Down East 2013 ©
From the street, the Hartstone Inn looks like a typical Camden B-and-B: a Victorian-era building with an immaculate exterior, tidy gardens, and an inviting entranceway. But as you walk up the path to the door, something unusual presents itself in the garden: today's dinner menu, posted on a silhouette of a chef holding a corkboard. Rather than the typical array of multiple dishes in several categories, the Hartstone Inn's menu consists of just five dishes - an appetizer, soup or salad, sorbet, entree, and dessert, for a fixed price of forty dollars per person.
What seems at first to be a rigid and impersonal method of having dinner - eating whatever the chef feels like making, with no opportunity to make your own choices - turns out to be a highly personal, intimate dining experience. And that's just the way Michael and Mary Jo Salmon like it. The couple own and run the ten-room inn and its twenty-seat restaurant as if their patrons were guests in their home. And, in a sense, they are: the Salmons live on the premises, and do everything from checking in overnight guests to cooking and serving breakfast, afternoon tea and cookies, and the gourmet dinner they create five nights a week in the summer (four in the off-season).
That intimate feel is something the Salmons were looking for after careers in the hotel industry; they met at a Hyatt in Florida fifteen years ago.
For years, as they moved from hotel jobs in Greenwich, Connecticut, to Palm Springs to Lake Tahoe to Aruba to Ontario, they looked for a spot to open a small inn. On a vacation in Camden in 1994, they instantly fell in love with the charming town on the harbor. They went back to their jobs opening a large casino in Ontario for Hilton, dreaming all the while of being their own bosses and returning to the hands-on interaction with guests that had diminished with every step they took up the corporate ladder. "At our last hotel, Mary Jo had 750 cocktail waitresses at 12 food and beverage outlets," Michael says. "I had 200 cooks that worked for me… I was an executive chef, which was 90 percent paperwork and 10 percent hands-on."
When the urge to step off the career ladder became too strong to ignore, the Salmons called some innkeepers they knew in Camden and found that the property at 41 Elm Street was available. They drove down from Ontario to look at it, and six months later, in May 1998, they opened the Hartstone Inn - but not before some substantial changes. Mary Jo redecorated every room in the inn, from the common areas to the guest rooms, eliminating its country decor in favor of cozy Victorian and French provincial motifs. She found a home for her assortment of china teacups, which she's been collecting since she was a toddler, and the shelves her grandfather built to house them in one of the guestrooms. The inn had a small dining room, but the Salmons added on a dining porch, with room for four more tables that overlook the garden they planted themselves. Lace curtains cover the windows, and tables are set with fine linens, heavy silver and crystal glassware, plus the unusual touch of a crystal knife rest. On a recent visit, a fresh-cut lily adorned each table. The overall effect is formality without stuffiness, a feeling that's enhanced by the sometimes quirky, sometimes spectacular orchids throughout the inn.
"Our fascination with orchids came from our time in Aruba," Mary Jo says. "We have 350 of them here, and we try to have at least 50 blossoming plants at any one time."
Aruba also provides much of the inspiration for Michael's cooking. He trained at the famed Culinary Institute of America, which means he's got classic French technique down pat - just try his sauces if you're in doubt - but his years in the Caribbean add an interesting twist. A perfectly composed salad of greens, tomato, cucumber, farmhouse cheddar, and edible flowers, for example, contains a wedge or two of ripe papaya. A particular spark came from the meals Michael's cooks made for the staff dining room, which gave him an opportunity to taste what he calls "a common person's Caribbean food."
Now, the challenge is to translate that peasant food into a gourmet style. In Aruba, for example, his staff would rub a pork butt with a mixture of spices and roast it for hours before serving. At the inn, Michael says, "I'd take a pork tenderloin - a better cut of meat - pan sear it and serve it medium, a little pink inside" with similar, but perhaps slightly toned down spices. But it's not just the Caribbean that influences him; you're just as likely to see Italian, Thai, or French dishes on any given menu.
As for those set menus: Michael relishes the opportunity to get up in the morning, see what's fresh from his local purveyors, and write his menu accordingly. But there's also a complicated X-factor that must be figured into every Hartstone Inn dinner: guests' allergies and preferences. When you call to make a reservation for dinner - and call ahead you must, as the inn is rapidly earning a reputation as the best restaurant in a town known for its eateries - Mary Jo asks about your food restrictions, which are carefully noted and then just as carefully avoided on the night of your meal. What's more, every time you visit the inn for dinner, Mary Jo notes what you were served, so that "you don't get salmon every time you come in." On occasion, Michael and Mary Jo admit, the combination of several guests' restrictions and the entrees they've eaten on previous visits requires a complicated kind of food calculus to come up with five dishes acceptable to all twenty people dining that night. Once in a great while Michael will admit defeat and make multiple menus, but that is by far the exception. As a result of the set menu, diners will often be presented with something they wouldn't normally order - an appetizer of quail over a cold salad of snow peas and red peppers in a ginger dressing, for example. More often than not, the reaction is positive.
"It's so rewarding to hear people say, 'Oh my gosh, I hate lamb - and I absolutely loved it tonight,'" Mary Jo says. "It's great to open people's minds to trying something new. It makes it really fun for us."
Mary Jo gets to experience that fun firsthand, as she is the inn's only waitress. The service she provides is, like much else at the inn, impeccable.
When she leads you to your seat, she removes your napkin from its holder then sets it on your lap. If you need advice on the inn's extensive wine list - more than 100 choices, each one picked by Mary Jo with the inn's menu and regular guests, including several who prefer French chardonnay, in mind - she's happy to provide it, but she'll just as gladly let you wing it on your own. (If you're a frequent guest, with a particular wine you like to drink, you're likely to find it already chilled and waiting at your table.) As you'd expect from a pair who pay such attention to their guests' desires, not a detail is missed. The sorbet course appears in a chilled crystal cordial glass with a chilled spoon, and your water glass is refilled before you notice it's running low. Mary Jo chats if you're in the mood, but when you're deep in conversation her service is practically invisible. And when Michael emerges from the kitchen to help carry out the last few entrees, then stops for a moment at each table, it feels more like genuine curiosity about your satisfaction with the meal than the showy visit from a celebrity chef you're likely to get at the restaurant of the moment in New York or L.A.
When it comes to dessert, souffle rules at chef Michael Salmon's Hartstone Inn.
The meal's crowning glory is Michael's signature souffle. He makes more than twenty different flavors - on a recent visit, the selection was a Grand Marnier souffle with orange creme anglaise - which are served in individual ramekins, often by Michael himself. "I'm not a pastry chef by any means. The repertoire of cakes I can whip up is pretty limited," he explains with characteristic modesty. "But the souffles have worked out well, and I haven't had one fall yet."
And if it did, it's likely his appreciative guests would forgive him.
The Hartstone Inn is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday through November 1, after which it is open Thursday through Sunday. There is one seating each night at 7 p.m.; the meal is $40 per person, plus taxes and gratuity. Reservations are recommended. 41 Elm St., Camden. 207-236-4259