Freehold House – May 2008 (dt)
(MacKarnes and Lady MacKarnes Choice)
4.66 - 7.5, 6, 5.5, 5, 3.75, 3.5, 3, 3
----closed Apr 2010

Rarely has such deception been perpetrated upon the hapless six as was seen this May evening, albeit, all in a good cause.
             A late starting pre-course at the Karneses prompted a Macbethian caution that the distaff’s lack of proper planning necessitated a 7:30 reservation. Leaving Pine Meadow Lane at 6:55, we anticipated a 40 minute drive. Up to the four corners in Freehold we pulled, lurched across the street, and parked in front of the carriage house, barely two miles from the starting point. Delight and surprise squealed as we realized we were dining at the newly reopened Freehold House, the site of our former favorite, The Freehold Country Inn. Nice trickery, Chay and Deb.
             On to the highlights.
             Anticipation was building to see the changes since the FCI era. The open expanse of the seating area was divided into four areas by door frames, each sporting a name. Thus, with minimal physical change, the owners created a feel of more private areas. We were seated in the Music Room, with its corresponding motif, with semi-New Age, semi-classical music wafting in the background. Particularly noticeable was a quietude rarely seen in other restaurants, with conversation flowing from end to end of our four-on-the-side arrangement. The same comfortable tables and chairs still greeted us; the golden-mustardy walls agreed with many. A centerpiece of large and fragrant roses was appreciated, while the new decorations drew a wide range of critical opinion.
               The menu, of course, drew considerable interest, and, upon review, met with sighs of pleasure and moans of ambivalence. The appetizer list seemed quite adequate except for a listing of only one salad, causing some consternation, given our fondness of salads and our perception that a salad was à la carte. Upon determining that salad or soup came with dinner, our anxiety dissipated. The salad and soup course arrived a full hour after seating, with four house salads composed of an adequate mesclun mix, with tomato slices and dressing, many of the choices of which originating as a tasty vinaigrette. Three salads, from the appetizer list, were Caesar salads, and deemed quite acceptable. The remaining order was the creamy mushroom with chicken soup, a bowlful of which Deb K enjoyed, despite questioning the texture, with comments it looked big enough to be a meal by itself.
               Two starting baskets of rolls, accompanied by small bowls of marble-size scoops of herbed butter, had earlier satisfied the munching urge.
               The drink selection process initially scared us with the very limited list in the menu’s insert. After having to ask for the wine menu, sommelier T. Adams selected two bottles of Irony 2005 pinot noir of the Monterey Valley. This writer felt it to be very average but acceptable as the meal went on. A glass of pinot grigio and two of diet soda filled the order.
               The entrée list varied tremendously in price, which invoked a little anxiety for DP8, feeling slightly guilty about ordering the top price items. Assurances were given to ‘go for it.’ Although the menu seemed limited, a further perusal showed a reasonable range of meats and even two vegetarian selections. The chicken cordon bleu (Don, Tim), with a sufficient slice of chicken, a modest amount of white and purple roasted potatoes chunks, and steamed buttered carrots was a satisfying, if not somewhat bland, meal (a rare chicken choice for Don, and rarer still for Tim; a filet mignon (Kriss), ordered well done, came out medium, and sent back for further cooking, and, upon its return, was deemed very good, with its side of frites and vegetables; the first ever order of Beef Wellington (Deb K) attracted much attention with its pate and mushrooms in a pastry shell, in a Madeira sauce, and judged to be very good, despite it being overcooked; Deb T ordered the pan-fried pork medallions and was declared the winner of the evening, with its juicy and tender meat flaked with herbs and joined with roasted potatoes.
               And, then the not so pleasant entrée highlights. The creamy Arborio risotto, topped with grilled vegetables and not-so-melted Brie, caught Judy by surprise, noting the topping of vegetables, not the expected cutting of vegetables, and the un-creaminess of the risotto. Not one of her favorite DP8 meals. And then Chay poked at the Shrimp Diable that delivered the succulent shrimp and spicy sauce and pasta as advertised but had a flavor that Chay described as smoke and old, a constant, forkful-after-forkful reminder of his displeasure. Most of it went uneaten. And then, Ken, poor Ken. His dinner arrived ten minutes later than everyone else’s. This unusually prepared veal parmesan came with two slabs of veal, surrounded by tepid, at best, pasta, accompanied by tomato salsa-like sauce, topped by cold cheese chunks. Ken ate almost none of it.
               Those who shared tried several of the entrees and generally agreed with the owners’ judgments. (The parmesan dinner, after a second excursion by Tim, was excluded from the bill.)
               The best part of the food experience (bias?) was dessert. Don enjoyed the dry and smooth chocolaty-ness of the chocolate truffle cake, with ganache and raspberry sauce; Kriss liked the cheesecake with topping of cherries; Ken devoured the orange-almond flourless layer cake with orange-scented butter frosting; Deb T found the crème brûlée to her liking; Deb K and Judy ordered the icy lemon mousse, advertised as “light and airy, sweet and tart,” but were surprised by its frozen delivery – still, a judgment of very good; Chay sipped his Sambucca and Tim his Frangelica. Most of the desserts were accompanied by a partially sliced gigantic strawberry (interesting choice for the cheesecake with cherries).
               Service caught us in an awkward position. We knew the waiter as family of a friend but she was new, tried hard, was nice, and we wanted to like her but the lack of training by the restaurant showed. So, the inexperience with opening wine bottles was forgiven, as well as the lack of smoothness and sophistication in the overall experience. Samantha was pleasant, and we caught up on family matters, etc.
               Somewhere in between came the one appetizer – artichoke fritters on a bed of greens, with tomato coulis & lemon aioli. Tasty and good, but not the fritter I had in mind. (The appetizer came long after the salads, and we debated when the appetizers should arrive. More opinion needed.)
                Pacing proved very leisurely this evening, yet quite acceptable for DP8 with home only a few miles away.  Our long-windedness and pleasure with our company took up the slack, but fifteen minutes shy of three hours marked beginning to end. It seemed as if only our requests about food items prompted promises that the food was soon on its way.
               Several double entendres crossed the table but none erupted above our usual plane of remarkable drollness or droll remarkability.
               The bill, minus the one meal, with tax and already-built-in tip, came to $80 per couple, a lesser amount than expected (and lesser than the first announcement).
               All in all, Freehold House showed potential, with a medium-upper scale establishment that should attract many diners, especially with the Carriage House available once again for use. Perhaps, with some more seasoning, and with the chipping away at the rough edges of service and food prep, parity with the former FCI is possible. (Ahem, I hear voices in the background who will disagree, as the overall rating suggests.)

              Earlier, at the Karnes’ residence, we enjoyed a late May day, with a dry, cool wind that a warming sun tempered. We circled the house, noting all the garden changes and maintenance, as well as the view across the valley. We caught up on the news, especially the future Gramps and Grandma, with the baby shower next month for Noel and Mari; Deb K’s mother’s health; our work lives; Cairo-Durham’s “ambience;” Ken’s sciatica; spring cleaning and lawn work; the new lining of the pool at the Monteverds’; summer possibilities; upcoming vacations; etc. All of this was interspersed with the appetizers – cheese and crackers, a veggie plate, another of Deb’s dips, as well as a round of cabernet sauvignon, pinot grigio, soda, and beer. Thanks, Chay and Deb for hosting, and congratulations on another deceit that will have us doubting anything you ever say for years to come. (ha)