Posted by: wrmcnutt | September 18, 2009

Restaurant Review – The Inn At Biltmore


It has been pointed out to me that I have never given any restaurant better than three pints for cuisine.  I make no apologies for being the East German judge.  Somebody’s gotta have high standards around here.  Which brings me to the Inn at Biltmore.

My wife and I are season pass holders at the Biltmore Estate, in Ashville, North Carolina.  While I may be a pudgy, second-rate programmer in a dead-end job, oddly, I find it very easy to empathize with the problems faced by George W. Vanderbilt in his youth and middle age.  How to design the mansion?   Who to invite to the opening?  And all those endless interviews with potential staff who so wanted to work for him that they’d cheerfully cut throats just to sweep his floors.  Problems, problems.  I feel for the guy, really I do.

Anyway, as the years have rolled by, the family has taken any number of steps to make the estate more self-sufficient.  They sell timber, the main house is open to tours.  (Biltmore, alas, is no longer occupied. Only one generation got to grow up in the house.)   A recent effort in this direction has been the construction of the Inn at Biltmore, a high-end conference center and hotel.  For my last anniversary, I took my wife to Ashville to go horseback riding on the Biltmore estate.  I thought we might spend the weekend in the Inn.  Alas, a review of the amenities of the Inn bedrooms led me to decide that they were catastrophically over-priced, and I declined to stay there, but instead stayed in a nearby B&B.  We got the same amenities for half the price, with breakfast and interesting antiques thrown in.  But we did go to dinner at the main dining room of the Inn at Biltmore.

I highly recommend the Dining Room at the Inn On Biltmore Estate in the evening, after you have toured the house and winery.  Those experiences will put you in the mood to appreciate the service and food you’re about to get.

We were greeted at the maître d’ station by name.  “Ah, Mr. McNutt, we’re so sorry.  You table by the window is not ready.  Please have a seat while we finish up.”  We were escorted to a waiting area slightly smaller than the bedroom of my first apartment, carpeted with a navy blue and white oriental rug and furnished with heavy wooden chairs upholstered in crimson velvet. Our “long, tedious wait” was all of four minutes.  We’d barely finished checking out the decor when the maître d’ came sweeping back in and escorted us to our table.  Now – one of the things that I will often object to in modern dining is the attempt to squeeze too many people into the dining room by shrinking the size of the tables and cramming in as many bodies as the local fire marshal will allow.  I knew I was in good hands when the two of us were seated at a table easily four feet in diameter.  There was plenty of room for a formal table service, centerpiece, menus, and cocktails for two.  The lighting in the room was subdued, but not so dark that you couldn’t read the menu or recognize your food, yet the tablecloth was so white it left after-images on my retinas when I looked away.

At this point, it got a little spooky.  There, on that sparkling white table cloth amid the shining silver table service were our drinks.  And not just a couple of glasses of complimentary champagne for our anniversary.  Mine was a dirty Gibson, made with sky vodka and extra onions.  Hers was a gin and tonic with Gordon’s Gin and a twist of lime.

Now, it’s always a sign of good service when the floor staff of a restaurant can remember your name or your drink order.  But we hadn’t ordered any drinks, and we’d never eaten here before. I had a case of sudden-onset Twilight Zone syndrome, and expected to hear Rod Serling start doing a voice-over at any moment.  I couldn’t help myself.  It may have been gauche, but I had to ask.  After all, if you enter the elf-hill for any reason,  you shouldn’t eat there, or you’ll have to stay forever.  Turns out that our landlords at the B&B had phoned in our drink order at their expense because we’d had an infrastructure problem at the B&B.  It was a relief, but a little disappointing.

In any case, we proceeded with our evening with dispatch.  The cocktails were well – made, elegantly presented, and generous without being sloppy.  (If you make a gibson too big, it gets warm unless you chug it.  And neither of those are good eats.)  We decided to go with the tasting menu with wine pairings.  A tasting menu provides a relatively large number of dishes, around five or so, with a glass of wine specifically selected to compliment them.  While not each dish gets a glass of wine, there’s usually at least three, so I recommend planning on taking a cab home if you go with the wine-pairing option.

Alas, my visit to the Inn at Biltmore for dinner pre-dates my blog, so I’m working from memory.  Fortunately, a look at the current menu reminds me of several of the dishes we had.

The corn bread pudding was light, sweet, and delicate without being sticky or cloying.  I like strong flavors, and the corn flavor stood out sharply.  The texture was also pleasant, with an excellent mouth feel. The parmesan risotto
vegetables, mushrooms, roasted chicken jus had the perfect texture.  Neither sticky-soft nor hard, it had the firm mouth feel of a just past-al dente pasta with a complex, meaty flavor.

Next I had black angus filet mignon.  Now, this was a truly unusual experience for me.  As all the world knows, I likes me some filet mignon.  But I like my steaks medium rare.  I don’t understand the obsession with under-done meat that permeates the gastronomic culture of this country.  A well-prepared steak should be firm (no, not chewy you barbarians), pink, or even red, and juicy, not bloody.  Normally I have to order my steaks medium, or, at some restaurants, medium well to not get a raw hunk of beef drowning in a plate of blood.  But at the Inn at Biltmore, I braced myself, and ordered it medium rare.  And, wonder of wonders, it came out medium . . .

Medium rare.  Yes, brown with a red center.  Tender, juicy, with a hint of sweetness.

The accompanying parsnip whipped potato  had a strong, sharp flavor of parsnip while retaining the starchy goodness of potato, with just the right number of lumps to convince me that it was hand made, and not commercial.

The petite carrots were sweet, with just the right amount of crunch.

Finally, the roasted scallops were were real scallops, not whitefish cut with a cookie cutter, carmelized and, I don’t know what they did to them, but there was hardly any of that fishy taste that normally causes me to find seafood revolting.

I finished with the pumpkin crème brulee.  I’d burst into French if I could speak it.  It was mostly a lightly sweet custard with just the right amount of crunchy crust on the top.  But suddenly, I was sitting at my grandmother’s table on Thanksgiving day, eating her pumpkin pie.  Then I was back at the restaurant.  The pumpkin flavor wasn’t strong, but long about the third bite, it evoked memories of that mid-fall treat when I was a boy.

At that time of year, all the vegetables were locally grown on the estate and I think that the cow was also estate grown.  And fresh matters.

Now – a word about the service.  I’ve already mentioned my suspicions of mind reading equipment somewhere on the premises.  The cover story of our drinks being ordered by the B&B  satisfied me at first, but by the third course, I was getting concerned again.  The table staff always seemed to show up just before I started looking for them, and they already knew what I wanted. At no time did they show up with an unwanted water pitcher or interrupt our conversation, yet when I hit the bottom of my wine glass, the steward was there before I could really start to look around for him. As each course came to the table, the table cloth was quickly and neatly divested of any crumbs or spillage.  Dirty plates seemed to vanish without any need to ask me if I was done with them, yet they never managed to take away something I wasn’t done with.

I’ve yet to address the atmosphere.  This is no “hotel dining room.”  You enter via a grand staircase down from the main hotel lobby.  The maître d’s station is made of hardwood, and stained a dark read oak.  The floors are carpeted with a thick low-pile carpet whose pattern, dominated by reds with green and gold accents, evokes the feel of the 1800’s.  The walls are white, with cornice and detail work that echoes the themes of those in the main house, but with cleaner, more modern lines.  Each room is let with both polished brass chandeliers and wall sconces.  Large, gilt framed mirrors abound, together with flower arrangements and fresh cut flowers everywhere.  The main area of the dining room has an epic fireplace, while the wing is dominated by enormous bay windows.  Each window is adorned by velvet curtains with gold fringe trim. If you’re there before sunset, the view of the rolling hills of the estate is magnificent.  If you’re there after dark, the blackness is absolute. It’s all estate property, so there is no municipal lighting.  If you like this sort of thing, and I do, the atmosphere is magnificent.

So, to sum up, I give the Dining Room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate:

Five pints of five for cuisine.

Five pints of five for service.

and

Four and a half pints of five for atmosphere.

What could possibly be improved?  The decor is modern, with great influences from the late 1800’s.  I would have preferred a more authentic 1800’s dining room, maybe with real antiques.  But now I’m just picking nits.

The only other problem with dining at here is that by the time you’re done, you feel like you can tip like John Jacob Astor.  And I don’t have his income.  In fact, I limped a little on my way back to the cab, due to the pain in my wallet, which was severe.  I don’t regret a dime of it, but I think that this was the most expensive meal I’ve ever bought.  And worth it.

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Responses

  1. we really MUST do Biltmore together as a foursome some day. my favorite B&B doesn’t allow children, so it really will be just the four of us.

    Maybe at Christmas some year.

    and now I’m going to go approach my work fridge and regale myself with cottage cheese and mandarin oranges. which didn’t really seem like such a bad option…..till now.

    • Sounds fun, but we need to be realistic. You guys are too church and family-oriented to travel much with us during the holidays. You’ve got all you can do to check off all of your relatives in December, plus the pageant and all of your choir-related obligations.

      We’ll have to schedule something during the off-season. Maybe, say, next November. The House will be decorated for Christmas, but your obligation schedule should be fairly light.

      • Actually We can fit in a Christmas Trip some year. We just have to plan it carefully. The Journey to Bethlehem thing is usually the second weekend in December, The week BETWEEN Christmas and New years is usually pretty open.

        Martin has never seen Biltmore at Christmas time. I have of course, but I want him to see it. We are such Christmas freaks it just seems wrong that he has never witnessed the joyful excesses of Biltmore at Yuletide.

      • Unfortunately, at this time in my life, it’s very hard to plan anything more than a few days in advance. 😛

  2. Excellent. It’s good to know what the top of the scale looks like.

    • I still feel bad about that last half-pint. I’m not sure I should have denied it. At the end of each review, I ask myself, “So how could the service/cuisine/atmosphere have been improved.

      And I don’t know that denying the Dining Room at Biltmore a half-pint for atmosphere was really fair. I mean, I’M a Furniture Laurel, but I’m not sure if a room full of authentic 1880’s furniture and decor would have improved the experience for most people.

  3. this is really not so much a plan as an item to add to the “us as a foursome bucket list” concept. Things we need to do together as a group ….someday.


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