Most times what is old is just old, but sometimes, things that are old are brought back and given new life. Such is the case at The Sheppard Mansion, a wonderful inn with a restaurant in Hanover, Pennsylvania. I had heard stories of interesting cooking coming out of Chef Andrew Little’s kitchen at the Mansion, so with an opportunity to make a quick trip to Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, my wife and I hopped in the car for the journey.
The Sheppard Mansion, built in 1913, stands out in the middle of this south central Pennsylvania town that is only about 45 minutes from Baltimore, the nearest big city. That it stands out is no mean feat, since Hanover, has over time been fairly affluent. It is a town that has seen plenty of glory days and it is a town that still has a lot going on. The Sheppards made their money initially in the shoe industry having started Hanover Shoes in 1899 with business really taking off after World war 1. More recently, Hanover has been a center of the snack food industry as the home of companies such as Utz and Snyder’s of Hanover, amongst others. Still, as glorious as the Mansion was in its youth and is once again today, it lay dormant for over thirty years towards the end of the last century. Completely restored by members of the Sheppard family in 1999, today the Mansion holds six sumptuous guest rooms, a wonderful market store featuring some of the finest produce and products from Pennsylvania as well as decorative products both local and imported and a restaurant with the New Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine of Chef Little that is open Wednesday through Saturday evenings.
Local, farm-to-table and all-natural have all become buzz-words, but at The Sheppard Mansion they are taken to heart. Much, if not most of the produce served at the restaurant not only comes from nearby areas of Pennsylvania, it comes from their own farm. It isn’t only the produce either as the farm also raises its own Scotch Highlands cattle, an adorable breed that also makes for some pretty damn good eating.
We arrived having driven through one of those nasty, mid-summer Pennsylvania rain storms with enough time to settle into our plush room and get cleaned up for dinner. The palatial room was marvelous, set up with furniture original to the house, including a rich, dark-wood four-poster canopied bed. The dining room was well-lit, elegant and comfortable, again, replete with original furniture. That the place was unused for so long may have been a blessing in disguise as all the furnishings were in such wonderful shape.
It wasn’t long after we sat down that we got to experience what “New” Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine was all about. Regionalism with a taste of place is one of the world’s great fine dining trends right now, epitomized by Rene Redzepi’s “New” Nordic cooking at noma and Sean Brock’s homage to the Southern United States at Husk amongst others. The Sheppard Mansion fits firmly within that style having taken the down home classics of a humble, honest style of cooking and elevating it so that it is not only not out of place, but quite comfortably ensconced in a fine dining restaurant. In an unusual take on an Arpege egg, barbecued pig’s feet topped a truffled egg custard served in the shell. Accompanying the eggs, served in a paper bag, were house made russet potato chips – after all this was Hanover, PA! The pork and the chicken were both from nearby Rettland Farms. Of course, they were free range and all natural. Even the bowl that the eggs were served in was made by a local potter, Terry Tessum, whose work was available in the shop out back. Ethereal corn fritters floating on beds of bright tomato vinaigrette redefined an old staple, while a perfectly formed cheddar gougere was filled with creamy, pureed, concept-bending Lebanon bologna mousse. Lebanon bologna is not something that I would ever really go out of my way for or consider special in any way. It is generally, in my opinion, a fairly ordinary forcemeat, however, here it had been elevated to something truly delectable – a Cinderella-like transformation. A votive candle holder provided the perfect stage for this delight. The breads, which included pretzel rolls, also pleased, especially with the fresh butter made that very afternoon in the kitchen. A dish they called “The Farm Report” rounded out this first part of the meal. It featured the bounty of their farm including onion, beets, leeks, carrots, tomato and micro-greens and tasted of the brightness of long days the sunshine.
One of the new interpretations of traditional country dishes of the area deserves an extra-special mention. Scrapple, typically a breakfast food, common to the Pennsylvania Dutch and surrounding areas, but little seen elsewhere, is typically about as far from a fine dining ingredient as there is, but here Chef Little made one that would have been at home in just about any of the finest restaurants in the country. Served with chanterelles, local sweet corn and a sweet and spicy chow-chow, this was refined and delicious. True to its plebeian roots, however, I was tempted to lick my plate.
The wine service and the service in general was lovely. The Front of the House for the restaurant, including the wine service, is run by Chef Little’s lovely wife, Karen. The wines, focused primarily on California and France, were good, reasonably priced and well matched to the food, while the service added just enough country warmth to make it endearing without crossing the line to overbearing or smarmy.
The first half of the meal featuring Chef Little’s interpretations of regional classics was totally stimulating and terrific. The second half , featuring a variety of proteins and desserts was still quite good, but lacked the power of context and playfulness of the first half of the meal. It also displayed a weakness of adhering to a strict local and seasonal palette when it comes to fine dining. While the product and the execution was fine throughout the meal, the second half showed some redundancy when it came to the supporting elements of a number of dishes. Corn played a similar role in dishes like the Chesapeake puffer fish and the calotte of Scotch Highland beef, whereas there were the same lima beans with the calotte as there was with the pork. The beef also had more of the chanterelles that came with the earlier scrapple, while the scrapple’s chow-chow was revived to support the wreck-fish. The lone totally unique dish was chicken with peaches and a brown butter sauce. Ordinarily, so much repetition would kill a fine dining meal, however, what is a weakness of the local and seasonal palette is also, fortunately, a strength. The produce is just so damn good, that it is easy to forgive the redundancy and just embrace the wonderful bounty that is there. While the beef might have been more interesting with a more novel supporting cast, it would not likely have been better or more delicious. The beef was packed with flavor and was tender as well. This is a breed that I hope to encounter more of!
The last part of the meal provided two different interpretations of the tomato, which had burst forth in their farm in super-abundance that very week. A play on a Caprese salad with a tomato sorbet served with truffle-dusted fried cheese curds and micro- opal basil and topped with Armando Manni Per Me olive oil, served as a cheese course. It was a clever approach, though I found the sorbet to be too sweet for my palate. The actual dessert of a tomato tart tartine was delightful and more to my taste, though it suffered from a tad too sweet accompaniment in the lemon verbena ice cream. Paired with a 5 Puttonyos Tokaiji dessert wine, it was still quite a nice finish to the meal.
We both slept quite soundly that night and woke up to a hot, sunny morning. Breakfast was in the sun room. Consisting of fresh fruit, sticky buns, a breakfast burrito with eggs, tomatoes and cheese, sausages and stellar pretzel croissants, it was tasty and satisfying.
Following breakfast, Chef Little took us out to see the cattle and then to the vegetable farm that they operate for the restaurant. Having tasted the quality of the produce the evening before and again at breakfast, it was easy to understand why it was so good. The farms are meticulously maintained with great attention paid to growing the right heirloom crops of the area. Chef Little, a Hanover native, is well tuned to that, as he with the help and advice of his father, maintains and keeps a close eye on the vegetable plots.
After our farm tour, we headed back to the Mansion to collect our things, pay our bill and head out, but before we did so, we paid a visit to the store, which is run by the two sisters who own the inn. Heather Sheppard Lunn is primarily responsible for running the Carriage House Market, which is located in the Mansion’s old carriage house in the rear of the property. She, with help from her sister, Kathryn Sheppard Hoar, and the Littles has done a remarkable job of setting up a market with the best produce that Pennsylvania has to offer. Had we been going straight home, the temptation to fill our car would have been too great to resist. I would have been particularly inclined to bring home some of that wonderful beef, especially since that is the only place one can buy it and they don’t ship. As it was, we didn’t leave without spending a few dollars on some really beautiful pottery (Terry Tessum) and some beautiful, local peaches amongst a few other things. As a Slow Food adherent, I appreciate the approach the Sheppards and the Littles have to their farm, their products, their inn and their food. It all fits within the “good, clean and fair” Slow Food credo. With so much food around the world today not manifesting any particular sense of place, I welcome the movement towards regional cuisines, especially in fine dining. When I travel somewhere, I like to experience that place and leave with a sense that I have actually been somewhere. Our visit to the Sheppard Mansion did just that.