Our Gourmet: Fine casual dining in a historic setting at Lavinia's

BY OUR GOURMET July 08. 2014 9:52PM

18 Main St., Center Harbor; 253-8617; laviniasdining.com

Serving: 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 9:30 Friday and Saturday.

Cuisine: American bistro.

Pricing: Appetizers (“Firsts”) $6-$17; Entrees (“Seconds”) $11-$32.

The scores for Lavinia's

Menu: 16/20
Food: 18/20
Service: 19/20
Value: 16/20
TOTAL: 87/100

It’s not often that an ad in a competing publication compels us to try a new restaurant, but when the ad features a black and white photo of two guys from the 1950s posing on a fishing dock beside a strung-up shark with moose antlers, it suggests something innovative. That’s how we decided to visit Lavinia’s on a recent Saturday evening.

The restaurant is housed in the historic Coe Mansion on the hill in Center Harbor village overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee. The turret-topped house has a colorful history, having served as the home of shipbuilder John Coe and his wife, Lavinia, in the 1820s, as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and as a college dormitory. It’s been a restaurant for the past decade or so, and under the current name since 2011.

The mansion’s first-floor rooms, decorated true to their 19th century origins, are used as dining rooms. The addition in the back houses the lake-casual themed tavern.

We arrived within an hour of the restaurant’s 4 p.m. opening. The dining rooms were largely empty, but the tables were spoken for, and since we had not made a reservation, we were seated in the tavern, where the full menu is available as well.

Speaking of the menu, it’s brief (fewer than a dozen items each on the appetizer and entree lists) and it’s varied, featuring a number of regionally-sourced ingredients. There are a couple of notable near-absences — chicken and vegetarian — which didn’t deter us, but if you’re unsure, you might want to check out the menu online first.

The Dining Companion started with one of her favorite appetizers, Roasted Beet Salad ($9) featuring large chunks of cold roasted beets, candied walnuts, Vermont Creamery goat cheese, beet vinaigrette, raisins on a bed of greens. This was served diagonally across a large square plate, immediately increasing the presentation factor. The cheese and walnuts were the standouts in this salad; the beets were good, though a bit too big, but not an issue that would keep TDC from ordering it again.

I chose Corn Bisque ($7), a creamy corn soup, served warm, garnished with a swirl of sour cream, garlic and chives. The soup was so sweet it seemed like it contained nothing but pureed corn. The sour cream added a touch of savory balance, but I needed to add a quick shake of salt and pepper (butter might have done the trick) to complete the corn-on-the-cob flavor profile I was looking for.

I was tempted by the Lobster Alfredo in honor of our Teenage Bottomless Pit, who has recently developed a taste for lobster (especially when it’s supported by a massive plate of carbs and Dad’s debit card), but TDC and I quickly settled on two other entrees, and it was just a question of who was going to order which. Ultimately, TDC picked what we thought would be the lighter of the two (light being a relative term), and we were both happy with our choices.

TDC chose Guinness Braised Short Ribs ($29) served with what the menu called garlic potato puree and roasted rainbow carrots and topped with fried potato strings. The Guinness sauce was rich but not overpowering on the two fall-off-the-bone beef ribs. The potatoes, though good, did not taste of garlic and the carrots, which were caramelized perfectly, all seemed to be of the same color. “I would change the menu description, not the meal,” TDC said.

My entree was Pan Seared Fish and Mushroom Risotto ($24). The fish this night was salmon, and for the first time that I can remember with a fish other than tuna, our server asked me how I wanted it cooked. She offered “medium rare,” to which I agreed.

The fish — a strip maybe 2 inches by 5 and almost as thick as it was wide — was pan-blackened with a relatively mild spice mix that had just enough salt and kick to help the salmon stand out from the creamy, cheesy risotto.

“Medium rare” was fine, cooked almost all the way through with a hint of a cool center; if the filet were thicker, I might opt for “medium” instead.

The rice was nicely done, with a bit of bite left in the grains.

For the first time in many months, we both ordered dessert. TDC picked Vanilla Creme Brulee ($6), which she described as decadently creamy with a perfectly caramelized sugar top. I chose the NH Maple Bread Pudding with Caramel Drizzle ($6), and it was the kind of sweet-yet-savory, soft-but-not-mushy bread pudding that would have made my grandmother jealous. It wasn’t heavy, but it did make me wish I hadn’t polished off all the risotto, so I could have had room to enjoy this even more.

Our three courses plus one beer came to $100 before tip, but the value proposition isn’t unreasonable. We ordered two of the most expensive entrees on the menu, but they came in ample portions, and while the menu may not have been quite as innovative as the moose-antlered fish in the logo might suggest, it was hardly run of the mill.We enjoyed the food, the surroundings and our server, Alicia, who was prompt, friendly and well informed.

It’s a combination that we’re sure has cultivated many fans for Lavinia’s among the summer and year-round populations at the top of the big lake.

Center HarborAmerican CasualBistro

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