Chef Barker owns and runs the Inn with his partner Tim Ostendorf. Tim is not only the bartender, but he’s also a trained opera singer.
Chef Bobby Barker oversees the dining room at the Inn at Crystal Lake (www.innatcrystallakecom), as well as their Palmer Pub, in Eaton, New Hampshire. Located in the Mt. Washington Valley area, the grand 1884 Greek-Revival Inn overlooks picturesque Crystal Lake. The dining room at the Inn is casually elegant and their food is what I call, gourmet comfort food. Chef Barker owns and runs the Inn with his partner Tim Ostendorf. Tim is not only the bartender, but he’s also a trained opera singer. On designated nights throughout the season, Tim and guest professional singers offer concert style productions of operas or musical theatre accompanied with a four-course dinner that highlights the music of the night. A great treat during the winter holidays is the Inn to Inn Cookie Tour (www.nhcookietour.com). Self-guided, you can visit twelve local inns (including the Inn at Crystal Lake) decked out for the holidays and each one will offer you their signature holiday cookies and candies. This season’s tour is scheduled for December 11-12, 2021.
You’re originally from Boston, were you working there as a chef prior to taking over the Inn?
Besides being a line-cook at a restaurant when I was in high school, I had no formal, prior experience as a chef. Before buying the inn, I was helping run a first-time home-buyers program in Malden, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston.
Was there a defining moment when you knew that cooking/baking was going to be a major part of your life?
When we first bought the inn we ran it for two years as a B&B, so by default I had to quickly hone my cooking skills. Of course, baking is a big part of most breakfast menus. My grandmother always used to make a sour-cream based blueberry bread and that quickly became a staple both for breakfast and eventually even on our dinner menu, whether a part of our homemade bread basket we serve with each meal, or sometimes turned into a bread pudding for dessert.
How did you end up in Eaton and purchasing the Inn?
My family has been coming to the Mt. Washington Valley for years. My grandparents went on their honeymoon in this area back in the 1920s. My mother and uncle used to take the Ski Train from North Station in Boston in the 1950s and ski all day at Mount Cranmore. Finally, Tim and I bought a vacation cottage in Conway and owned that for about four years before we purchased the inn. We were living in Winthrop at the time and were here every weekend. Quite often we would find alternate ways to drive home just to mix things up a bit. One day we snaked through Route 153 and the village of Eaton. With Crystal Lake, the Little White Church, the Eaton Village Store, and the Inn at Crystal Lake, it seemed like an idyllic setting. We found out that the inn was for sale and we figured out a way to make it work.
I personally love your beef brisket. You receive rave reviews for the dish and many other entrees but your true passion lies in baking?
There’s something about the precision that’s required for baking that is very interesting for me. How the ingredients interact with each other, there’s a sort of science to it. Leave out just one ingredient and it may not bake properly. But as for the brisket, I love that too! We season the meat, throw it in the oven and basically forget about it. On average, it slow-roasts for five to six hours. It’s almost foolproof. Although there is a secret ingredient which only Tim and I know.
You and Tim offer musical nights plus a four-course dinner tailored to the evening. Can you give us an example of a menu you have put together that sings harmoniously with an opera or musical?
The Music Nights have been a fun and creative challenge. Tim likes to pair the menu with the opera or musical, but that can get interesting when we do something like Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” In that case, you have an Austrian composer, an Italian libretto, and a Spanish setting. So, we might have a pasta first course, Schnitzel and Spätzle for the main course, and flan for dessert.
What is your favorite dish to prepare?
From our current menu, I’d say the Chicken and Apples. I love dishes that combine sweet and savory, and the onions, apples, and chicken all work well together.
What are the bestsellers on the menu?
Along with the previously mentioned Brisket and Chicken and Apples, our pub items are particularly popular, like our Shepherd’s Pie and Mac n’ Cheese. And our supersized Palmer House Salad is always a hit and has never left the menu since we opened the restaurant in 2003. What’s nice about that in particular is that it is different every time. Along with mixed greens it is topped with both fruit and vegetables which changes with the seasons, as well as some sort of cheese. Tim runs the cold station and he can get very creative with what ends up on that salad.
What is it about Eaton and the White Mountain Valley area that you love the most?
For being sort of in the middle of nowhere, Eaton is just 15 minutes from North Conway, which has everything one could want (shopping, great restaurants, hiking, winter sports, etc.). Also, the general area itself is so centrally located. Where else can you get to major cities like Boston, Portland, Montreal, and New York within a range of one to six hours? We are very lucky indeed.
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