Eating in the dining room of an inn is not the same as eating at a restaurant or at home, especially at breakfast. There are people here who still have that early-morning tousled look, their eyes gluey with sleep. There are honeymooners and second honeymooners glancing at one another over the tops of their shared newspaper sections. There are parents visiting college-age kids, awkwardly stumbling through a reunion with their newly liberated children.
At the venerable Hearthstone Inn, two connected Victorian mansions on Cascade Avenue just north of downtown, you can join guests for breakfast or lunch every day of the week and for dinner on weekends. The atmosphere is country classic -- polished wood floors, lace curtains, and carved oak dining chairs set up in what must once have been the two front parlors. The pace, as it should be at any good inn, is slow and easy. Take as long as you want, linger a bit, sip a little more coffee, linger a bit more. Whether you're a guest at the inn or not, when dining at the Hearthstone, you're treated like a pampered visitor.
Recent springlike days got me interested in breakfast at the Hearthstone. Now that morning temperatures were tolerably moderate, I wanted to take morning walks, and a stroll from my house to the Hearthstone takes about 15 minutes -- just enough to work up an appetite en route and to work off a few extra calories on the way back home.
The breakfast menu is designed to suit all tastes. Huevos Rancheros ($8) and a Breakfast Burrito made with chorizo and smoked mozzarella ($7) share space with an egg, meat and hash browns special ($5), the chef's omelette of the day ($8), classic Eggs Benedict ($10) and a Continental Breakfast of fresh fruit, granola and fruit yogurt ($8). I tried the most elaborate breakfast item, Blue Crab Fritters ($11) served with a perfectly poached egg and jalapeno hollandaise sauce atop sweet potato scallion cakes.
The crab cakes, lightly battered and fried to a crisp, are the best I've found in Colorado Springs. Where crab is often used sparingly in this landlocked region and is often overwhelmed by breading or chopped onion and green pepper, these crab cakes are the real item -- a generous portion of tender shreds of blue crab, lightly seasoned and largely unadulterated, relying on the sweetness of the meat for flavor. The sweet potato scallion cakes were also a treat -- freshly shredded, cooked just beyond crunchiness to a melting-together point of warmth and sweetness.
Another morning I tried Hearthstone's Vanilla French Toast ($7), hefty slices of egg-drenched French bread, pan-fried and served with warm Vermont maple syrup and a scoop of whipped cinnamon butter. The accompanying hash browns on the plate were as good as the sweet potato scallion cakes -- freshly shredded, crisp and piping hot -- but would be better served on a separate plate to allow for separate seasoning.
Breakfast at the Hearthstone was good enough to lure me to lunch. On a sunny Saturday, I walked over and joined the guests for an elegant meal of Fire Roasted Tomato Soup ($4) and Oven Roasted Pork Tenderloin ($11). It's rare to be served a restaurant meal where the side dishes are as interesting and carefully prepared as the main course and where the garnishes define the dish. To Chef Scott Coulter's credit, the side dishes and garnishes raise his meals far above the ordinary. The tender pork tenderloin was served in inch-think medallions over a warm apple bourbon au jus -- a lovely mix of sweet and savory -- and topped with a pungent cilantro pesto -- finely chopped leaf cilantro combined with garlic, roasted pumpkin seeds and an infused oil. But the clincher was the side dish of blue cheese bread pudding -- crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, laced with mild onion and redolent of blue cheese. Dipped in the apple bourbon au jus, the flavor is a perfect fruit and cheese combo.
The tomato soup, an intense concentrate, was also impressively dressed with a dollop of cilantro creme fraiche and a splash of sundried pepper oil. The result is fragrant, colorful and refreshing.
My walk home that day didn't make a dent in extra calories consumed, since I opted for dessert -- a rich Creme Brulee Cheesecake served with fresh strawberry sauce. Creamy perfection.
The Hearthstone offers a nice wine list if you're buying by the bottle, with only a house wine by the glass. Dinner is currently served on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights only, but there are plans in the works to expand to a fourth night soon. A glance at the dinner menu confirmed the presence of two of my favorite breakfast and dinner items -- the blue crab cakes, served in the evening with tomato basil coulis and garlic aioli, and the blue cheese bread pudding, served with Colorado lamb chops and a Ruby Port demi glace.
I look forward to more breakfasts at the Hearthstone as the weather warms and the median flowerbeds on Cascade come into bloom. It's a real local treasure -- falling into that pleasant zone somewhere between a restaurant and home.