Our Gourmet: After class, apres ski, Hellings is a must-go
We're not going out on a limb when we guess that a fairly high percentage of the student body at New England College in Henniker has spent at least one winter afternoon or evening on the slopes at nearby Pats Peak.
We'd also guess that this winter, many of those skiing students have at least noticed Helling's Slope Side, located just across from the entrance to Pats Peak's main parking area on Flanders Road off Route 114.
If they're smart (and we're confident that they are, being college students), they will be sure to invite their parents to take them to Hellings next time they're in town.
Henniker is the fourth stop on our dining tour of New Hampshire college towns, and Hellings is challenging for the top spot in our class. It's been open about a year, based on a "thanks for a great first year" sign we saw inside, and judging by our visit, there should be many more years to come.
The building is a rambling affair that started life as a house and has had any number of additions over the years as it became a restaurant. (Hellings isn't the first to occupy the space.) Inside, those additions are reflected in a number of one- and two-step elevation changes as you move from one part of the dining area to another. It's warm and casual, barnlike, with pine booths and barnboard walls decorated with antique ski gear and sleds. A fireplace is a nice feature and makes a prime seating location in one corner of the L-shaped, high-ceiling dining area.
Atmosphere aside, what screams "comfortable" at Hellings is the menu, with homey entree choices ranging from baked meatloaf to mac and cheese to chicken pot pie, along with steaks, seafood and a smattering of Italian and Mexican.
The appetizer menu is fairly short and straightforward, with a pub-style flavor that would make for a nice bite with a drink after a few runs at Pats. I decided to try the most unusual item on the list, Edamame Spring Rolls ($7.99). I got four substantial spring rolls on a bed of ginger sesame salad greens. The rolls had a typical mix of shredded cabbage and carrots in the filling along with the edamame (shelled green soybeans). There was a vinegary tang to the rolls that might have been absorbed from the greens, because it wasn't as obvious when I took care to dissect one. I enjoyed the rolls, but with all those soybeans, they were quite filling. Two would have sufficed as an appetizer. (Then again, I could have taken two home.)
The Dining Companion tried really hard to avoid adding to her reputation as the Squid Kid, but when she saw that the Calamari Aglio Olio ($9.99) was tossed with olive oil, she decided she needed to compare it to the disappointingly soggy version she got on our last College Tour stop. At Hellings, the calamari is lightly breaded and fried and then tossed with olive oil, garlic, parsley, cherry peppers and Parmesan cheese, served with a nice marinara sauce. The calamari was tender and delicate, and the the coating was crispy - it held up to the oil right through the last ring. "It brought my faith back in ordering a 'tossed with oil' calamari," TDC said.
My entree choice could have been a marriage tester. Curious how a restaurant pot roast could compare to TDC's best-ever, which she had prepared just the previous weekend, I ordered it (for $13.99) from the "Winter Additions" menu. Two bites in, I realized I had put myself in a precarious position: Hellings' was better. Not a lot better, but better. TDC took it like a pro, taking notes on the qualities of the winning roast.
Served with the requisite potatoes, carrots and onion, two large pieces of beef were fork-tender and delicious, with none of the fatty bits that often survive the cooking in store-bought cuts of chuck. The sauce was thick, rich and well seasoned, with an enjoyable hint of tomato in the background. The only negative worth mentioning was that when served, the sauce had begun to form a bit of a surface sheen, probably a result of the fairly long wait we had between apps and entrees.
TDC chose another homestyle entree, Stuffed Pork Loin ($13.99). Had our Teenage Bottomless Pit been with us, he'd have called dibs on this dish immediately based on the filling of bacon, spinach and smoked mozzarella. The mix had mostly melted out of the split center of the pork onto the plate, but the meat was also topped with the cheesy mixture.
The smoky flavor was wonderful, but unfortunately, the pork itself was a bit dry. Being an expert at overcooking pork, I half expected a snarky comment from TDC ("Just like yours, hon!") in response to my decision in the pot roast competition, but like I said, she's a pro.
The sides were also notable. A cup of cream of broccoli and mushroom soup was delicious, brimming with both featured ingredients and with a touch of tang (cheese? sour cream?) in the not-too-thick broth. TDC's sweet potato fries had a sprinkle of sugar as well as salt, which made them addicting.
It's rare that we pass on dessert, but the stick-to-your-ribs quality of all the food we'd enjoyed had us stuffed. We did order a slice of peanut butter cup pie ($6.50) to take home to the Bottomless Pit, who raved that it was up there with the best he's had. I snuck a couple of bites while he was rooting around for another gallon of milk, and I concurred.
We haven't done much skiing in the past couple of years, but the next time we head to Pats Peak, another visit to Hellings will definitely be part of the plan. There's nothing wrong with a burger and a beverage in the ski lodge, but an apres-ski stop at Hellings for drinks, appetizers or dinner - with its good food, atmosphere, prices and service - would be an even better ending.