Regulars know it’s not possible to completely describe the transcendental experience of a Crystal Quail evening. After the ritual pilgramage through the back-est of Center Barnstead, New Hampshire country roads and arriving in the middle of nowhere to find a small 18th century farmhouse glowing in the setting sun just twenty yards uphill of the rear over sized garden whose bounty is being prepped at that very moment in the beamed candlelit kitchen, the arriving diner can only swallow the sense of place and beauty and succumb to the realization that the next several hours only happens on this patch of land atop this dirt road covered hill. With a quick check to insure wines were neither shaken nor disturbed traversing the maze of barely traveled roads, it’s time to turn wine and palate over to Huckaby who, 33 years ago, successfully pulled off one of the most profound “Zag’s” by any food professional.
Laws in place during the 1976 restaurant opening disqualified wine sales because of the one room, three table, and 16-20 person capacity design. The intimacy and BYOB concept stuck, and savvy wine collectors have gone deep in their cellars preparing for their Crystal Quail moments ever since. Harold and Cynthia Huckaby live in this remote 1764 farmhouse and run the family restaurant business specializing in upland game birds, free range veal, and fresh seasonal fish. The menu changes constantly, never seeing print. Our party of ten owned the dining room this past weekend inferring a dual reality of fine restaurant dining and family dining room familiarity while our smaller group of four shared the cozy space with two other couples a few weeks back allowing for hushed and private conversation with occasional cross room sharing of wine and Crystal Quail lore. Manageable seatings are the preference now with their daughters grown and gone and just Cynthia and Harold delivering the entire five course, $70 prix-fixe experience Wednesday through Sunday nights by reservation only.
Crystal Quail is a story about real people that humbly dedicate themselves to their work, community, and family. Harold pushed nutrition in the State school lunch program by teaching boning of fresh turkeys. He has taught university level culinary and baking skills on the back of his CIA training, attending when it was located in New Haven, CT. Finding practical experience in the restaurant and hotel trade from Key West to Boston and spending a large chunk of time in the NYC area, he became a member of the Vatel Club of New York. Huckaby executed his ultimate “Zag” in the 1970’s when he took training and family to the gentler and quieter corner of the world that is now home to the Crystal Quail.
To this day, they have spotlighted an organic garden of edible flowers, fruits, and vegetables coupled with products of local farms employing sustainable practices. Now, its a place to take a step back into time, experience a period inspired warm vibe from a setting that Hollywood designers could not replicate more perfectly, indulge in professionally honed cooking that speaks from the local land and sea, disrupt your sensibility with home grown comfrey (coarse Eurasian plant) or nasturtium (pungent plant-like cress), and above all things freely uncork your personal cellar treasures to your heart’s content. It’s not strange at all to gaze at the small table along the wall next to the fireplace to find 20-80 year old Burgundies and first growth Bordeaux that are being enjoyed by the one or two other groups involved in their own Crystal Quail moment.
Here is a recap of some of the notable wines I opened at this summer’s Crystal Quail adventures:
2005 Linne Colado Marsanne/Viognier, Paso Robles: Nice oily texture with good acid structure. Hazelnut and burnt caramel on the nose. Recommended
1995 Saintsbury Reserve Pinot Noir: An old favorite that won’t benefit from any further age but is drinking quite nicely now, the wine offers sweet black cherry flavor, mushroom notes, and advanced wet cardboard aromas. Showing all the differences of its age compared to the rich velvety fruity wine of 10 years ago. Drink up.
2007 Peirson Meyer Charles Heintz Chardonnay: I am of the mindset that Robbie Meyer is making some of the best Chardonnay coming out of Northern California lately. I prefer this Heintz bottling, but the folks at Peirson Meyer assure me that it is strictly personal preference and not a statement of relative quality. The wine has a rich creamy, caramelized, burnt custard flavor, with additional flavors of tangerine and popcorn. The wine has amazing over the top richness that is perfectly supported by up to the task acidity. This wine is worth wrestling for.
2005 Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay: The wine appears to be losing the distinct rich flavors it had upon release but has retained its citrusy lemony notes. The wine has seen its best days and does not offer the alluring sweet rich fruit it showed earlier in its life.
2000 Pichon Longueville Baron, Pauillac: Welcome evidence that the strong 2000 Pauillac vintage is advancing as hoped for. Cedar and classic lead pencil nose abound. Blackberry fruit and creamy vanilla flavors are accompanied by spices and black licorice that seem to be in transition to secondary advanced flavoring. A magical and intense wine.
2000 Montrose, St. Estephe: This wine is more backward and less advanced than the Pichon Baron. Smoky wood aromas combine with creosote. Tannins are smooth alongside black fruit. Sweet vanilla and super richness to this wine. Completely in need of many more years in the cellar.
2005 Calvet-Thunevin Cotes Catalanes Cuvee Constance: This is a favorite value wine of mine that had fellow collectors at other tables tasting in amazement and begging me for more tips on wines like this. I don’t have clear notes on this wine, but it is around $15 and a project of a highly profiled relative newcomer St. Emilion winemaker, Thunevin. This Languedocwine is made with Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan and will blow you away for the price. It is rich in fruit and offers aromas of earth and spice with a super rich mouthfeel and lasting finish that will make you swear you are drinking a top flight CDP at four times the price.
For New England wine and food enthusiasts that have not made it to the Crystal Quail yet, it is a must visit. If you are from out of town and are planning a trip to New England, locate Center Barnstead, New Hampshire on the map, round up some special wines, and hire a car (and driver). It is within reach of Boston and a worthy trek that I have made with kid-like anticipation and excitement for more than 20 years.
Note to Wine Enthusiasts: The glassware here is adequate at best. It is fine crystal, but if you are pouring serious wine, bring your own glassware. I always do and the Huckabys are understanding and supportive…and might even wash your glasses for you before you leave for home.