By Pam and Tim Lettie
Photos by Pam Lettie
Strolling toward Lot 12, we feel the peaceful evening settling in around us. Closing our eyes, the soothing aroma of late fall wood smoke wafting through chilly air seeps into our subconscious.
Climbing the steps to the front entrance of the house, walking past the wrap-around porch, looking out over the park and homes below, then strolling through the entryway, we feel at ease. The sense of home and comfort overtakes us.
The hostess reinforced the sense of ease as she escorted us to our table. From our table at the front of the dining room, we look out on the orange setting sun, while dimmed interior lights and muted conversations hum in the dining room next to us.
We bask in a homey interior, where two-toned neutral paint colors are separated by a dark brown chair and crown moulding that serves double duty as a picture hanger, with artwork by the chef’s parents, Jan and Jonathan Heath punctuating the simple wall colors.
A cheerful and welcoming waitress brought us bread and olive oil before our meal, but ever vigilant of the effect of carbs on our middle-aged frames, we, like the growing numbers of carbweary boomers, sought out other appetizer options.
With a menu as eclectic and varied as the Lot 12 menu, we looked for expert advice, quizzing our waitress about her favorites.
For our appetizer, tuna or duck? For our entree, coq au vin or cioppino?
For dessert, creme brulee or apple crostata? We opted for the rare ahi tuna roulade appetizer. The slices of raw tuna wrapped around homemade nappa slaw gave the appearance of sushi bites, but each bite contained the delicious crunch of fried wontons.
The slaw on the side, along with the seaweed salad, were topped with the welcome crunch of fried wontons. The three tuna roulades sat on a sea of creamy wasabi dressing drizzled with a hint of ponzu, a tangy Japanese citrus-soy blend. The wasabi flavor was muted by the cream, without wasabi’s typical strong punch, but complementing the rice vinegar dressing on the slaw.
We were in a Saturday frame of mind, but it was actually Sunday. Even on a Sunday evening, three-quarters of the tables were full. We were lucky to arrive early and trade in a middle-of-the-room table for an intimate table for two in front of the big windows overlooking the porch and the park. A two-foot wrought-iron dragonfl y hung inside the window, adding an artistic accent to an already charming view. The two-person table next to us featured a bench seat complete with a variety of pillows.
Fresh off a tasty Asian appetizer, our waitress brought an unexpected – but always welcome – treat: A palate cleanser. The icy little mound of peach-ginger sorbet with a delicate little spoon created a clean slate for sampling our dinner entrees.
As the evening darkened, we settled in even more. The lights in the restaurant dimmed, and the table-top candles were lit. Dimmed, recessed lights gave the room a warm glow – not too bright, but enough wattage for dining, while the candle gave a flickering yellow light to the place setting.
Encouraged and emboldened by the success of our waitress’s advice on the tuna roulade, we forged ahead. We had taken her advice on the appetizer, and that turned out beautifully. I don’t know how the alternative would taste, but her recommendation of the tuna was right on target.
Thus, we went with her suggestions for the entrees as well. It was refreshing to have a server who quickly commented on having sampled all the entrees. She engendered trust, explaining that as a perk of working at Lot 12, she got to try the desserts as well as starters and mains. With so many delicious sounding items on the menu, it really helped to have knowledgeable guidance.
Our entrees were a delight. Multiple servers brought our dishes and sides, so all of our selections arrived simultaneously – hot and ready to eat. We opted for two seafood dishes, the rockfish special and the cioppino, although so many of the other options – crisp roasted duck, coq au vin, or even the vegetarian gluten-free risotto cakes – were totally tempting.
Vegetarian and gluten-free dishes are regulars on the menu, according to the Lot 12 Web site.
The rockfish special with risotto had a tart vinegar dressing. The risotto was plump, and redolent with evidence of a delicious stock. The rockfish was nicely prepared, seared to seal in the juice, but still flaky and flavorful. We always enjoy sampling different risotto as it can be a measure of the kitchen. Risotto is moderately difficult to make – the window of time for pulling it off the heat is narrow – and shortcomings are not easy to mask.
For the experienced and adventurous chef, it’s a means to showcase what differentiates them from their brethren. We were more than pleased with the risotto’s unique seasoning and soft creamy texture that accented a not often available rockfish.
The cioppino was a well assembled assortment of perfectly cooked seafood. The lightly browned scallops were eye catching, while their taste was tender and sweet.
The accompanying shrimp were pleasantly firm. Mussels and clams, in their shells, added to the visually beautiful plating. Two crusty airy pieces of grilled garlic bread graced the side of the bowl, like sails in a red sea of thick broth. This broth, unlike the San Francisco variety we typically experience, let the tomato and seafood stock compete, with neither over-shadowing the other.
Though somewhat elegant, Lot 12 has a relaxed atmosphere. While most diners dressed in business casual attire, jeans wouldn’t be out of place. The white linen tablecloths added a distinguished air to the restaurant, but the couple next to us brought a young child and was welcomed, though there were no high chairs or crayons available for the young family.
The Lot 12 Web site offers a history of the house and of the town of Berkeley Springs. It says that Berkeley Springs began as the Town of Bath in 1776, near the natural warm springs in the area. The Web site continues: “Only a few street names and minor boundary adjustments have occurred over the centuries. Lot numbers from the first land sale are still used on deeds, and plaques note the original 1777 lot owner. Lot 12 Public House was built on the original Lot #12 within the Town of Bath.”
With the post-entree warmth flowing through our bodies, we turned our attention to dessert. When we couldn’t decide between a range of desserts – chocolate torte, creme brulee, apple crostata. The chocolate torte was a given with my husband as a chocolate lover, but for our second sweet treat, we went with the waitress’s recommendation again, to good effect. The creme brulee got her nod.
The melted sugar crust on the creme brulee made a pleasing crunch, when the spoon broke through the surface to the thick custard below. Fresh plump blueberries, a strawberry and whip cream graced the top.
The torte was dense, rich chocolate. The vanilla bean sauce and whipped cream more than made up for the slight dryness of the torte. This timely spot of sweetness was an outstanding end to the meal.
For the accompanying tea, I went with the organic peppermint, which was served in a pot, and was loose leaf. One pot equaled about three full cups.
In the back of the restaurant, etched glass doors offered separation between public areas of the restaurant and the service area and coffee service. The next side door opened into the bar. A red glow permeated the whole bar, where Chef Damian Heath was conversing with diners.
The owner’s dedication to environmental concerns shows itself in the bathroom, where a large basket held rolled up towels that served as environmentally friendly hand dryers. On the walls, Jan Heath linocuts featured dogs.
Lot 12 delivers on the promise of “seasonal upscale comfort cuisine, utilizing local sourced farm fresh ingredients” touted by their Web site. The food is excellent, the atmosphere relaxed, the service is prompt and knowledgeable and the aura is comfortable.
Lot 12 Public House Open Friday through Sunday in winter 117 Warren Street Berkeley Springs, WV 25411 304-258-6264 www.lot12.com