Food & Drink » Appetite

Halfway there

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Looks-wise, the Craftwood Inn is still the same beauty it's always been: a steep curving sidewalk on the front lawn leading to an English Tudor-style dining room of dark wood and lamp light, which glints off crystal glasses set over blue tablecloths. In the room's center, the embossed copper fireplace emits a dull glow.

It's executive chef Tim Richardson, now three months into his tenure, and the things I discovered after dining — that the vegetables shone brighter than the meats, in a restaurant known for its carne — that are new.

And though I can't chalk it all up to the fact that Richardson, 24, is a vegetarian — after all, he says he still tastes all the entrées — it's hard to ignore. Consider that it turns out his favorite dish was my favorite: shells stuffed with Boursin cream cheese and covered in a romesco-like tomato and red pepper marinara so impactful there should still be a hole in my skull. It sang with savory tang and spice, and yanked my mouth in three different directions. Served in a medium, white ramekin with a layer of cheese baked over the top, that pasta could be eaten daily.

It came with three other exemplary items on the vegetarian du jour platter ($22), with items inspired by Richardson's opinion that the restaurant previously "half-assed" non-meat plates: a sticky jasmine rice cake covered with julienned teriyaki carrots and cucumbers; a plump roasted tomato almost bursting with hot juice, and stuffed with house mozzarella, white balsamic vinegar powder, and basil from the restaurant's backyard; and a pair of delicate triangles of spanokopita punched up with cinnamon, clove and Colorado pine nuts. With a glass of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc ($11) — a world-class powerhouse of strawberries and grapefruit, served from a mini carafe — the meal set the bar high.

Too high, maybe. The lowest point came with the pork trio ($32), and its stuffed pork medallions — dotted with a bit of chorizo, the whole affair was dry and bland. Though the quietly seasoned fat of the pork belly did a lovely soft-on-soft thing with the mashed potatoes, the chewy boar ribs squeaked against the teeth, needed twice the sauce that came with them, and weren't half as good as the roasted tomato garnish.

Other middle-of-the-road dishes: an elk roulade ($12) featuring sometimes overdone, sometimes tender, and sometimes tasting-like-liver slices wrapped around jicama and house pickles; a crab and artichoke soup ($10) with a relatively new, house-made lobster stock that'll need more kick; and a wet pair of dark and dense duck legs ($29), that were advertised as a crispy "chef's selection" and leaned toward overcooked, but still paired pretty well with the muted sour of its buttery blueberry reduction.

A seafood trio ($16) was also up-and-down, with sweet meat-candy scallops and cinnamon-and-sugar curry prawns, but lame squares of marinated ahi tuna. The deep-red ostrich leg meat ($42), pounded thin, rolled in macadamia nuts, and layered over a black-cherry demi glace, was at times both plump and meaty, and stringy with connective tissue.

Desserts from pastry chef Meghan Reeves were complex charms each time, however: A "duet" of thick chocolate mousses ($10) framed by paper-thin wafers — one dark with piles of chili threads, the other white with candied jalapeños — was blissful, while a dense and creamy strawberry tarragon pyramid ($9), beside a pool of seeded strawberry sauce, was as beautiful as the patio on which it was polished off.

bryce@csindy.com

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