WEST DOVER, Vt. -- A canopied bed, a deep tub, and a dreamy view are certainly romantic, but for me, the road to romance starts at the gates of gastronomy. Find me an inn with a great chef -- an institution far less common than is claimed -- and I will be as happy as a Wellfleet oyster after Labor Day weekend.
I'm talking about memorable food, complex, intriguing, surpassing the sum of its parts. Great food is love on a plate.
No one makes this point better than the late writer-gourmand M.F.K. Fisher in ''The Gastronomical Me" (North Point Press, 1989): ''It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others."
I don't know how my husband found Deerhill Inn, which lies in southern Vermont's Deerfield River Valley, a region so dotted with hostelries that it has been dubbed the Valley of the Inns. As far as he can recall, its poetic name swam to the top of a Googled list. We arrived in mud season, that time between February and May when soot-stained snow melts to expose last year's dead grass, and mud rises to the gunwales of your shoes.
Inside, we found comfort: a sitting room with big windows and a fireplace. Our room held a basket of fruit, water, and cookies; a CD player and assorted CDs; a whirlpool tub; plush bathrobes. A queen-size bed faced the Green Mountains, gorgeous even in mud season.
Since the inn's brochure had touted the creative American cuisine of owner-chef Michael Allen, we made a dinner reservation. The prices (entrees average $32) promised a level of quality that we -- having been jilted in many an expensive restaurant -- dared not hope for.
We eyed the menu (which changes biweekly) at a candlelit table while Cassandra Wilson's sandy contralto wove an envelope of intimacy around each table.
Dinner began with homemade breads: a tender black-olive loaf and a tart, chewy wheat sourdough, and roasted olives swimming in rosemary-scented oil. After house salads came a plate of chef-made charcuterie ($12). That night the plate held duck paté garnished with apricots and a garlicky lamb sausage. Piquant mustard and cornichons coaxed subtle flavors from the meats. An awed silence descended during the main course, magret of moulard duckling with bok choy and ginger stir fry ($32), and pork tenderloin with chopped pecans, bread crumbs, a white-wine mustard sauce, and Medjool dates ($30). In a lifetime of eating, this meal (about $90 excluding tip and beverage) will remain memorable.
Breakfast the next day (guests only, included with room) was custom-blended coffee, fresh grapefruit juice, fruit, hot blueberry-corn muffins, and a choice of pancakes, French toast made with Allen's bread, or the omelet of the day, with roasted asparagus and local goat cheese.
We asked to meet the chef. Allen, who co-owns Deerhill with innkeeper Stan Gresens, told us that he trained at Madeleine Kamman's Modern Gourmet in the 1970s and worked in Boston-area restaurants before moving to Vermont four years ago.
This winter we returned, just to eat. The meal transported us as before, convincing me that Allen descends from Fisher's spiritual tribe. She said that ''when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it . . . and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied . . . and it is all one."
Contact Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deerhill Inn 14 Valley View RoadPO Box 136West Dover, VT 05356802-464-3100; 800-993-3379www.deerhillinn.comRates: Nonholiday, winter weekends $165-$310.