Since the 1970s, the Horned Dorset Inn of Leonardsville has been a landmark for conservation and cuisine. Today, the restaurant, at 2000 State Route 8, honors tradition while keeping its French fare innovative and fresh.
Chef Aaron Wratten, who manages the restaurant and inn with his wife, Maddalena Molli, took the reins from his parents about eight years ago. Kingsley and Bruce Wratten, an uncle, together with Harold Davies and Donald Lentz — art, music and literature professors — started the restaurant as a safeguard.
“I was 7 or 8 when they bought the building to save it,” Wratten said. “So it really began out of a sense of conservation.” The building, he said, was constructed in 1875.
Wratten, 52, said the underlying mission behind the restaurant has, in part, ensured its longevity.
“It’s easier to believe in something if you feel it has a purpose, and the purpose of this restaurant is not just to serve food,” he said. Noting that his parents manage the Horned Dorset Colony, a nonprofit artist residency program that has evolved from the eatery, Wratten said, “It’s always been (my parents’) purpose to restore and revive the community as much as possible under this one umbrella.”
When Wratten and Molli assumed management of the restaurant, they brought along decades of experience and a pedigreed French culinary education. After training in Paris, Wratten honed his craft in the New York City kitchens Aureole and Restaurant Daniel.
Coming to the fore of the family business, Wratten said, was a natural progression.
“Once you get being a restaurateur into your system, it’s hard to get it out,” he said. “It’s like farming or other fully immersive work — it’s not a job, but more of a lifestyle. It’s all-encompassing it becomes more of who you are than what you do.”
Wratten said his love of food and his adventurous palette inspired the Horned Dorset’s newest offering: themed, four-course tastings, or “Les Voyages.”
“I know when I go to a restaurant, there are usually several things that I want to try, so it’s an especially hard decision,” he said. “(Voyages) is a series of small plates that solves that dilemma and allows the diner to try different dishes on a single theme.” Themes — the pasture, the ocean and the adventure — include dishes such as foie gras, vegetable tart and crab veloute.
Molli said, in the initial days of the restaurant’s 42nd season, diners seem pleased with its new menu stylings.
“We’ve just been open four days,” she said early this week, “so it’s been very little time, but those who ordered voyages have been very intrigued and happy to see this new way of presenting food.”
Wratten said the voyages menu, like the restaurant’s broader menu, will reflect seasonal and local availability as well as his evolving culinary sensibilities.
“I’m constantly trying to rejuvenate the menu,” he said. “I try to keep it fresh and new, so when I open in spring, I open with an entirely new menu. Because we close for a few months in winter, it gives us a chance to take a step back and come back with fresh perspective.”
Molli added, “Nobody does things like Aaron.”
Introducing change in a “time-honored” setting, Wratten and Molli said, has been an important part of their management, yielding not only new dishes, but also a varied clientele.
“We made a concerted effort when we took over to lose some of the starch without losing the quality,” Wratten said.
“It’s different from what it was in ‘80s,” Molli said. “Now we have young people coming in, people in their 30s, 40s and 50s and we have the older crowds. Before, it wasn’t open to children … and now we have families coming in, so it’s changed over the years.”
“People think the Horned Dorset is super-starchy and very formal, and it is formal,” she said, “but it’s also very welcoming. Foodies are looking for this kind of experience more than the fancy, and they are always surprised when they come.”
“We’re not trying to be the fanciest restaurant in the universe,” Wratten said, “but maybe the best.”
The Horned Dorset is open from 5 to 9 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and 3 to 7 p.m. on Sundays, with Mother’s Day seatings beginning at 1. Jazz music is played every Friday evening and concert-dinners benefiting the colony take place regularly. The next, featuring pianists Fiona Peters and Roberta Wratten, Aaron Wratten's mother, is scheduled for June 16.
For more information or to make a reservation, visit horneddorsetinn.com, call 315-855-7898 or find “Horned Dorset Inn” on Facebook.