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Heaven and Hell 

Great food, dismal service: What's a reviewer to do?

click to enlarge The beautiful and majestic Hearthstone Inn. - SCOTT LARRICK

Ouch. The food was superb; the service was dreadful, and therein lies the dilemma: that so much effort is put into the menu, the dcor, the crisp table linens and lace curtains, even the elegant flatware, and so little into training the service staff. If we used those cute graphic rating symbols like forks or checks, or a numerical rating system for food/service, I'd give the Hearthstone Inn an unbalanced fraction along the lines of 5/1.

Waiting tables is not as easy as it looks. One needs a marathoner's stamina, a general's organizational skills, a saint's patience and a philosopher's perspective. Ambitious restaurateurs need to be sure the waitstaff they have in place measures up to the cuisine.

Our first of two visits was for lunch. Calling to confirm the hours of operation, I was told reservations were not necessary -- the first indication of inexperience on the help's part. We arrived shortly before noon to an almost empty room. A few tables were occupied; a few others were reserved. We were seated at a table so close to the kitchen that I could have reached in and handed the chef my water glass for filling. Second mistake -- with other tables for two open, why seat people at the worst table in the house? We asked to be moved.

The lunch menu is luscious, offering quiche, crepes and omelettes du jour, (all carry-overs from the breakfast menu), three fettucine dishes, three salads and two croissant sandwiches. Prices are a little steep for Colorado Springs: the Cobb Salad and the Exotic Salad (lettuce topped with corn, avocado, mandarin oranges, tomato and cucumbers) are $9.95. The Hearthstone Salad with smoked salmon is $11.95. Pasta dishes range from $7.95 for Fettucine Primavera to $11.95 for Fettucine Fresco made with shrimp, red pepper and shallots. Quiche, crepes and omelette dishes are $6.95, as are the turkey and chicken salad sandwiches.

It's a sensible chef who starts with a simple, classic menu, supplemented by a daily special. The crepe of the day was spinach and ham; the soup was beef vegetable. We learned this not from our waitress, a charmingly coltish young thing sadly clueless about the day's specials, but from her co-worker, a waiter who seemed to know what he was doing. As time went on, I regretted more and more that we were not at one of his tables.

As we waited for our entrees, the room filled up and the waitress went into a frenzy of motion, most of it empty-handed. When our food finally arrived, the Fettucine Marcel (a terrific walnut pesto sauce with succulent roast chicken) was cold on top but warm underneath. The crepe, a more modest serving of food, was cold throughout. I grew old trying to catch the waitress's eye to send it back. To their credit, they did it over and the waiter brought it hot to the table. It was delectable -- spinach wrapped in ham, wrapped in a moist crepe, and accompanied by a variety of al dente vegetables.

By 12:45 almost every table was occupied, generally a blissful situation to a restaurateur but only if he or she is prepared to handle full capacity. This was not the case at the Hearthstone. They were understaffed and the staff was untrained. At some point a hostess-like woman appeared, bringing drinks and replenishing water for a few lucky diners. Alas, not us.

Our waitress, eager and pleasant, offered dessert to apologize for the problem with the crepe. We accepted the offer but had to cancel the order when the delay became inordinate. Although the afternoon stretched ahead of us with few obligations, two hours for lunch seemed a bit excessive. More waiting ensued as we tried to pay. Only the hostess could run a charge card, and she was nowhere in sight.

Unfortunate service is often a one-time occurrence. With that in mind, I returned some days later for breakfast, arriving 15 minutes after they opened. No hostess, no waitstaff, no fellow diners. Eventually someone exited from the kitchen and seated me. He brought coffee, croissant and the lovely cheese and fruit plate that accompanies each breakfast, and only then explained that he was the sous chef, the only one there in fact, and that the waiter hadn't arrived. For 45 minutes I watched this calm soul seat other diners, bring coffee, take orders, vanish into the kitchen to prepare their meal, and then present it as beautifully arrayed on the plate as if a staff of seven were in attendance. Hey, Hearthstone owners: he's a keeper; double his pay.

So I was two-for-two: great food on both occasions (my Eggs Florentine were fabulous -- perfectly poached eggs, fresh spinach, a delicate Hollandaise -- with crisp and flavorful hash browns) and questionable service. I write this review, however, not to discourage diners from trying the Hearthstone Inn. Chef Marcel Chene le Francais prepares delicious food. The Prix Fixe breakfast ($9.95) is a special treat for egg lovers (the only non-egg item is the crepe of the day). But I'd hold off on my next visit until ownership gets some management, and management trains the staff.

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