While you’re reading the menu at Mount Hill Tavern and the server is hustling drinks, stop him. Ask about the sauces. If he doesn’t know, ask for someone who does, because the key to a very good meal at this cozy place off Linglestown Road is that, apparently, they have a genius saucier.
Wait – don’t be afraid. That’s SAW-see-yay, the guy whose job it is to make the applewood bacon demi-glace that goes on the pork chop, and the black bean puree of coriander, cumin, carrot, onion and cream for the chile relleno. This chef knows what he’s doing.
As my new friend Ted the Lobbyist said when I asked him how he liked his meal, salmon is salmon and steak is steak. You could grill a filet mignon at home, but you might not pair it with Chef Paul Kendeffy’s black truffle ravioli.
Mount Hill Tavern is the fourth restaurant for Kendeffy and sommelier Dave Fonash. (so-MALE-yay, wine guy.) They started in 2002 with Zola New World Bistro in State College, then Alto Italian Restaurant and Bar in Lemont in 2006 and The Gamble Mill Restaurant in Bellefonte in 2007.
Then they came here and remodeled the 1798 fieldstone house at Linglestown and Colonial Roads, across from the old Kokomo’s and right around the corner from Lorraine Klippel’s Bumblebee Golf Center.
The exterior of Mount Hill is kind of Ye Olde Gift Shoppey, but the interior is casual and spare.
We went there with 10 people, prepared to eat everything on the menu. I wanted to start with the signature dish, Crispy Red Snapper, which might be more accurately described as Big Red Standing-Up Fish. When it eventually came, it was spectacular, but first … Mode Man wanted appetizers.
If you can put such a heavy word on a polite request, we are developing an appetizer philosophy at Mode and trying to peddle it to restaurant owners and chefs. Later, we may extend it to entrees and desserts, but for now here it is: we want app medleys, a starter tasting menu, all your best apps on a couple plates that we can pass around. Really. We want to leave your restaurant knowing all about your food, starting with appetizers.
(Gentle Reader, you can help by asking for a tasting menu when you go out to eat. Don’t you want to know what the other tables are tasting?)
So we got multi-starter plates of Tavern Crabcake, Prince Edward Island Mussels, Fried Calamari, Truffled Macaroni and Cheese, and Tuna Sashimi .
The calamari was crisp and tasty, done in five-spice and rice flour, with paprika, served on tomato coulis. The Truffled Mac and Cheese got generally good reviews, except for a woman who was simply against the idea.
“One of those things you grew up on, and are now tired of?”
Well, truffles can’t fix everything.
My favorite was the Tuna Sashimi, thinly sliced raw tuna with spicy ginger sauce. Mmmmm. It was a lovely tuna-gasm, coulda sashimied all night, except for the exuberant whoops of our meatatarian, Mode Man:
“I ate a mussel! I ate a mussel!”
Dude, you are such a grown-up.
A timid mussel virgin only minutes before, Mode Man had succumbed to the sauce. “The mussels are incredible,” he said. “The sauce is outstanding.” Mount Hill’s sous chef, Josh Arndt, told us it was tomato paste, coconut milk, lemongrass and cilantro. When he ran out of mussels, Mode Man asked for more bread. To dip in the sauce.
The bread was from LaBrea bakery in San Francisco. The white wine we were drinking in quantity was Evolution from Sokol Blosser in Oregon; it is a clean, bright blend of (honestly) Pinot Gris, Riesling, Muller-Thurgau, Semillon, Gewurztraminer, Muscat Canelli, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Sylvaner
When servers began to bring the main course, I asked Chef Arndt to go around the table with me and talk to the diners, like the last 10 minutes of Iron Chef.
Ted’s Grilled Chilean Salmon came with asparagus sautéed in butter with garlic, “and we have a cucumber dill salad, microgreens with a tomato vinaigrette,” Arndt said. “And it’s spectacular,” Ted said.
Beth was eating the chicken medallions with wild mushroom risotto and green beans. “Very good,” she said. “The chicken’s tender, the risotto is excellent. Excellent. Just right.” Chef said, “I use morelles, enochis and chanterelles for the risotto, with white wine, garlic and onion. The medallions are crusted with flour and a spice blend, then there’s a sage demi-glace for sauce.”
(Demi-glace is a rich, brown sauce traditionally made with veal stock and tomatoes, then reduced to thicken it.)
Sara had the pork chop. “I don’t know what the sauce is but it’s delicious.” The sauce on the 10-ounce chop was another demi-glace made with applewood-smoked bacon. It’s served with a sweet potato puree done with butter, five-spice and cinnamon.
Faye had the Pappardelle alla Bolognese, a dish she greeted like an old friend. “It’s very tasty, it’s rich, it’s delightful.” It’s a wide-ribbon pasta with a veal and sausage meat sauce. “There’s some basil in there,” chef said, “some heavy cream, tomato and onion and a little bit of carrot, and red wine.”
The Big Red Standing-Up Fish was on Rick’s plate. “The presentation is over the top,” Rick said. Yeah, it was magnificent. This was a whole red snapper, sharp teeth bared, plated vertically so it stood about 10 inches high and maybe 15 inches long. Wow.
“I’m liking the fish a lot,” Rick said. “It’s a red chili sauce with … what?”
Chef said the chilies were blended with garlic, pineapple, scallions, soy sauce, ketchup and peanuts. “It’s a great accompaniment,” said Rick.
Geoff called the house-made ricotta gnocchi “some of the best gnocchi I’ve had. The mushrooms with it are a nice balance with the crunch and the sweet of the pine nuts. I like that.” The sauce was a basil pesto that mixed with the roasted tomatoes on the plates when the leaked out into there.
The chile relleno was sort of a dirty rice, Chef Arndt said. “There’s cilantro, cumin, coriander, garlic, onion and some key lime juice. That gets stuffed inside a poblano pepper that’s grilled, skinned and seeded, breaded with corn meal and flour.” There’s a sour cream drizzle over the top.
“It’s a really great texture,” Gloria said. “The beans are firm. The filling, the beans and the sauce together are a really great blend. I don’t know what the sauce is, but it’s great.”
It was a black bean puree with chile spices, paired with a white bean salsa that brought in tomato, cilantro, mint, olive oil and garlic.
Beside her, Jen had the seafood strudel. What, Pennsylvania Dutch seafood?
“In a sense, yes,” Chef Arndt said. “There’s crab and shrimp in it with a mornay sauce, some gruyere cheese in a béchamel. There’s basil, chives and shallots in the mixture, and that’s pretty much it for the filling. It’s rolled in phyllo dough, done with butter, and served with asparagus, cherry tomatoes, green beans, carrots, and the sauce is a dill beurre blanc – a dill butter sauce.”
Jen wasn’t wild about it. Bland, she thought.
At the head of the table, Mode Man was working on his Filet Mignon. “What’s this on top? I think it’s a pierogi and Jen thinks it’s a ravioli.”
It was a giant ravioli, filled with black truffles, white truffle oil, shallots, chives and ricotta.
“The way this tastes with the ravioli, the fillet and the sauce is amazing,” he said. His sauce was a Madeira demi-glace.
“The fillet is tender and it’s got a little bit of grill charcoal flavor to it, and then the sauce and then the ravioli, all at once! I am a compartment-plate guy, but it needs to be eaten like this, all together. It tastes incredible. Very complementary, none of it competes.”
And none of it was ordinary. Mount Hill’s saucier has raised seasonal American cuisine to the level of an artful meal.