Thursday June 14, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE- For such a visually captivating landmark that straddles the junction of Routes 7 and 102 like an enormous gatekeeper to the Southern Berkshires, it's too easy to overlook the Red Lion Inn when making dinner plans. It may seem elite or touristy, one shelf too high for us locals to reach. But the sooner you toss this misguided notion the sooner you'll get to swoon over the Courtyard's menu and ambiance.

The 226-year-old behemoth of a building and its perfectly manicured grounds have earned their spots in Rockwell paintings, historical registers, and the itineraries of the visiting elite for ages, cultivating an deserved air of gentility. That doesn't prevent the inn from catering to all of those in its proximity, though, and the Courtyard is a great place for all types to indulge in its luxe service.

On Monday night a friend and I found its umbrella-topped tables occupied by a group of gentlemen looking fresh off the golf course, trendy looking 30-somethings on a date, several older pairs conversing serenely, and a few families with school-aged kids. There was a refreshing energy to the scene as a late spring day began to feel like an early summer evening.

A pair of young waiters welcomed us in with cheerful confidence, keeping all needs met throughout our visit while calmly gliding around the Courtyard, pebbles crunching pleasantly with each footfall.


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We were given both the Courtyard and the Dining Room menus, which combine to offer a spectrum dishes running from simple to extravagant, frugal to upscale.

Many entrees cost $30 and above, including ours, but this investment paid off, returning to the table in the form of radiant plates prepared under the auspices of Executive Chef and culinary wizard Brian Alberg.

Crisp Blue Crab Potato Cakes ($16) were the perfect starter to share on an evening still young. The dish tasted sinfully rich yet settling with a light touch. The garlic-fueled cakes dipped in Sriracha aioli (yes, Sriracha!) served alongside tomatoes and lettuce bursting with lemon zing landed more like a refreshment than a hearty course.

Our entrée, Seared Scallops ($30) with "Carrot-Coriander Puree, Poached Potatoes & Red Onion Confit," was an order of magnitude more enticing than most food I'm privy to. The scallops were sweet and tender, simply perfect in the hearty puree. Even the roasted potatoes - such a plain ingredient, I had thought - were so flavorful as to require tiny bites, each savored leisurely. The onion confit was the heartiest flavor on the plate and vanished instantly.

As our meal was the precursor to a friend's birthday celebration, The Courtyard, itself, is an ideal jumping off point for a night out. With the fading sun came growing sounds of cheer from the inn's many nooks. The night was revving up.

Two nightlife destinations are in the same building.

Down a few steps is the Lion's Den, a low-lit pub hosting nightly entertainment that can range from subdued to raucous. The inn's front porch, majestically facing Main Street, also serves cocktails into the night.

The Red Lion's central location opens other possibilities in all directions. Our choice, a venture off the map to a friend's wooded backyard, where we gazed at a field lit up with fireflies and chatted leisurely around a small fire, was the invisible fifth direction on the compass.

If you view The Courtyard not as a final destination but rather a great spot to gather the crew and indulge and topnotch food and atmosphere in preparation for a full evening ahead, you'll find that it's much more accessible than its history book grandeur might suggest.