The Woodlands Resort & Inn is a destination that changed owners and chefs.
For the seventh consecutive Christmas Eve, my family and I snaked our way to rural Summerville, South Carolina, to eat at The Woodlands Resort & Inn. For the third time in four years, Woodlands employed a different executive chef. At most restaurants, that would be a red flag. Complicating matters was the Woodlands’ recent ownership change; D.C. based Sheila Johnson and a group from Virginia purchased the resort in 2006. Happily, management hired another big gun to replace Chef Scott M. Crawford, who left for the Georgian Rooms at Sea Island, Georgia. The latest executive chef is Tarver M. King, who previously worked for two years at Woodlands, plus stints at Le Bec Fin, Inn at Little Washington, and one stage at The French Laundry. He certainly has the pedigree, but would his cooking match our previous triumphs?
The Woodlands has accumulated plenty of hardware over the years. 2006 Mobil Five-Star and 2007 AAA Five-Diamond plaques flank the Maitre d’ station. It’s rare to see either plaque at a restaurant, let alone the pair.
My dad requested Table 14. It was a nice round five-top in the middle of the room, on the floor. The restaurant doesn’t have a Table 13, since it’s bad luck.
There were truffle and vegetarian tasting menus, but we selected the four-course dinner ($69 per person), a bargain given the premier ingredients and exacting preparation. The meal would easily cost double in a metropolis like New York or Chicago.
Men and women received different amuse bouches. I’d never seen that kind of separation, though my dad and step mom (who eat at many more high end restaurants than I do) claim it’s a somewhat common tactic. The women received a single twice-baked fingerling potato stuffed with quail meat.
Men received “Potato Beer,” a non-alcoholic potato drink topped with froth made from garlic, truffle and milk.
Our old friend, Sommelier Stephane Peltier, chose a bottle of Piper Heidsieck Rose Sauvage (wide rose) champagne for our Christmas toast. The champagne was indeed rose-colored, and a little fruitier than the normal golden bubbly.
Christmas Eve happened to fall on a Sunday. Stephane pointed out that until a couple years ago, Woodlands wasn’t allowed to serve alcohol on Sundays, since its located in a county that was dry on Sundays. No longer.
To accompany our meal, Stephane suggested Panther Creek, a “beautiful wine” from Oregon. A Freedom Hills pinot noir from 2000. Stephane taught us the proper temperature to serve pinot: 67 degrees. At 75-80 degrees, the temperature at which most restaurants serve pinot, diners taste the alcohol first, and the fruit second, ruining the wine. At 67 degrees, the fruit and alcohol are balanced and the wine tastes better. FYI: The wine can rise to 80 degrees and you can bring it down to 67 with an ice bucket, and it will still taste good. Stephane’s suggestion was spot-on yet again. The pinot noir was easily one of the finest wines I’ve had.
Stephane does more than sample “beautiful wines.” He mentioned he’s training for the 2007 Kiawah Island Triathlon. Jane pointed out that a competitor died last year during the same event. Stephane left the table with an anguished look on his face. Merry Christmas indeed, Jane.
In past years, we’ve always looked forward to Woodlands’ spectacular bread basket. This year, we were happy to discover they still offer warm cheddar biscuits seasoned with rosemary and thyme, plus pull-apart sourdough rolls. Instead of the three-flavor butter pyramid of chef Ken Vedrinski’s era, they provided a crock of salted butter from France.
Jane began with Maine diver scallop “saltimbocca,” potato “haystacks,” and roasted garlic vinaigrette, one of the night’s triumphs.
My father kicked things off with Manchester Farms quail breast, foie gras, braised Vidalia onion, and pancetta vinaigrette, well worth the $5 supplement.
Jamie got the weakest first course: Hickory smoked salmon “lasagna,” Osetra caviar, creamy ginger-lemongrass vinaigrette. The cool “lasagna” was dense, and finally, not my thing.
My brother and I both started with deconstructed “Baked Ziti” featuring pulled Smithfield pork ribs, aged balsamic emulsion, and tiny arugula. Smoky rib meat was plentiful, but the plain ziti wall that surrounded the meat could have used some accenting.
I was the only person at the table to resist Woodlands’ signature Caesar salad with Pecorino “crackers,” white anchovy and poached quail egg. The anchovy was much milder than expected, though the architectural presentation was once again interesting.
I opted for Salad “Lyonnaise,” featuring frisée in grain mustard vinaigrette, topped with a Yukon potato tuile, and a red wine poached egg wrapped in shaved speck. While not the restaurant’s signature salad, I enjoyed the flavors more.
For a $10 supplement, three table members ordered sautéed Maine Lobster meat with roasted Patty Pan squash, pappardelle, and truffle “Vin Blanc.” The lobster meat was impeccable, but squash proved overly-bitter.
Sliced hay-smoked duckling was clearly the dish of the night, set atop sweet pepper polenta, paired with “blooming” creamy-on-the-inside Brussels sprouts, and punctuated with a sherry-ham emulsion.
For our “pre-dessert,” we were each received a refreshing palate cleanser: a cup of lemon panna cotta topped with a single halved blueberry and tarragon.
Pastry Chef Sheree McDowell survived the chef change. We ordered five different desserts and passed to the left.
Instead of the ice cream and sorbet sampler, my father wisely substituted for warm pumpkin cake with white truffle ice cream and citrus beurre noisette.
One of Chef McDowell’s signature desserts is the hazelnut griddle cakes, paired with cinnamon glazed Granny Smiths and caraway cream. A larger serving would make for a fantasy breakfast.
An interesting dessert paired a chocolate financier with caramel-poached pear, vanilla ice cream and cocoa-red wine sauce.
Unsurprisingly, the richest dessert was the Chocolate Duo: chocolate-orange mousse, chocolate-hazelnut ganache cake, and plenty of other treats to complete the plate.
I’m a fan of Middle Eastern desserts and was excited to see Sicilian pistachio baklava served with a tiny pile of sun-dried plums “bloomed” in Armagnac and goat cheese mousse. The flavors really worked together, though the baklava itself could have been a tad softer.
Post dessert, I drank cinnamon-dusted cappuccino with complimentary mini biscotti dipped in dark chocolate.
With the check, women received given plastic-wrapped house-made benne wafers flecked with white and black benne seeds, which are similar to sesame.
In the final analysis, we decided Chef King cooked admirably in his first year marshaling Christmas Eve dinner at the Woodlands, a resort that’s celebrating 100 years in existence. The food was consistent with what we’ve experienced in the past. There may have been a couple dishes I didn’t quite appreciate, but I certainly look forward to spending Christmas Eve 2007 in Summerville.