by Corin Hirsch
"It's going to be 16 degrees tomorrow night," I overheard a woman tell a couple who had just arrived from Florida, and who had just been seated in the tavern of the Kedron Valley Inn. If they'd be outside, she added, they should bundle up.
Sometimes Vermonters take a quiet glee in delivering deadpan news of impending "weather," and the tourists blinked back for a moment, digesting the news. For the moment, though, they were toastily ensconced near the fire here, pints in hand.
When the prospect of the first freeze is only a night away, our thoughts turn to places such as this. I'm constantly taking mental notes of inns with fires, but can still draw a blank when pressed to find easygoing spots where you can kick back with decent food and some flames. I'd driven by this South Woodstock inn on Route 106 dozens of times, but always thought this brick, Federal-style building looked too formal to be welcoming.
Turns out, the Inn is completely the opposite, possibly beecause it has been hosting travelers since 1828. I wouldn't have realized it if someone from the inn hadn't invited me for a meal; it didn't seem to faze them when I said I couldn't possibly guarantee a thumbs-up, but would be happy to offer feedback.
With posts and beams and hunting pictures galore, the tavern felt old-school Colonial, but also possessed a mellowness that's lacking in many Woodstock-area places during foliage season. (It's hard to drive around here in October without having to stop short for someone plunging into the road with a camera).
The food also has a hearty, Colonial-esque quality. NECI-trained chef Tim Chalifoux has helmed the kitchen since June, and he seems to have a fondness for plates that linger between traditional and modern American, and are both filling and basic. You can get some tasty, inexpensive apps — a $3 plate of chunky, ridged, housemade potato chips, for instance, or a pile of olives is delivered in a salty, thyme-studded brine. (We also had crab cakes that were stuffed with crab and little else — fat, fresh and moist). The by-the-glass wine list is sizable, and the bottle list has plenty of midrange options, such as petit syrah and ribera del duero. (The inn has a more formal dining room that shares the menu.)
The presentation is simple here, almost spare, but the chef has a deft hand with meat. The duck confit of my main dish had taken on deep, savory flavors from the cure; however, though it was moist, it looked (and tasted) a bit naked without an accompanying sauce.
On the same plate, a boudin blanc was pale and plump and kind of perfect, a creamy foil for the robust, puckery sauerkraut on which it was perched. My friend's hangar steak had a salty, smoky, crisp crust on the outside, and was still delicate and tender on the inside.
When we asked the kitchen to choose a dessert, what arrived was something we probably wouldn't have ordered — a chocolate pudding that resembled a Hostess cupcake. One forkful in, though, and a gooey interior spilled out, like a chocolate truffle cake masquerading in another man's clothes. It was hard to leave some behind, but we were by now very full.
Perplexed that the bar hadn't had a single patron in our time there, I asked innkeeper Wendy Jackson about the tavern scene. With last call at 9 p.m., she said, "this will never be a Bentley's."
As well it shouldn't. But I'm glad to know of a casual spot near Woodstock where I can stop by in jeans for a beer and a ploughman's plate of local cheeses and pork-liver paté.