Once you’re out past the streetlights, and the traffic thins out, the restaurant game is dire. Winter is always coming, even in mosquito season. Country restaurant menus tend to be built for survival, focusing on least-common-denominator dishes for people who would never use the word “cuisine” to refer to their food. ¶ A funny thing happened on the way to Kissing Bridge. A couple of years ago, two guys bought a Civil War-era building at the crossroads that constitute downtown Colden, a stone’s throw from the creek. The traffic doesn’t quite warrant a flashing yellow signal. They have turned a building that was once a grain mill, then a feed store, into a purveyor of sustenance once again, and not more pizza and wings. The Colden Mill is a restaurant with ambition.
It starts with an interior defined with warm wood, from a small bar to hand-hewn beams defining the airy two-story space. Tall windows, a wood stove and a collection of homegrown antiques shape a room that combines après-ski lodge cool with the type of genuine rusticity to which Cracker Barrel aspires.
Don’t be misled by the fish fry sign outside. On its menu, Colden Mill makes its upscale casual intentions clear. The night we visited, specials recited by our server would have sounded at home in Williamsville or the Elmwood Village, including a lobster bruschetta appetizer, roasted red pepper bisque ($8) and a whole fried chicken with Parmesan truffle potatoes ($16).
Writing an ambitious menu is easier than executing it well. While we waited to see how the story turned out, we nibbled on the half loaf of warm, crusty bread with whipped butter provided by our server.
It takes nerve to charge $16.50 for beef shank poutine, which is, after all, French fries with gravy and cheese. But from the first forkful, I applauded chef-owner Matt Webb’s audacity. Perfectly crispy house-cut fries were moistened with gravy of preternatural depth of flavor, with the body of good veal stock. What gave the dish the heft of an entree was the topper of shredded beef shank, tender meat with the flavor of amplified pot roast. There also was sharp cheddar cheese melted into the matrix, adding up to a humble meat-and-potatoes entree elevated by fine technique.
Not everything was as exhilarating, and there were a few misses, but overall the meal lived up to its ambition.
Another winner was a poblano pepper stuffed with chorizo sausage, clad in a flour tortilla and fried ($10.50). It was served with tomatoes stewed with chipotle, the smoked jalapeño notes transforming them into an engaging upgrade from the usual jug salsa. Red pepper bisque offered resoundingly fruity notes and a wisp of smoke from roasted peppers in the purée, and drizzles of parsley-garlic purée and créme fraîche.
Small touches made the grilled romaine salad ($9) stand out. A split head of lettuce, scuffed up on the grill, was accompanied by roasted grape tomatoes, a subtle truffle dressing, and two crunchy companions, a Parmesan cheese wafer and a stout candied bacon slice.
The option of a whole fried chicken had our table thinking Southern fried chicken leftovers until our server informed us that it was a small chicken, fried, but not so crusted. It turned out to be a little larger than a Cornish game hen, with crackly seasoned skin with sticky sweet Asian chile sauce. The accompanying skin-on fried potato wedges were emphatically crispy batons.
An entree of bacon-wrapped meatloaf ($17) was the very acme of upgraded comfort food, with crispy bacon around tender, hearty meatloaf, and a discreet application of American-style barbecue sauce with a kick of ginger, plus competent whipped potatoes, steamed broccoli and a drizzle of basil oil.
Chicken pot pie ($17.50) wasn’t chicken pot pie. It was satisfying, creamy chicken stew with peas and carrots, topped with a biscuit. If you expect a flaky crust and you get a biscuit plopped on top, that’s disappointing, even if the stew is right.
Other dishes we tried, while not horrible, felt off on the details.
A beet salad with roasted beets, greens, pickled shallots and a fried egg ($10) was hearty and enjoyable despite a too-runny egg. Creamy and French onion soups served in a side-by-side bowl ($8.50) were cleverly packaged but average in flavor. Shrimp and grits ($18) offered lumpy grits with flabby bacon, and a beer-and-molasses barbecue sauce that overshadowed the shrimp. An entree of cioppino, San Franciscan seafood stew ($23), offered fresh cod, shrimp and mussels, but the chile-laced broth was spicy, not soothing, leaving me unable to taste fennel.
Our server organized our complicated meal with aplomb, proved her knowledge of the menu, and even threw in a housemade ghost story involving a pit of molasses.
Desserts ($7.50) do not include a molten molasses cake. We did enjoy a vibrant lemon tart with a crumbly graham cracker crust and juicy-tasting raspberry mousse. Apple fritters were disappointing, room temperature and doughy.
But two kinds of delicious housemade ice cream – chocolate mousse and avocado – ended the meal on a sweet note. The chocolate version was good, but you can get chocolate ice cream lots of places. The pale green avocado version was one of the ambitious moves that made me want to return to the Colden Mill. It delivered distinct green-fruit notes of avocado, heightened with the lushness of sweet cream. It was a revelation that made the drive home, over hill and dale to where the streetlamps began, seem that much shorter.
The Colden Mill - 7
New owners overhaul historic building, create oasis of cuisine in countryside.
WHERE: 8348 Boston Colden Road, Colden (941-3081, coldenmill.com).
HOURS: 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $9-$12; soups and salads, $3-$9; entrees $13-$30.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.