squash that varied just slightly from one visit to the next -- but pretty basic for a fancy meal. Wild rice was the starch for the game birds, ornately presented mashed potatoes for the veal chop and a potato gratin with the salmon.

And the desserts -- well, the good news is that Alvarez told us in a follow-up phone call that the kitchen folks were hard at work at one or more signature desserts to be introduced shortly. All that was available on our visits were the hackneyed cheesecake and "chocolate decadence" style of cake available locally at approximately 239 other restaurants, plus what turned out to be a disappointing zabaglione over some really wonderful, obviously hand-selected fresh raspberries. The zabaglione was prepared somewhere out of sight rather than finished at tableside, and the custard -- which, we learned later, should have been described to us as Grand Marnier-flavored instead of the more common marsala flavor -- had no tangible enhancement at all.

The new Pond Inn has subtitled itself a "maison de vin," and the wine list, though not lengthy (about 40 reds, whites and sparkling wines are offered, plus six dessert wines), is geographically diverse, with representatives from several California districts, Washington, Oregon, Chile, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and virtually everywhere in France. Prices mostly run $25-$45 by the bottle and $6-$9 by the glass.

Service is semiformal, in unjacketed black tie, and quite knowledgeable, with servers dissecting ingredients and sauces to a fine degree when requested. The dining room -- rooms, actually, including one on an upper level -- are perfectly suited to the rural-inn theme, with old wood floors, textured beige-butter walls and sometimes unmatched chairs. In an excellent seasonal touch, the fresh plants in vases on each table were sprigs of holly and pine, but the atmosphere was diminished on our first visit by the piping in of a radio station -- complete with commercials -- for background music. This had been corrected by our return visit, with soft and unintrusive jazz, not from the radio, providing the soundtrack.

In short, this kinder, gentler Pond Inn is evolving, its staff working diligently to fill in the gaps between the current offerings and a truly remarkable total-meal experience. But it's already a charming, intimate dining experience at a fairly secluded crossroads that, although close to ever-encroaching subdivisions, still provides the impression of a country escape.

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