Before Teresa Tan left Singapore to study at the University of Hawaii, her mother sat her down and taught her to make her favorite Cantonese-style chicken rice. As a child, says Tan, now 59, “My mom never let me in the kitchen.” She marinated the chicken in shiitakes, ginger, sesame and soy. Tan learned to sauté the chicken, then cook it in one pot with rice and chicken broth.
Tan says that once in Hawaii, and still inexperienced as a cook, “I would crave food from home, but I didn’t know how to cook it. I would duplicate from smell. I’ve always had the gift of smell.” That gift is now evident in chef Tan’s cuisine at Mangowood Restaurant at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock.
The smells of ginger and chile fill the small, blue-walled dining room, decorated with East Asian statues, at the back of the inn. But diners who taste Tan’s fare know at once that it’s far from traditional Singaporean. A tart made from Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery chèvre comes in a crust made from lotus seeds. Apple-maple-tamarind slaw adds fresh, sweet flavor to the plate.
Mangowood Restaurant is home to something truly unique: the world’s only Vermont-Singapore fusion cuisine. The restaurant opened in 2002, a year after Tan graduated from the Dover, N.H., location of Le Cordon Bleu, not far from her home at the time in Boston. At first, she says, attending the prestigious culinary school was a retirement-age lark.
The founder of IBC USA Conferences, an international conference and publishing company, Tan says that after she left the corporate hustle and bustle, her days grew stale. “I did golf, and I still suck at it,” she says with a laugh. “I went horseback riding, and I fell off a horse. I’m athletically challenged. I was really bored. Amy said, ‘Why not go to culinary school?’”
Amy Martsolf, 47, is Tan’s longtime partner both in life and at the inn; she was a former employee at Tan’s company in Boston. The couple have three young children, all of whom attended their mothers’ wedding on April 28 this year.
Already in her fifties, Tan says that she felt too old to start working the line in a commercial kitchen. Instead, she and Martsolf decided to invest in some New England country real estate “for something to do.” During a web search, a pop-up ad for a Vermont B&B caught their eyes. “After a bottle of wine, we said, ‘Looks like a good idea,’” jokes Tan.
The B&B in question was the Lincoln Inn at the Covered Bridge. Martsolf says the 1869 farmhouse was home to Charles Lincoln, cousin of Abe — though she’s quick to admit that the 16th president died before it was built. The previous tenant, a classical French chef of Swiss heritage, left a large kitchen supplied with top-flight appliances.
“We didn’t go in with blinders on; we knew it was going to be a 24/7 job,” says Martsolf of making the leap. “This is her retirement. She’s got a hobby. She’s going to be cooking. I’m going to be doing everything else. That’s why it’s still in operation.”
Martsolf had worked at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge, Mass., after college, so she knew better than many starry-eyed flatlanders what she was getting into. And though the place is well staffed with housekeepers, servers, a dishwasher and a sous-chef, Martsolf can step into any of those roles when she needs to.
The restaurant’s name may sound like a nod to Asian fruit. In fact, Mangowood is the result of a private joke between Tan and Martsolf. Mango was the couple’s longhaired Chihuahua, who now lives with a family in Manchester, Vt., after twice biting their elder son. “Mangowood” is a play on Tanglewood, as in the Massachusetts music festival. At a symphony benefit, the women entered Mango for a chance to conduct an orchestra there. He didn’t win, but the name stuck.
During the restaurant’s first year in business, Tan played sous-chef to two different cooks. The first left for rehab. The next had trouble grasping Tan’s flavor profiles and use of exotic spices. By the end of that year, she felt ready to run the kitchen, preparing her singular cuisine with little help, for seatings of 30 or 40 people at a time.
Tan’s signature dish says all a diner needs to know about her attention to detail and knack for flavors. A whole red snapper comes to the table artfully wrapped around a pair of vertical, crossed chopsticks, its tiny, needle-sharp teeth bared. Lightly fried, the fish’s skin is crisp, the meaty flesh sweet and moist. The snapper’s tail curves around a bowl of light, soy-based ginger and scallion sauce. A savory noodle stir-fry knotted with peppers, scallions and cabbage is a delicious accompaniment that doesn’t detract from the artfully prepared fish.
According to Martsolf, side dishes are one of Tan’s great strengths. “You can go to all these fine dining restaurants and pay a boatload and get the same sides with every entrée,” she opines. “[Tan] actually spends a lot of time marrying the foods — creating and producing side dishes that really enhance the entrées.”
Another example is her lamb entrée, which utilizes the bumper crop of mint growing at the Lincoln Inn. Glazed in a rich, meaty plum-and-mint sauce, the grilled chops come with an appropriately Vermont-y side of caramelized onions and baby potatoes roasted in maple syrup.
The mint also flavors a delicate cup of mushroom soup. The thick, brown bisque does nothing to betray the kaleidoscopic flavor therein. Appropriately, Tan describes the soup as “ginger with a little mushroom in it.” Oodles of the root, prepared to perfection, impart a chile-like heat. Herbaceous notes are akin to lemongrass, but the chef promises it’s all in the ginger itself — and a slug of ginger brandy. The oil released from the baby mint floating on top adds another refreshing zing to the complex tastes.
The amuse-bouche that’s currently part of Mangowood’s $38 four-course menu is a bit more than a single bite. Tan got the idea for the fried spinach ball at a “disgusting Italian restaurant” at which she and Martsolf recently dined in Virginia. “She took one bite and said, ‘This is bad food, but I can make it better,’” says Martsolf.
Tan’s golf-ball-sized take arrives in an Asian soupspoon. The light crust crackles as it gives way to a soufflé-like spinach purée. The ball sits in a pool of sweet chile aioli, the hot and tangy flavors of which necessitate licking the spoon clean.
The appetizer of tofu fries benefits from a bowl of the same mayo. Not that the black-pepper-and-sesame-encrusted wands really need it. Another lightly fried app, a trio of shrimp and salmon cakes, is perhaps most faithful to Singaporean flavors. Deceptively spicy, the heat of galangal (blue ginger) and chiles builds with each mouthful. A sugary dipping sauce calms the burn.
Of course, Singapore’s flavors borrow from much of Asia. Tan says that a casual meal in her homeland often includes a fusion of Malay, Thai, Indian, Indonesian, Cambodian and a broad swath of ethnic Chinese dishes. Therefore, the tandoori spiced chicken breast and coconut risotto cakes with Thai peanut pesto, made from Mangowood’s own basil, make equal sense on the menu. So does the wakame salad, filled with tender calamari and flavored with sesame oil and slow-burning bird chiles. As Singapore was a British colony until 1945, Tan’s signature “To Die for Sticky Toffee Pudding” is also not out of place.
The dessert was one of Tan’s favorites in the world when she used to travel regularly for business, stopping when she could at Roux in London. A visiting British chef-instructor at Le Cordon Bleu promised her that he would get her a recipe for “the original sticky toffee pudding.” Even before she was officially a chef, Tan had the secret and practiced making the pudding assiduously, even though she says she hates to bake.
It’s worth her effort. The steamed cake rests in a pool of warm caramel sauce, and the whole molten, buttery, sugary delight melts on the palate. Now, that’s a fusion anyone could love.
Mangowood Restaurant at the Lincoln Inn, 530 Route 4, Woodstock, 457-3312. mangowood.com