John Pilcher Photo
A plate of seared scallops by Chef Ismail Samad
The Mount Snow valley seems a world apart, despite its proximity to the Pioneer Valley. Most any place in that region feels remote; the old roads wind through long stretches of field and forest with just a few houses. Even town centers feel rather like frontier towns, small gatherings of hopeful proprietors trying to make a go of it while snowy nature lurks at the borders.
Mixed in with the old-school Vermont ruggedness, though, is a rather new sensibility. It's embodied by folks like John and Rachel Pilcher, owners of the Wilmington Inn (formerly Red Shutter Inn), which they bought a couple of years ago. The Pilchers and others are adding to the town's old-school charm with fresh approaches that ought to make Valley visitors—especially gourmands—feel right at home. The Pilchers have augmented the Inn's pleasant accommodations with a restaurant that offers first-class food with a thoroughly local focus.
On a recent visit, the Wilmington's chef, Ismail Samad, was on holiday. That didn't seem to matter: the dishes were uniformly excellent in execution. If you value local and seasonal food, it's easy to find yourself there at every meal during your stay. This is cooking of the best sort, beautifully presented and derived from whatever nearby farms have to offer.
"We are ninety percent local in the summer, and maybe fifty percent [in late fall], and down to thirty-three percent in the winter," explains John Pilcher. "All of our mains are all-natural, small family-farmed, and most are from Vermont or border Massachusetts. We make all of our pastas in house from King Arthur flour, and even do our own catsup from local tomatoes in summer."
If you're a stickler for local meat, the Wilmington is something of a revelation. Beside the names of many of the dishes on the menu, you'll find the names of the farms they came from. Even the outrageously tasty gravy heaped on top of biscuits contained sausage from a local farm. All those locally sourced dishes arrived at the table perfectly cooked, and boasted the kind of savory flavor that needs little accompaniment. Things don't get overly complicated in Samad's creations; they tend instead toward a finely-tuned grouping of ingredients that play well together—the chicken on the dinner menu had just arrived from a nearby farm, and came roasted with fried potatoes. It didn't need anything else.
The menu changes often, reflecting what's in season and available, and in that spirit, the Inn has featured Tuesday night "chef's tasting" dinners. The menu is not disclosed beforehand, and Chef Samad pairs locally sourced ingredients with a wine accompaniment for a five-course meal. Those meals are something of a test lab for Samad, a chance for him to try new things and get direct feedback. The choices usually include a game dish in addition to more mainstream offerings. Even the wines—one for each course—are not the usual house offerings, but vintages being considered for inclusion in the menu.
Adventurous diners have taken to those Tuesday events, and that recently led the Pilchers to overhaul the usual dinner menu in a similar fashion. John Pilcher calls it a "pick your own tasting menu" that aims to give diners a role in creating dinner.
The result is a gastronome's delight. Patrons can assemble anything from a tapas-like set of tasting portions of many things to an entrée-sized dish or two (any of the offerings, whether appetizer, soup or main course, is offered in both sizes). A recent version of the menu was rewarding for vegetarians, with offerings like cauliflower soup, grilled halloumi, marinated chickpeas and mascarpone polenta. The restaurant's more exotic fare includes balsamic-glazed quail, seared antelope and a venison-based shepherd's pie (all locally grown or small farm-sourced).
The Mount Snow area boasts other restaurants that give the nod to local food, but the Wilmington's atmosphere and attitude—a restless culinary adventurousness enjoyed in the midst of wood-panelled 'fifties lodge chic—offers a particularly pleasing blend.