Many people regard the Perryville Inn as a charming country inn with pleasant but ordinary food. But since 1998, when Paul Ingenito and his wife, Lorraine, bought the inn, everything has changed--and for the better.
The couple spruced up the Federal-style inn a bit, but the main difference lies in the food and the service. With Paul at the stove and Lorraine at the front of the house, the restaurant rapidly is gaining a reputation as a must-visit for food lovers. Originally from Berkeley Heights, Paul trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in Manhattan at An American Place, the Russian Tea Room, and Maxim's. He met Lorraine while working on a team to conceptualize Manhattan's Red Eye Grill.
Inside the couple's Perryville Inn, a stylish bar and lounge divide two dining rooms: The original dining area, dating back to 1813, has an elegant, Early American feel, featuring original fireplaces with elaborate mantels and pine woodwork; a larger, more modern room filled with windows overlooks lush lawns.
The menu is exciting, and the presentation and preparation even more so. Consider the unique lobster ravioli--lobster filling tucked into oven-dried tomatoes and served alongside angel-hair pasta deliciously seasoned with fennel and tarragon. Another play on a standard theme is the tasty Portobello Club; the large mushroom is layered with roasted red and yellow peppers and goat cheese, neatly quartered, and anchored with sprigs of rosemary. An attractive rosette of smoked salmon rests on a fresh-corn pancake garnished with an avocado salad and American caviar, and a soft-shell crab with a crisp cornmeal crust is paired with a grilled-Vidalia-onion-and-fennel salad. A special of tiny Japanese oysters with deep-ridged shells are topped with a beurre blanc of American sturgeon caviar and chives and served on a mound of kosher salt.
And the lovely food is not just for show. The corn-and-shrimp bisque tastes intense and buttery, and the homey black-bean soup, decorated with a spider web of cream and chopped cilantro, is thick enough to suspend a spoon. But small rounds of paper-thin beef carpaccio surrounding a mound of potato-and-mushroom salad need something to give the flavors a kick, as do mussels in a bland broth with slivered leeks, garlic, and diced tomatoes.
The excitement continues with the main courses. I particularly like the por- cini-encrusted halibut in a shiitake-mushroom broth, served with a cylinder of asparagus pilaf and fresh asparagus. Yellowfin tuna encrusted with fennel and coriander is lightly seared to leave the inside sashimi-raw; the flavors are light and satisfying. I don't really care for the smoked-trout-flavored mashed potatoes that accompany a delicious salmon mignon with a nice touch of tomato beurre blanc. An herb-roasted rack of lamb with a potato-and-goat-cheese gratin, marinated artichoke salad, and pungent niçoise sauce is delightfully unique. Even the rib-eye special gets a new twist in a light Roquefort-cheese crust and served with twice-baked mushroom-flecked potatoes. The thick, glazed center-cut pork chop garnished with manilla clams, chorizo sausage, broccoli raab, and garlic mashed potatoes is tender and flavorful.
As for dessert, the caramelized banana on a disk of puff pastry topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce is magnificent, as are the lemon tart, crème brûlée, and cheesecake with warm raspberries. The bread pudding is very heavy, the profiteroles standard but good, and homemade sorbets served in tuile-shaped cookie shells are worth a try. -- V. S.
167 Perryville Road, Perryville (908-730-9500). Lunch: Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner: Tuesday through Friday, 5 pm to 9 pm; Saturday, 5 to 10 pm; Sunday, 4 to 8 pm. Wheelchair access easy. American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two without wine averages $80.