Published October 04. 2012 4:00AM
The environs of the Gelston House range from picturesque to breathtaking: the handsome, eccentric old Goodspeed Opera House, the Main Street of the village of East Haddam and the sweep of the Connecticut River and its swing bridge.
The innards of the former 1853 Gelston Hotel measure up to the views. Every dining and drinking room blooms in a different pastel, and the main dining room, one of the region's largest and most elegant, looks out on green and gold and blue - and for the next few weeks, red and orange. Even a drink of water overlooking those vistas would taste like champagne.
It would be a lovely place for a wedding, and a couple who thought so too was being married on the lawn during one of our visits. The other time, we dined near actors who had just taken a bow in "Carousel."
The Day last reviewed the Gelston House shortly after it changed hands and reopened in 2007. Since then, it has survived the recession and perfected its technique for serving more than a hundred diners who all arrive at the same time, after the matinee or before the evening performance a few steps away at Goodspeed.
That's a mighty feat, and Gelston House achieves it with efficiency and grace, in a dining room humming with the chatter of people jazzed by the show they just saw or revved up to see one shortly.
On our recent visits, we sampled the dinner and the lunch menus, which overlap in a number of house specials - among them, braised lamb ragout on rigatoni ($17.99 at lunch/$22.99 at dinner), crab cakes ($13.99), escargot ($10.50), the Goodspeed Salad ($9.50/$10.99) and clam chowder ($6.99/$7.99).
For the first act, we had the chowder - twice. The Gelston kitchen loves its cream, and the chowder was the first evidence of that. We're getting to be clam chowder connoisseurs, and this is one of the must sumptuous, lumped full of shellfish. The soup of the particular day was cream of carrot, rich, just spicy enough and a reminder that even the humblest vegetable stars with enough cream and butter ($5.99/$6.99).
Other than the two soup choices and the raw bar, the appetizers are mostly either fried or they are salads. The most interesting of the salads is the one named after the Goodspeed and featuring spinach, poached pears, oranges, dried cranberries and bleu cheese. Unlike a lot of contemporary restaurants, the Gelston House is sticking to its 19th-century roots of hearty food and rich sauces, which makes the salads among the few items that would earn a heart icon if the menu had icons.
In the spirit of the place then, we put off abstemiousness for later. A reasonable-sized cut of prime rib ($28.99), served at dinnertime, came perfectly cooked to medium rare. The server agreed to swap the mashed potatoes it normally comes with for delectably roasted Yukon Golds.
A serving of Chilean sea bass indubitably starred among all the entrees we tasted. Resting on a bed of creamy, al dente risotto and trimmed with tender-crisp asparagus, it came sauced with a lobster tarragon concoction that proved once again the sauce makes the dish ($27.99).
On our second visit, we made lunch into Sunday dinner with roast chicken and the lamb ragout. The real reason for ordering the ragout was to see what they meant by it; turns out it consists of diced tender lamb in a red sauce thinner than you might expect on rigatoni but just right for it. It would be good on a chilly fall day. The roast chicken ($15.95 at lunch) made a nice, homey dish.
Our server told us the reason the dessert menu isn't printed is that it changes in the blink of an eye - sweets get used up and new ones arrive. We mmm'ed over the chocolate mousse cake and the banana coconut layer cake (each $7), but you order whatever they have the day you go: a variety of cheesecakes, banana bread pudding, another chocolate cake, carrot cake.
Technically there is a brunch served on Sundays, but it features just a short list of omelettes and variations on the theme of Eggs Benedict in the $10.95 range. However, the lunch menu offers many salads ($13.99 to $19.99), including a tempting blackened shrimp and tortilla number, burgers ($9.95-$12.95) and sandwiches ($6.95-$19.95). Really, something for everyone. And what a view.