Our Gourmet: Country Spirit has charm fit for royaltySeptember 13. 2017 12:14AM
One of the most charming country restaurants we’ve been to in New England is just up the road in the small town of Henniker, where diners settle in to Country Spirit’s atmosphere of homey comfort, to be surprised at the range of food available.
We’d had lunch, and a Sunday brunch here long ago, but while taking scenic back roads down from Concord one recent evening, planning a home-cooked meal, we approached the Country Spirit and hardly hesitated before pulling in.
Inside Country Spirit it’s all wood, and all good. At first glance, the consistent wood decor seems balanced and even. But look closely, and you’ll see that many of the chairs at the tables don’t match, and neither do many of the lamps and lanterns. There are church pews and school benches for booth seating, large bed headboards for wall decorations, and a mismatched collection of country furnishings and outdoor equipment hanging all about.
At the entrance is a small brass plaque telling patrons that Lord and Lady Henniker of Suffolk, England, dined there in 1993, and there is what must be a 30-gallon glass water container stuffed full of wine corks near the front door.
And the menu goes way past typical farmhouse offerings, with ample choices of seafood, raw bar selections, vegetable and fruit salads, smoked BBQ chicken and ribs, prime rib, pasta dishes, racks of lamb, charbroiled steaks and filet mignon.
Part of the comfort here is that entrees are value-added, and include a salad and vegetable, and potato, or small sides for $3 and others for $4.50. Our dinner for two, including one cocktail and one glass of wine (and not the $6 house wine) came to $75, not including our tip that waitress Vlada earned for her cheerful, well-timed service that was gracious and informative.
A crock of the daily chowder, this day a Seafood Medley ($5.50), accompanied another appetizer of Smoked Chicken Thighs ($6.95). Again, good value here as other establishments would serve similar dishes for at least $2-3 more, and they couldn’t be more tasty. The chowder was nice and hot, creamy but not too thick, and loaded with various seafood pieces, and only a few potato chunks. The three boneless chicken thighs were charbroiled to ever-so-slightly blackened, herb-spiced and slathered with homemade barbecue sauce. A very tasty and substantial beginning to our meal.
Chicken Florentine ($18.95) brought several slices of thin chicken tenderloin, sauteed with a bursting-fresh medley of garlic, peppers, spinach and artichokes in a just-slightly creamy white wine sauce. The vegetables’ freshness almost — but not quite — overrode the chicken flavor in parts of the meal, and an accompanying serving of red-roasted potatoes fit perfectly. This is a dish where other restaurants use far less chicken and vegetables, which are hiding amidst some pasta. There are chicken and seafood entrees at Country Spirit that combine the fowl with pasta, but most of the chicken dishes on the menu do not come with pasta, unless it’s on the side, meaning more chicken and vegetables for your taste buds and your price.
My Blackened Catfish ($16.95), one of the “Favorites” on the menu, was superb, showing why it easily rates as such. Two large filets of catfish (three quarters of a pound, the menu says) came nicely blackened from the hot-skillet, pan-searing method, with a healthy dose of Cajun spice rub before the cooking. We didn’t use tartar sauce, and didn’t even squeeze a lemon over the fish as we enjoyed it throughout dinner. It was cooked just right and seasoned just right so that eating it unadorned was a natural.
Along with more of the roasted red potatoes and a nice helping of mixed vegetables (including spinach, zucchini, carrots and peppers), the catfish was a real delight, and comes highly recommended to our faithful readers.
Both dinners came with a side garden salad that featured mixed lettuce and greens, and plenty of sliced red onion, peppers, cucumbers, mushrooms and croutons. Other restaurants would charge, say, $5-$7 for such a salad but Country Spirit goes old school (and value) on these items and it is a welcome return to what once was normal.
After such a good meal, one would expect dessert to be worthy. It is. And beyond. We could hardly wade through the myriad offerings, but finally settled on what turned out to be the Gelato of the Day (a steal at $4.95). A frozen glass mug was full of Bourbon Vanilla Apple Crisp gelato, which was like apple pie-flavored ice cream with bits of apples and bits of a crispy pie crust embedded in the frozen gelato, with a hint of a bourbon flavor. Absolutely outstanding as the capper to a fine and satisfying meal.
Henniker is bit of a hike from the Manchester area, but from Concord, or the Pats Peak area, or anywhere along state Routes 9, 202 or 114, Country Spirit is a much shorter hike, and well worth time spent to get there. Specifically, the restaurant is set back from the road and tucked discreetly among the trees at the intersection of state Routes 202 and 114. Heading north on 114, it is on the east side of the road, just before that intersection. It is easy to miss for the trees, even though it is not a small establishment.
If Lord and Lady Henniker from England can find it, Granite Staters can certainly do the same, and no one will leave disappointed. Lunch and especially Sunday Brunch are very popular here, and in this setting so full of warmth and country charm, Henniker’s Country Spirit Restaurant and Tavern puts New Hampshire’s culinary prowess clearly on the map.