March 2006 - Horton Smith (dt)
6.38 - 7, 7, 7, 6.5, 6.5, 6, 6, 5

A blustery mid-March day, colder than our mild January, drew the fearless troupe’s pre-assemblage to the Karnes’ home. Deb had prepared a veggie platter, dip and crackers while Chay portered drinks from the kitchen.
        And then off to one of our most pleasant surprises – surprising because even the local savants had not heard of Horton Smith, perched uphill from Vesuvio, and even further from the Frog House, which is what I had guessed for a destination (good call of hamlet, not the exact site).
        Upside: Part of our surprise started with ambience. Horton Smith certainly looks like a boarding house converted to a downstairs restaurant with the possibility of rooms upstairs. Stenciled above one of the exterior doors was “Hilltop Inn”, probably a leftover from the earlier era.
        Upon entering, a sizeable and welcoming bar on the left catches the eye but so do the front eating room and the slightly more formal-looking back room. The back room has the feel of the classic boarding house dining room, albeit renovated with burnished wood flooring, casting a stylishly modern air. A dry wall fireplace dominated the west wall, ten feet wide, ceiling to floor, with a crackling fire warding off the winter chill and complementing the ambience.
        We sat in an alcove that was just room enough for our table, with table heads and three down the sides, one of our favorite seatings. Tim got the exterior window at his back, and Chay the alcove wall. Lighting was pleasantly dimly bright, light enough to read the menu but dim enough to provoke atmosphere. The table beside us glared portentously with children, but their excellent restaurant manners was a relief to us and also spoke commendably about the parents too.
        Drinks (or, I should say our approach to the drinks) were low-key. The drink list started with carafes, and we ventured no further. Two carafes of merlot kept five of us satisfied, a glass of pinot grigio for Judy, and diet-Cokes for the carbonated duo. The house merlot was acceptable but one of the weakest merlots I have seen a restaurant offer – a bit tannic and nothing of quality really stood out.
        Two appetizers were tested by nearly everyone who wanted a taste. The fried eggplant was stacked four high, with a creamy and cheesy light filling with herbs – a worthy experiment. The other was the amply crafted arugula salad with beets, the highlight of the pre-entrée round. The whole table gingerly devoured both, boding well for evening if one were to judge by the first round.
        Salads came with dinner, an ordinary but acceptable spring salad mix with a couple of cherry tomatoes thrown in. All seemed pleased with the dressings. Not much imagination. 
        Our choice of entrees splayed over the range of Horton Smith’s menu. We tried the baked scallops (Tim, Deb T), Shepherd’s pie (Don), Guinness battered shrimp (Kriss), beef platter (Ken), catfish Reuben (Deb K), veal medallions (Judy), and Swiss shrimp (Chay). All were considered good to excellent, with both the scallops eaters complimenting the lemony sweet but not cloying sauce, the beef platter’s choices of three worthy cuts, the Reuben’s tasty and adventuresome novelty, and the Shepherd’s pie tasty  tang and with enough left over for another day’s meal.
        Ken’s coffee replenishment was satisfactory, always a small test.
        We glimpsed at the dessert plate being shown to the table beside us but we had already made other plans. The bill came to a very modest, OK, a rather surprisingly paltry $60 per couple. Our drink selection influenced that, maybe $5 per couple. And, not having dessert was probably worth about $10 per couple. Overall, prices were average to low-average cost for a worthy repast in a cozy setting.
        
The ride back was even a bit colder than the ride up but the view of the valley lights was exceptional from Point Lookout.
         Back at the Karnes’, dessert marked Ken’s fifty-something-ish birthday. Pies – both an apple and a Swiss chocolate – flanked by three selections of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, followed Ken’s opening of cards and gifts. He endured our gibes of his status as second-eldermost statesperson of the group (sorry, Tim), and we traipsed down the driveway somewhere before 11 p.m.
         Downside: ....
        
The weak spot of the night was service, or, more accurately, style. The job got done but a bit halting, forgetful about who ordered what and some small details, performing like a new hire who wasn’t going to get much better. Still, she was amiable and anxious to please. Perhaps, our perception of the restaurant’s quality did not match what we expect from an equally qualified wait staff.
         Outside, once the parking lot gets paved, the dark trek over rough and loose gravel to get to our car will be one adventure we need not do.