Castle Hill

Castle Hill is known for its picturesque Victorian perch, knockout ocean views and gorgeous grounds. The question is, can the food compete?

Castle Hill  orange starorange starorange star

590 Ocean Drive, Newport, 849-3800, Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Reservations strongly suggested. Wheelchair accessible. Private parking lot. Cuisine New England approach to a French foundation. Capacity The main dining room holds forty with two additional rooms for larger groups.Vibe Virginia Woolf without the angst. Price All menus are prix fixe: three course: $69; five course: $89; eight course: $110. Wine pairings are additional. Karen’s picks Soup, seafood and dessert.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent half starHalf-star

Restaurants where jackets are considered obligatory are rare indeed. And yet the natural and architectural detail of Castle Hill is so sweeping that anything less ornamental seems a crude snub to civility. The dramatic landscape ordains; we obey. In fact, even the Inn’s command center, a Victorian mansion, acquiesces to the landscape. Much of its interior is formed from intricately carved wood though windows are abundant. All three dining rooms face the rocky bluff and impeccably manicured lawn, while the kitchen — hidden behind a pair of formidable doors — is a good fifty feet away. The distance is unsurprising given the residential air of Castle Hill, which, far more than the marble-molded Chanler Inn across town, exudes nineteenth-century domesticity and a distinctive elitism. It’s fantasy with a distinctly tangible feel: Newport romance grounded in reality.

Jonathan Cambra’s menu complements the decor; the hues and flavors of most dishes are subtle. His preference is to play with variations on a theme rather than create bold contrasts. There are exceptions
to every rule however and, in this case, it lies with an intrepid potato soup. The puree of golden potato with a ribbon of deep green parsley oil is really more of a sauce than a soup, supporting a molded trio of protein. Moist duck confit and a disk of crisped pancetta are outdone only by a delicately fried, brittle-edged quail egg. The flavors and textures flow so seamlessly together it’s easy to forget it’s really a deconstructed breakfast: steak, eggs, bacon and hash browns sculpted into nobility.

Georges Bank scallops revert back to basics. Aggressively seared on both sides but nearly raw in the center, the scallops sit perched in a monochromatic bowl and are driven by taste rather than presentation. Surrounded by shellfish consomme (poured tableside) and a macedoine of potato, only a sweet leek marmalade draws aesthetic attention to itself. It’s a quiet dish, one similar to the character of the inn: clearly confident but demure in appearance.

Entrees are similarly restrained though not always as fastidious in conception or execution. Roasted cod was perfectly cooked but overly salted. While there was some undeniable exploration of flavor, it was too modest to be noticed or appreciated. In this case, green stalks of asparagus were a bright foil to the white fish, but swirls of palm soubise and saffron-Pernod sauce were simply too similar in color and flavor to discern. As soon as they left the kitchen both rich sauces formed a skin, which had no impact on taste, but such an image breaks up the illusion of life without flaws.

It’s no secret that Newport Harbor Corporation, which owns Castle Hill along with five other waterfront properties, is big on seasonal and local foods. And perhaps that knowledge is what perplexed me most about the menu’s focus. Granted, it was a cool spring the last time I visited, but the menu still reflected winter and, in some cases, fall. Apples showed up in an intermezzo sorbet, a cider emulsion on pasta and a multi-component dessert. I’ve seen several cases appear unexpectedly at farmers’ markets throughout the year, but I can’t imagine the state crop is bountiful enough to satisfy a fixed menu year round.

From a culinary perspective, there are occasional — if mild — slips as well. Pheasant meat rolled around a stuffing of its own rillette was markedly dry. Much of that blame may actually fall on concept rather than technique. Game meat is notoriously lean, and a good rillette (one can’t help but recall the superlative confit earlier in the meal) relies on a lot of fat. Hand-rolled pappardelle sat alongside the meat, strong in its own right but never part of a cohesive whole. Pasta, however, has its place.

A butternut squash and goat cheese ra-violi was both tart and sweet and, napped with cider emulsion, it drew only raves between bites.

Other hesitations had to do with the menu planning as, admittedly, I’m particularly prickly when it comes to food of this caliber (i.e. price). The three-course prix fixe is $69, which translates into a (roughly) $40 entree, a price that dictates perfection though it remains elusive. Property plays a large — and worthwhile — role in establishing such a price, and it’s that very landscape that demands flawlessness. Servers in formal attire bear much of that weight. Some of them seem to have been born suitably stiff while others bristle uncomfortably with the persona. As one reserved server whisked plates away, another chimed in loudly, “So, any good?” Though I appreciated the incongruous affability, I also feared he might end up throttled in the kitchen.

Such is the difficulty of making peace with the social constructs of yesteryear and the colloquialisms of today. I suspect pastry chef Jonathan Marston, a Newport resident, holds such a dichotomy close to his heart as his desserts embody both stature and whimsy. Many dishes are served as trilogies, even when one element dominates. Sou√es are popular in traditional Belgian chocolate, but Marston also plays with a spiced sweet potato version, dousing it with cream cheese anglaise and two toasted marshmallows that melt into taffy when dropped into the molten middle. Chocolate desserts are hardcore, with a requisitely dense tart and a bright Grand Marnier pudding. Hot chocolate in a sugar-rimmed shot glass is served alongside. But it was the Apple Delight (seasonal or not) that proved most memorable: A miniature lattice pie anchored a sweet, clean cider float with caramel ice cream, playing up nostalgia without a hint of arrogance.

As with any estate restaurant, Chef Cambra and his team have a decidedly unique set of challenges. Overtly audacious food would pull attention from the outside in; a safer approach can’t live up to the grand surroundings. The balance then lies somewhere in the middle and, with a few exceptions, the dining room is as impressive as what lies outside.

Karen Deutsch is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York.

Edit ModuleShow Tags