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Dining in the Mount Washington Valley, New Hampshire

Dining in the Mount Washington Valley, New Hampshire
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The good news about the restaurant scene in the towns around Mount Washington is that there’s plenty of it and prices aren’t through the roof. Service across the board was friendly and courteous — and a lot can be forgiven when your meal is delivered with enthusiasm and innate kindness.

Executive Chef Jonathan Cox at The Inn at Thorn Hill (Jackson) knows his way around a kitchen, and his expertise shows in the slow-roasted pork belly — citrusy and very nearly addictive — and crispy-skinned salmon, served with earthy, teeny-but-flavorful beets and pureed parsnips. The inn also offers a generous lounge menu, ranging from “wee bites” of spicy shoshito peppers to “small bites” of bresaola with cornichons to “bigger bites” of grilled Caesar salad and burgers.

Familiar standbys The Wentworth (Jackson) and The 1785 Inn (North Conway) came highly recommended, so the letdown was bigger owing to loftier expectations. From menus to decor to table settings, both establishments could use a buff and polish to bring them into the here and now. They get high marks for quick, well-made cocktails, but the wine lists are surprisingly unimaginative. I get that both dining rooms are in old structures, but that doesn’t mean staff uniforms need to appear circa 1980 or that the menu ought to include tired, marinated portobello mushrooms with peppers and pesto, let alone veal and shrimp in a rum cream sauce. And why would a cheese course consist of English cheddar, unripe French camembert, and young Dutch gouda instead of a selection from one of the many area dairies or at least one American option?

We enjoyed better luck at the Thompson House Eatery (Jackson) — not exactly cutting-edge, but the owners use fresh local produce in season (in warmer months there’s even an “honor system” farm stand), and the naturally raised Angus beef comes from Peppermint Fields Farm, just over the border in Fryeburg, Maine.

A couple generations of hikers and skiers have trod a well-worn path to Horsefeathers (North Conway). It’s something of a tourist trap, but the food was fresh and well executed. Case in point: the lobster and crab cakes, packed with meat and garnished with a jumpy dab of aioli, which, despite its heat, allowed the meat its moment in the spotlight. Equally delicious was the shrimp penne in vodka sauce — hardly breaking new ground, but this pasta standard arrived not as the glunky heap I expected, but rather al dente, in a light and creamy sauce with sweet, juicy, fresh shrimp.

At the Red Parka Steakhouse & Pub (Glen), another perennial favorite, the main disappointment was that the staff didn’t greet me by name the way they did just about everyone else who came through the door. That said, the “extensive” salad bar turned out to be barely a dozen bowls of the usual suspects, but the steak was perfectly cooked, and the coconut shrimp were surprisingly crisp on the outside and tender within. I understand why after some 30 years the place is still a hangout for locals and day-trippers alike.

Not as widely known, but gaining a well-deserved reputation for quality, is Coyote Rose (North Conway), which takes its culinary cues from Mexico. The smoked-quail taco balanced the slight gaminess of the bird with mildly tart apples and a touch of sweet maple, while roasted poblano chiles stuffed with spinach and goat cheese were light and fluffy, yet filling and deeply satisfying.

Looking for breakfast, lunch, or lighter fare? While wandering the streets of North Conway, be sure to snag one of the tables at the Stairway Café for pancakes that’ll make you weep. Chef’s Market is a great stop for well-crafted sandwiches, while the Old Village Bakery beckons for baguettes, muffins, and cookies, all warm from the oven. And before you hit the highway, don’t forget to stock up at Zeb’s General Store — two floors of New England-made foods and crafts to keep you going till your next valley venture.

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