When a restaurant experience goes bad a wide range of emotions can ensue. In my case it is generally anger or in some cases simply resignation. Rarely though have I felt the sense of sadness or loss as I did last night at the Darlington Inn in Ligonier. It was almost painful, akin to the loss of a lover. The Darlington Inn is one of those restaurants that has the reputation of being obscure and special. It is owned by a expatriate who serves the food of her native Hungary and nearby Transylvania, cuisine rarely seen in a restaurant setting in this day and age.
The restaurant is in a quirky, Italian villa like building on a quiet road behind Idlewild Park. It’s not easy to find, but at least the online map services were accurate in their directions. I entered the restaurant and took a seat at the bar between a large television playing “soft rock” and two rolls of toilet paper sitting on the bar. The toilet paper was bad enough, but George Michael and Wham! Is not my idea of “setting the mood” for a dining experience. It appeared there was no bartender on duty and the two servers (who were also manning the bar ) were running around in a frenzy, leading to a 15 minute wait before I was even recognized. When I say it “appeared” there was no bartender on duty I meant there was no one stationed there. There was one bozo in shorts and tee shirt who several times went behind the bar and got drinks for himself or other patrons, but since he spent all of his time schmoozing I couldn’t tell if he was an employee or not. The Darlington serves a buffet on Saturday nights, so when I finally received service I went with that option in order to sample several of the dishes which also appeared on the regular menu. The chafing dishes at the buffet were nearly empty, but for the most part the food looked good and I managed to scrounge enough to fill a plate. When I say “for the most part”, there were a few exceptions. The salad was nothing but browned iceberg lettuce with one unlabeled squeeze bottle of what I assumed to be dressing beside it. In addition, the vegetables were clearly a frozen commercial “blend”, a shortcut that surprised me given the “home made” character of the rest of the meal. I returned to my seat to find the server had never brought me any silverware, so I waited another 5 minutes or so until I managed to flag her down to rectify that issue. As I had passed on the brown iceberg, I started my meal with a beet-sauerkraut salad. This version appeared to have been prepared with shredded beets, although I’m not sure as it was a bit dark in my corner of the bar. Regardless, it was quite good although it would been more refreshing if served a bit colder. I next sampled a roast pork loin with sauerkraut. Personally, I wouldn’t have used a loin for this dish as it’s too lean, but the chef timed this roast perfectly which avoided the dryness a loin usually exhibits. Töltött Káposzta, or stuffed cabbage in sauerkraut, was next and it was also well prepared. My only complaint with the three dish I had tried so far was that I felt the kraut could have been a bit sharper, a result I suppose of not using a fresh product. The Hungarian Beef stew I sampled next had that great flavor of a good paprika, but like the pork, the cut of beef used was not the best choice. It was much too lean and as a result, the beef was dry. Csirke Paprikás, or Chicken Paprikas, was the only dish I was disappointed in. Although the sauce was flavorful, the chicken was improperly browned, leading to a flabby, undercooked skin.
The side dishes for these entrees were mashed potatoes and spätzle, both of which were excellent. The potatoes were clearly made from scratch and were flavorful and of the proper consistency (i.e. Not over whipped). I’m not certain the Hungarians use the term spätzle as do the Swabians, but these little dumplings were prepared and cooked to perfection. This was an absolutely great meal, especially considering the price of $12.95, but it was completely ruined by the incompetence of the front of the house management. The sadness I referred to comes from this contradiction. To have the hard work of a talented chef go to waste is truly sad. It’s a lot like being in love with a woman you simply cannot get along with. At some point you simply have to walk away, which is exactly what I’ve done with this restaurant, leaving the two rolls of toilet paper still sitting on the bar.