Waterhouse, in downtown Peterborough's Depot Square, is a stylish contemporary American restaurant with a concise, appetizing menu and an ambience that can't be beat. It aims for a higher-end clientele, so be prepared for a fairly expensive dinner.
And based on our experience, be prepared to be patient.
Having never visited Waterhouse before, we called ahead and made a Saturday night reservation. We arrived at the appointed time, and were told by the host that there would be a short wait for our table. We were puzzled, as there were several open tables in the dining room, but the wait — 10 or 15 minutes — gave us time to order a drink in the bar and scope out the decor: clean, modern lines with light woodwork and furniture, understated table decorations, perhaps a touch of feng shui at work.
The restaurant is snug along the granite-lined banks of the Nubanusit Brook that feeds into the nearby Contoocook River. Wonderful black and white photos of the brook and its surrounding scenery decorate the walls throughout, and the back wall of the dining room is all glass, offering a great view of the tree-lined waterway.
As it turned out, we were waiting because the table being prepared for us was on the outdoor patio — an inviting, shady space with 10 or so umbrella-topped tables, most along the wall overlooking the brook, but a few, like ours, across the aisle in a second row.
The patio is a lovely spot for dinner on a warm summer evening. The atmosphere is only enhanced by the sound of the brook spilling over a dam just upstream, on the other side of the granite bridge that leads into town.
Once we were seated, we were greeted promptly by our waitress, who reviewed the evening's short but interesting menu of specials. One appetizer, a sausage and onion soup ($7), sounded so good that I had to try it. It featured bites of grilled smoked sausage along with red peppers, corn and cooked onions, all in a buttery cream base. It was rich, slightly spicy, and delicious.
The Dining Companion's Crab Cakes ($13) were sauteed to golden brown and served with a roasted red pepper aioli alongside a small mixed greens salad. The cakes were delicate and well seasoned, with plenty of lump crabmeat and a touch of aromatic veggies as part of the mix. The aioli offered just the right hint of a kick.
After those terrific appetizers, we couldn't wait for our entrees. But wait we did — for nearly a half-hour. We weren't the only party with extended lulls between courses. We were surrounded by large groups of diners, whose conversations helped them (and eavesdropping us) pass the time while we waited. Our waitress was apologetic, and kept us updated on when we could expect our meals to arrive.
Eventually, dinner was served, though by then the sun had long set, and the presentation — which we are sure must have been elegant — was lost on us on account of darkness.
Lighting on the patio is supplied primarily by a candle lantern on each table and rope lights wound around the shaggy-bark birch trees along the brook's wall. Our second-row table didn't get the benefit of the rope lights, and once the sun went down, it was very difficult to see what we were eating by lantern-light — so much so that a couple of times we resorted to our cellphones' flashlight apps to sneak a peek at our plates.
At any rate, we dug hungrily into our entrees, and decided that, while they were good, they weren't quite up to the expectations set by their prices and the success of our appetizers.
I ordered Pan Seared Brick Chicken ($22), served with bacon stuffing and Shittake mushroom demiglace and accompanied by just-tender asparagus spears. The star of this dish was the stuffing. Large, crouton-sized chunks of firm bread (white, I think) were deliciously infused with chicken broth and crisp bits of bacon. Flavor and texture were excellent; had our Teenage Bottomless Pit been with us, he would have asked for an order of the stuffing to take home.
The chicken was quite small, and in the dark it was impossible to identify its anatomy. The only bone I encountered (Thigh? Wing?) offered no clear leads. In any case, the meat was nicely browned and flavorful. The mushroom demiglace was a very thick and intensely flavored reduction; I thought it was a bit strong for the poultry, but would have been great with red meat. TDC disagreed and thought it was fine.
TDC ordered the Wild Sockeye Salmon ($26) served with house-made wheat pasta, sweet curry cream sauce and piled high with carrot slaw. Like me, she thought the entree was good, but not outstanding. She didn't care for the pasta, and she found the salmon to be slightly dry. Her side order of grilled asparagus ($4) was excellent.
As our dishes were cleared, we debated whether to order dessert. It had started to get chilly as the evening wore on, and we had already invested an hour and a half of our night. But we decided to go ahead, and, while we had to wait yet again (though not as long, this time), we were pleased with our choices, especially my "Ultimate Coconut Cake" ($10).
The menu said each six-layer slice weighs about a pound, and while that may be hyperbole, it served as fair warning of the level of rich, dense deliciousness this cake presented. I ate half — OK, two thirds — before packing up the rest to take home.
By the time we got our check, we had been at Waterhouse for two full hours. It's one thing to linger over a meal by choice, but waiting for courses to be delivered is something else entirely. And while we could have asked to be moved from our too-dark table, it should be the management's job to make sure that all tables are lit well enough that the kitchen's good work can be appreciated with the eye as well as the taste buds.
The food was good, but our three-course, no-alcohol dinner for two came to $103 before tip. For that kind of money, it's fair to expect a superlative dining experience. For us, Waterhouse came up short.