Coincidence strikes without warning.  I’m at my day job, babbling harmlessly about my latest epiphany.  I’ve seen Gordon Ramsey’s haute cuisine make-over show on BBC America, I’m galvanized into action, and I’m chattering about how grand it would be to learn to flip sautéed prawns in the pan with a flip of the wrist.  Many around me are simply nodding and smiling, all but one.

 Coincidence strikes without warning.  I’m at my day job, babbling harmlessly about my latest epiphany.  I’ve seen Gordon Ramsey’s haute cuisine make-over show on BBC America, I’m galvanized into action, and I’m chattering about how grand it would be to learn to flip sautéed prawns in the pan with a flip of the wrist.  Many around me are simply nodding and smiling, all but one. {sidebar id=1}

 “It’s a quick jerk, like this,” says Mike O’Connell, showing me, “but you’ve got to have the right pan.”

 Actually, Mike was smiling, too, but he had a flame in his eye as well.  He was buying five quarts of heavy cream at top dollar, because the evening’s menu at the Winsor House included crème brulee.  That’s a single-serving vanilla custard finished off with a blow torch, to make a sliver-thin caramel glaze over the top.  I had to ask what it was, but others around us moaned with pleasure when they heard the words.

  Next night, I slipped into the Winsor House, on Washington Street down by the churches, for a surprise interview and a look.  Mike has been at the Winsor House all but eight months of his life – the first eight months.  David and Patricia O’Connell bought the place in 1976, and Mike says everything he learned about cooking comes from hanging around his dad and just growing up around it.  I took him by surprise when I asked him about his cooking philosophy, but there it was: “Everything done to be creative, flavorful – and no bizarre combinations.”  

He called it New American cuisine, mentioned a bistro-style menu, and I had the feeling that glossy phrases and three-bean sculptures on a plate with a dab of goat nose pâté were far from his thoughts.

He called it New American cuisine, mentioned a bistro-style menu, and I had the feeling that glossy phrases and three-bean sculptures on a plate with a dab of goat nose pâté were far from his thoughts.

I checked the menu.  Simple fare, from pizza to roast lamb, and the most expensive thing in the place was $27.  Salmon, yes, but no lobster on the regular menu, but there’s also a menu of daily specials.

 “We’ll have littlenecks, or oysters, whenever they’re in season.  Island Creek oysters, and as much as possible, everything is local.”

 I’m kicking myself that I didn’t talk Mike into giving me a meal.  The place, the food, smelled wonderful.  I nosed around the dining room and pub a little.  Spotless, elegant, quiet, and bright.  The dining room sparkles with subdued luxury, the pub room with matching sparkle but more hominess.  The fireplaces are real, and the feeling is “family night out.”  Indeed, several families sat in the pub, and the small separate bar was as calm and dignified as any I’ve seen.  There’s no jarring contrast between dinner with the kids and howling sports fans – I think there may be a “no sports” rule for the single television.  It’s just not set up for hooting hoards.

Before long, I could see that Mike, and his dad (David was tending bar, too) knew just about everyone, and cared.  I caught the quiet “hand-off” from David to Mike as Mike took over at the bar, and sensed that responsible serving was far more than mere compliance with the law.  It’s just good sense, and just good friendship.  I could tell that the feeling was mutual. 

That’s when it hit me.  These people are at home – Mike, David, and all the customers, little tykes and elder folk alike.  The knockout good looks of the place and its surroundings on Washington Street are matched by its hospitality, the opposite of exclusivity.  In fact, you can spend the night.  Winsor House is a bed and breakfast inn, with a selection of rooms or suites starting at $140 a night.  An innkeeper’s breakfast I included, with fresh-baked muffins and croissants.  All the breads and desserts, Mike told me, are baked fresh on the premises.  But I think the best part may be the people, and the chance to share a top-shelf meal, creative and flavorful, with people who know your name.