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Checking In

Within sight of a fine finish

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joe Yonan
Globe Staff / May 30, 2004

ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. -- The color of the room was so bright and cheerful that it cried out for a name other than mere ''orange": cantaloupe, perhaps, or tangerine.

Whatever you call it, the shade was straight from the palette of designer Susan Sargent, who promotes the use of vivid colors in homes, opened a store on Boston's Newbury Street last fall, and recently redecorated many of the rooms here at the Inn at Essex near Burlington.

She knows her stuff, and the result is that this room was anything but cookie-cutter.

The problem was, it didn't seem finished. Two windows, for instance, were covered with Roman shades in a jaunty checked pattern, but a third had an ugly white plastic roller shade. Above the bed were two small floral prints, but they were the only pieces of art in the room; an expanse of wall above the gas fireplace was naked. The lamps next to the bed wore shades in a green leaf pattern, but the bed itself was covered by a simple cream-colored spread, without a drop of color anywhere, not even on the pillows.

I could go on. Two purple chairs were perched in front of the gas fireplace, but there was no table between them, meaning that a perfect spot to enjoy breakfast required the use of the luggage rack to hold the room-service tray. A couple of tiles were missing in the bathroom. After reading ''Susan Sargent's New Country Color: The Art of Living" (Watson-Guptill, 2002), I have a hard time imagining that she actually wanted this wall-to-wall carpeting, rather than painted wood floors with playful throw rugs.

The room's incomplete decor kept it from being the respite it might have been in this sprawling 120-room inn, which also serves as a campus of the well-regarded New England Culinary Institute and is now billing itself as ''Vermont's culinary resort." The inn is undergoing many changes, from the Sargent redesign work to the installation of a Dacor demonstration kitchen where the fitness center used to be.

Perhaps it's the result of the ongoing transformation, but the sort of happy dining experiences I have so often had at NECI restaurants in nearby Montpelier and Burlington happened here only at the sit-down Butler's Restaurant. Room service was another story entirely.

Friday-night dinner, for instance, disappointed immediately upon arrival. The ''classic Caesar salad" had wilted lettuce and no anchovies (a key ingredient in the ''classic" version of this dish). Moreover, the main dish, New England seafood stew with angel-hair pasta, should have been called angel-hair pasta with seafood, because there was so much more of the former than the latter. It was so bland I had to unscrew the top of the salt shaker to get out the full tablespoon required.

Before I even tucked into it, though, I had to call room service back because my half-bottle of Chardonnay was unopened, with no corkscrew in sight. In fact, when the nice woman reappeared at my door with an apology for forgetting the wine opener, she handed it to me and said, ''I'll need that right back, since it's one of the only ones we have." That's right: Instead of just opening it for me, she stood there and waited while I did it myself. Fortunately for her, I had already tipped her the first time around.

Similar frustrations occurred with room-service breakfast, when a bowl of house-made muesli, which might have been delicious with its dried cherries, currants, pecans, and pine nuts, was rendered a soggy mess: Someone in the kitchen had decided to pour on the milk. (The coffee, on the other hand, was plentiful and strong, just the way I like it.)

Even the housekeeping service was less than seamless. Whoever cleaned the room didn't clear an empty wine bottle from the nightstand, but left a spray bottle of glass cleaner hanging from a towel rack. Was I being punished for leaving the ''Do Not Disturb" sign on the door until 11 a.m.?

Frankly, I wasn't that eager to get out, since the weekend was rainy and I had a good book to read. When I did, instead of taking advantage of the nearby hike and bike trail, I shopped at the nearby outlet stores (some offer a discount to inn guests). Then I made a beeline for Burlington, 15 minutes away, and my favorite store on its Church Street Marketplace pedestrian mall: the incomparable Lake Champlain Chocolates.

Back at the inn that evening, dinner at the beautiful Butler's Restaurant managed to nearly erase the memory of bad room-service meals. This one was divine: perfect puff pastry with oyster mushrooms, sweetbreads, and crisp thin asparagus; velvety venison over rutabaga with bright green fiddlehead ferns; and a course of four New England cheeses.

We never seemed to want for anything, and our conversation never seemed to be interrupted by the waiter. That's my definition of flawless service, and it needs repeating elsewhere in the inn, even in the midst of renovations.

Joe Yonan can be reached at yonan@globe.com.

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