With perfectly pink elk loin, a 1983 Baron Philippe de Rothschild Chateau d’Armailhac bordeaux blend, homemade cookies by your fire-side bed and an outdoor sauna by the pond, Friends Lake Inn makes overnight guests feel like they are on their second honeymoon (or on their way to their first).
New Year’s Eve is sold out at Friends Lake Inn as per usual, as the reservation book fills up with regulars (couples who have been coming here for 30+ years), locals making dinner reservations, and city folk (those Manhattanites who trek up here in their BMW X3’s for an Adirondack weekend “in the country”). And sold-out rooms (the four Adirondack Rooms with stone fireplaces always get booked first) and bustling kitchen are no stranger for John and Trudy Phillips, who bought the inn 10 years ago after passing it by on a scenic trip to Lake Placid one weekend.
The location has been a hit with foodies and oneophiles alike since 1985, when past owners Greg and Sharon Taylor saw the 1860’s old dormitory and decided to buy and breathe life back into the abandoned resort. For 20 years the Taylors turned the address into what is now a AAA 4 Diamond Inn, winner of the Wine Spectator Grand Award for 11 years, winner of the “Best of” Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator in 2012, winner of the DiRoNa Award of Dining Excellence, and member of Select Registry Distinguished Inns of North America. The Phillips have taken over, upgraded select rooms with stone and glass showers and added to the 60-page wine list and seasonal menu.
The Phillips, who previously owned the Sandwich Lodge in Cape Cod before falling in love with the Adirondacks, now offer guests 10 wine dinners a year with a 5-course wine pairing as well as marketing package deals that have been extremely successful, such as the Scenic Helicopter, Adirondack Extreme, Full Moon Snowshoe, and Snowmobile Tour packages. They’ve also perfected details like the poem and Salt Lake City chocolates each guests gets on their pillow; special events like the Build-Your-Own Bordeaux Wine Dinner (January 17) where guests can make their own Bordeaux blends from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec; the two amuse bouche surprises from the chef during dinner (apple pie sorbet was perfect after the pumpkin bisque); and the painted night sky on the ceiling of the private dining room that’s tucked away past the Burgundy and Bordeaux wine cellar (the mural reads “In Loving Memory of Thomas E. Warner Sr.”).
Executive chef Matthew Bolton and sous chef Scott Dewar have been working side-by-side in the Friends Lake kitchen for the whole 13 years they have been a part of the team, working their way up the ranks. The close friends from Chestertown have earned their culinary stripes over the years by fine tuning their skills in the kitchen they’ve known for more than a decade as well as at the SUNY Adirondack culinary center (where Bolton teaches).
“It just comes naturally to us at this point,” says Bolton of the planning behind each menu and flavor pairings.”Winter is always the heavier, robust and hearty options. Summer is crisp and light, fall is always earthy and spring is full of fruits and vegetables.”
Although the menu changes with each season, there are a lot of similarities in proteins, but always difference and creativity with the preparation and sides and sauces every few months. Bolton and Phillips work together on the menu and order fresh ingredients as the reservations for the upcoming week demands (sometimes twice a week in July and August, the Inn’s busiest months).
The Scallop & Lobster Stuffed Corn Crepe with vanilla bean beurre blanc and pecan and hazelnut pralines has been a signature dish for 10+ years. They took it off the menu once, and customers revolted.
The wines by the glass (about 25 now) change twice a year and are chosen to work well with the chefs’ menu options.
“A big game dish like elk needs a special type of wine,” explains Bolton over a demitasse of espresso. “The sauce shouldn’t offend the wine choice as you see at most restaurants with sugary sauces. The menu has to be wine-friendly, and we choose cool wines and varietals that are sensitive to each taste we deliver in the kitchen. For example, we have a Catena Zapata Malbec from Argentina that would blow you away.”
We were treated to a dinner and wine pairing on the first day they released the new Winter menu. Use our cheat sheet below to impress your date on what to order and what to pair it with. You’re welcome.
Editor’s Food and Wine Pairing Cheat Sheet
CHOOSE: Braised Wild Boar Leg Cannelloni
PAIR WITH: Atlas Peak Cabernet
CHOOSE: Scallop & Lobster Crepe
PAIR WITH: Pine Ridge Dijon Clones
CHOOSE: Pumpkin Bisque
PAIR WITH: Mercer Gone Fishing Riesling
CHOOSE: Kunik from Nettle Meadow Farms in Warrensburg
PAIR WITH: Mercer Gone Fishing Riesling
CHOOSE: Cast Iron Seared Elk Strip Loin
PAIR WITH: Chateau Ste. Michelle Meritage
CHOOSE: Slow Braised Lamb Osso Bucco
PAIR WITH: Chateau Ste. Michelle Meritage
CHOOSE: Bananas Foster
PAIR WITH: St. Amant Zinfandel
The wine cellar you see downstairs is beautifully displayed behind glass as you walk down the underground groin vault towards the private dining room. You’ll see a few bottles displayed like a 2000 Pol Roger Brut 1990 champagne, a Perrin & Fils Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Rhone, and a dusty 1988 Chateau D’yquem Lur Saluces. This may seem impressive, but you are actually not even seeing the real wine cellar, the one behind the door marked “Private” that sits next to the wine retail store downstairs.
Executive chef Matt Bolton will be featured in 2014 Best Chefs America.
Every wine behind this door is organized by geography and varietal in wooden cubby holes labeled with a hand-written note card. The ceiling is low, there are wires and fans, and musty stone walls that go into new rooms like underground passageways in Hogwarts. This is where you will find the International whites, the half bottles, the ports and Madeiras, and the Pinot Noirs. This is also where you’ll find (although you won’t find it without help) the oldest bottle in the house, marked for only $400, which is a steal for a pre-Civil-War bottle.
Some sections are dustier than others because of the popularity of some varietals. For example, after the movie Sideways came out, everyone was ordering Pinot Noirs, which the Inn can barely keep in stock. But diners should open their palettes to some new choices, which their waitress/waiter can help them select.
“The Rhone valley is underrated and misunderstood,” explains John of his dustier bottles waiting to be chosen downstairs. “They are big and robust and one of my favorites.”
Nevertheless, imbibers at the Inn are big on Bordeaux and Napa Cabernet, and so you’ll find that heavy on the wine list. John selects bottles to match customer price points as well, and most are $60 – $100 each on average.
“Everyone should be able to get a great bottle of wine for $75,” says John.
Most guests at Friends Lake Inn have purchased a package that couples the room with a wine and dinner pairing, and many are opting for a complete signature package that includes some special activity. Even without a package, though, you can easily fill a weekend here. There’s an outdoor sauna, a billiards room downstairs, snowshoe trails and a cross-country ski loop (snowshoe and ski rentals are available at the front desk), chef-made custom picnic lunches for hikes, and outdoor swimming pool in the summer.
Many guests come for the Friends Lake Inn Nordic Center that features miles of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails. Order a gourmet packed lunch with marinated mushrooms and boursin cheese, Sauvignon Blanc and cheese plate and the Inn will pack a backpack for you to take for the day on your adventure.
The Sleigh Ride Package includes one night stay in a romantic guest room, a 45-minute sleigh ride with bells on horses, blankets and hot chocolate or mulled cider, a three-course candlelit dinner for two, the Friends Lake Inn signature turn-down service with a bottle of sparkling wine and full country breakfast in the morning (even a complimentary room upgrade on arrival when available). The popular Scenic Helicopter Package includes a one-night stay, a romantic three-course candlelit dinner for two, a full country breakfast for two in the morning, complimentary room upgrade on arrival when available and a private helicopter that picks you up for your 1/2 hour Adirondack scenic tour directly at the Inn! Our favorite package is the Full Moon Snowshoe and Cross-Country Ski Package that includes a one-night stay, three-course dinner for two, full breakfast and room upgrade, and moonlit group snowshoe or cross-country ski to a campfire with s’mores, hot chocolate, coffee and hot toddy’s with rentals included.