Our Gourmet: Epoch dining at the Exeter Inn

Sometimes we stumble onto something good, and that’s exactly what happened with our visit to Epoch Restaurant in Exeter.

Neither of us had heard of the restaurant, but while doing a search on the Internet for a place to dine, I came across its menu. It caught my eye for its compelling variety of dishes. Photos of the interior of the restaurant, housed in the Exeter Inn, also promised a casual but elegant dining experience (in other words, good food but we didn’t have to dress to the nines.)

Epoch is a bit off the beaten path if you don’t know Exeter; we were grateful for GPS as it was one of those dark nights where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. The restaurant itself is also in the back of the inn. We figured if we followed the bright(er) lights to the back, we’d get there.

We were immediately greeted by the hostess and advised her we had a reservation. It turned out we would have been fine without one, but given recent experiences on busy weekend nights, we thought it better to be safe than hungry.

The layout of the dining area is odd, but striking. The dining area has booths and tables of varying sizes, nicely spaced. No matter where you sit, you won’t have to listen to another party’s conversation unless you really want to. The tables for two are sizeable; there is room for your starters, entrees, bread and drinks — another rarity of late.

When you enter, you won’t be able to miss the orange-lit staircase you walk up to get to the bar area. I did have a brief flashback to watching “Dance Fever” with Deney Terrio in the early 1980s. If you remember that show, you will appreciate these stairs.

Epoch offers a traditional list of “starters,” salads and soups. Crab cakes, clam chowder, Caesar salad and the like can be found here. But what caught our eye was its small plates menu, which is where you find dishes influenced from places around the country and the world like Fried Bread and Butter Pickles, Korean Chicken Wings or Shrimp and Grits.

When I say the menu created a dilemma for us, that is no exaggeration. Briefly, we considered just ordering a slew of small plates. We finally settled on Crispy Clams ($12) and a Beef Short Rib Taco ($5) for starters.

On the surface, the description of the Crispy Clams yields few surprises — sweet cherry peppers, lemon and horseradish aioli. Just a dish of fancy fried clams, right? Nope. The clams were fresh and tender, and not at all greasy. And instead of the cherry peppers being placed atop the clams before serving (a la Rhode Island-style), they were coated and fried along with the clams, making for a sweet, spicy bite. The entire dish was finished off with a squeeze of lemon juice, reminding us that a bit of acidity can elevate seafood and not to ignore our lemon wedge next time.

The Dining Companion made quick work of the Beef Short Rib Taco, a charred tortilla topped with beef, pickled red onion, cojita cheese (a hard cow’s milk cheese from Mexico) and Guajillo salsa roja. He said the beef was fall-apart tender and flavorful, pairing well with the salty cheese and slightly spicy salsa. He appreciated that they had charred the tortilla, which added another level of flavor. A lot of tastes in a small dish.

The entrée menu is diverse and not-at-all boring. Yes, you can choose a steak and a sauce, or seafood like scallops or salmon, as you can at most fine-dining restaurants, but you can also choose from items we don’t see often, and dishes that can be prepared vegetarian style or gluten-free. We also appreciated the option to order a half portion instead of a full portion.

I opted for the Sweet Corn Risotto ($12/$20), a mascarpone and corn puree-enriched risotto with sautéed mushrooms and shaved Parmesan. I had never seen this dish on a menu, and I am a huge fan of risotto and corn no matter how each is prepared. This dish easily could have been a one-note dish, but there was enough mascarpone to make it tangy and the mushrooms gave it a meaty flavor. The risotto was also well seasoned. I kept going back for more.

TDC chose the Lobster Ravioli ($15/$26), lobster ravioli topped with smoky tomato sauce, basil butter and shaved Parmesan. In New England this dish is no anomaly, but we have rarely seen it in a red sauce rather than with an Alfredo or other white sauce.

TDC enjoyed the dish with this new twist. The sauce was balanced and smoky and the pasta tender. His only negative note was that the lobster that usually tastes buttery tasted a bit fishy. Not fishy enough to spoil his meal, but he was glad he only ordered the half-portion.

We didn’t stuff ourselves with our entrees, so we had more room than usual for dessert. The dessert menu is just like the dinner menu — plenty of options. Whether you like fruit, chocolate, cold or hot, you are in luck.

TDC ordered the Dark Chocolate Mousse Parfait ($9). The name is a bit of a misnomer as the layered dessert also includes peanut butter mousse. If the chocolate/peanut butter combination is a favorite of yours, this dessert is a must-have. While not too sweet, it is rich, especially when you add on the candied peanuts and whipped cream. It was truly decadent and is one of the few desserts TDC has not been able to finish.

I was tempted by the flourless chocolate cake, but one of my childhood favorites is butterscotch pudding, so I chose the Butterscotch Pudding Tart ($9). The tart crust is made of buttery shortbread and is filled with house made pudding, caramel sauce, and topped with maple candied pecans. The creamy pudding had that caramelized sugar note you look for and it was not overly sweet, so I was already a fan before I even got to the pecans, which added a necessary crunch, and the buttery, rich shortbread crust that took it over the top. We’d be happy to go back just for dessert.

Overall it was a very pleasant meal with a lot of highlights. The server was attentive but not overbearing. We always felt relaxed, never rushed, even though it was late in the evening.

While for the most part the evening was quiet, and the atmosphere was conducive to conversation, we couldn’t help but overhear karaoke singing by members of a wedding party a few rooms over. This is one of the hazards of dining in a place that also hosts events, but we found it more comical than annoying.

As a hotel restaurant, Epoch also serves breakfast, lunch, and brunch on Sundays. The next time we find ourselves near Exeter, we will stop by to try some of their other dishes, which we can imagine are as good as the ones we had for dinner.