A New Hampshire Hidden Gem
In the dark months of winter, when the moon casts its light on canescent mounds of snow, the latter become fields of icy, glowing gems, riches to behold for the eyes of the careful observer. The angle must be just so to reap the rewards of this natural sacrament. This heightens the transcendence of the moment – the moment we realize that treasures surround us.
One must be observant to glimpse the majesty of nature. So too, the intrepid searcher of hidden restaurant treasures must be equally observant to find the amazing gastronomical gems that can be found in surprising places in New Hampshire. The Crystal Quail is one such gem.
Though Frost penned his famous poem about the road not taken more than 50 years before Harold and Cynthia Huckaby opened The Crystal Quail, it's easy to imagine he could have been describing their unique restaurant. For starters, the building is a true antique. It was built in the 1760s and, unlike other historical dwellings that have been transformed into dining establishments, the old farm cape at 202 Pitman Road in Center Barnstead is also home for the Hukabys. When you enter The Crystal Quail, you experience a combination of history and homeyness that is a rarity. Next, they have a verbal menu – one that, as they say, “allows for total spontaneity and creativity in harmony with each season.” From local livestock and game to flowers and vegetables often sourced from their own garden, the fare is fresh and of the highest quality. Since the menu isn't unveiled until one is seated, anticipation adds to the experience. Lastly, besides asking guests to bring their own wine, a practice which provides patrons an excuse to pull out that special bottle they've been saving for the right occasion, Harold and Cynthia also buck convention by running a cash-only operation. $75 is the price for memories to be savored over a lifetime.
It was a cold February night when six of us braved an unexpectedly intense snowfall to spend an evening with Harold and Cynthia. There was a post light at the end of the driveway, which cut through the wintry darkness and illuminated a smallish, somewhat faded, wooden sign depicting the bird that contributes to the restaurant's name. The house itself is hidden from view, located somewhere beyond the crest of a small rise. After making the ascent, the land leveled and we were greeted with a picturesque scene. To our left, the former farmhouse seemed to radiate warmth, with soft, orange-tinged light visible through the windows and smoke meandering upward from the chimney. A weathered but sturdy barn stood to our right. As we entered through a heavy wooden door, we could see through to the cozy dining room, where other diners were bathed in the flickering glow from the fireplace. It felt very much like going to visit old friends.
Once seated, Cynthia conveyed the choices for appetizer and main course, took our orders, and then disappeared into the kitchen to get the wine Harold had been uncorking. With wine in hand and the red embers from the fire crackling softly in cadence to our conversation, we soon were treated to a pre-appitizer of a cocktail tomato stuffed with a Mushroom Duxelle. Harold prepares the stuffing by squeezing the moisture from the mushrooms and then sauteing them with chopped onions and parsley to make a paste. The texture counterpoint between the tomato and the paste provided another dimension to the delicious blend of flavors.
The appetizers arrived next. Our choices were Minestrone Soup or Wild Chicken Mushrooms with Saffron Sauce. Two of our party opted for the soup, which arrived steaming in an elegant bowl. Various vegetables, each cooked to the perfect consistency, swam in the ruddy broth. The remainder of us received small plates of heaven. Julienned mounds of mushrooms were lightly covered by a golden sauce. As their name implies, the chicken mushrooms were reminiscent of their barnyard namesake, while the saffron imparted earthy and nutty notes. The combined effect formed a richly exotic delight to taste.
Bread and salad followed. The fresh-baked breads were Sesame Seed Rolls and a Whole Wheat Bread with Flax and Sunflower Seeds. Served warm, their aroma heightened the sensation of visiting family or friends. Competing with bread can be difficult, but the salad was not to be outdone. We were served a Batonnette cut and Marinated Roasted Beet Salad with Flat Leaf Parsley and Goat Cheese. The deep, sweet flavor of the roasted beets was offset by the creamy tanginess of the goat cheese, and parsley added a refreshing quality that prepared our palates for the main event.
We had a choice of three entrées: Filet of Sole Quenelles with Shrimps and a Newburg Sauce, Wild Turkey Hash with White Wine and Mustard Sauce, and Roasted Loin of Venison with Poivrade Sauce. All were served with Alsatian braised Red Cabbage and Potatoes Au Gratin. Though I rarely have passed up the opportunity for seafood – and the egg-shaped sole dumplings that came out with a cadre of shrimp looked very enticing – this time I selected the turkey hash. Harold formed the hash into an elongated loaf, similar in texture to a standard meat loaf. An ever-so-mild hint of gaminess blended with the mild sour and tangy aspects of the sauce. Superbly executed, the red cabbage and au gratin potatoes capped a wonderfully satisfying entrée. While I didn't sample the quenelles, I did have the good fortune to sample a small piece of the venison. It was tender and the peppery sauce lingered pleasantly on the tongue.
Lastly, we were presented with the difficulty of deciding upon dessert. The Huckabys gave us a choice of Chocolate Honey Pecan Pie or Rice à l'Impératrice (Empress Rice). While I'm certain the rice dessert was every bit the equal of the other courses, I must confess I failed to hear anything beyond the words “pecan pie.” Being one of the richer pies, one might imagine the addition of chocolate and honey would be too much. They weren't. The bitterness of chocolate made with 70 percent cacao prevented the pie from becoming overly decadent, while the honey served to balance and bridge the chocolate and pecans. This was a fitting end to the dining portion of the evening.
We continued talking and enjoying the company of a nice couple who made it point to revisit The Crystal Quail from time to time. Eventually, however, the hour grew late and we had to make our goodbyes. We were sad to go, but we were richer for the experience.
Outside, snowflakes gleamed in the moonlight. Their pinpoints of radiance were icy diamonds awaiting discovery along this road seldom taken. For those who dare to explore, the rewards are wrought in crystalline grace. Set a date with The Crystal Quail and reserve a night worth remembering. That will make all the difference.
Photo by The Crystal Quail