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Nov 21, 2006 02:16 PM

The Balsams, Dixville Notch NH--WHAT HAPPENED

Actually I know what happened--they went from private ownership to corporate (DNC) a couple of years ago. Over Columbus day weekend husband and I went to the Balsams to dine and play golf. For years, we've been driving past other "grand hotels" in NH and practically getting to the Canadian border in getting to the Balsams because of their exceptional food.

In the past, everything was sumptuous. I can remember one snowy January evening when traffic on 93 caused us to miss the dinner seating. One of the dining room captains had cold plates--antipasto, smoked salmon, cold cuts, salad, homemade bread--delivered to our hotel room at ten at night, unasked. Years ago, I would have the best brandy alexanders and hot toddies that you could imagine in the lounge after skiing. The breakfast buffets were decadent, and for dinner, I could ask our waiter's recommendations and never be disappointed.

Flash forward to the present. Much of the old dining room staff is gone (laid off, I think, or have left in disgust). The Balsams always had a young, international waitstaff but the staff in years past were also foodies. Not so now. Our service was woefully bad.

One example: on the Friday of Columbus day weekend, we went to one of the dining room dinner seatings. In years past, there would be two dinner options--5:30 and 8. This year, we were given the option of 5, 6 or 7pm. Can you see the issue already? We opted for the
6 pm seating. We arrived for the 6pm seating at 6:05 pm, having chatted with friends we ran into in the lobby. When we arrived at the dining room, we were surprised to see twenty or so couples standing in the foyer. The young maitre D' was shutting the glass doors to the dining rooms. We approached him to ask about our reservation and he told us that they were "clearing tables" and would seat us in 10 minutes. We were seated at about 6:30.
Normally, the first staff member we'd see was the one who would bring a wine list and take cocktail orders. No one of that sort ever showed up. A young man filled our water glasses and promised to be right back to take the order. 10 minutes later, he was no where to be found, so I asked another server in the area if she might oblige us. We were hungry, having last eaten a quick pre-golf breakfast at 7 that day. We were so looking forward to dinner.

She took our orders. For me, pumpkin bisque, caesar salad, prime rib. For my husband, shrimp cocktail, caesar salad, prime rib. Not complicated orders. To make a long story short, at 9 pm, we still had not received our salads. By that time, I had walked in exasperation to a waiters' station for a pitcher of ice water and refilled our glasses a few times. Our salads arrived and while they were quite good, they were garden salads--actually a frisee vinagrette--and not caesar. We ate them anyway, because we had an early tee time the next morning and had to get up early.

By this point, there was consternation throughout our section of the dining room. My husband had complained to the captain who cited "new kitchen procedures" (inaugurated on a long holiday weekend, a HUGE foliage weekend, and the weekend of a golf tournament?!?!?!). A woman and her mother seated adjacent to us were told that the staff were "overworked". Actually, it seemed more like gross, gross disorganization. The sad thing is---there was nothing to be done. Dinner was paid for as part of the package, and if you know Dixville Notch, you know that nothing is open at 10pm for dinner.

After our empty salad plates had sat for awhile, yet another server wandered over and asked what we had ordered. We repeated the order of prime rib and said "rare is fine"....we had ordered medium rare but time was of the essence. At 9:40, our prime ribs arrived, medium well. At the time they arrived, we ordered two slices of pie to go. We figured we would take them back to the room and eat them in peace there. After waiting until 10:15 for our pie to arrive, we were told by the same waiter who took the pie order that they could not give us the pie "to go" had to be eaten in the dining room. Why?
And why didn't he bring the pie to the table, then? We didn't stick around to find the answers. We left. And for the first time in 10 years, I skipped a Balsams breakfast buffet the next morning. We had gas station Dunkin Donuts for breakfast.

To be fair, the shrimp cocktail, the bisque, and the side dishes were excellent. The prime rib was good, but not to our taste. But we will never, ever, ever eat in the Balsams again. At least not for many, many months, or until the DNC stops thinking profit and starts thinking service.

We are so saddened by the decline of the Balsams dining room. Our friends told us later that the service in the lounge was equally abysmal--a half and hour wait for a snack and two martinis. Even if the skiing or golf was awful, we could always count on superb food and service. Not anymore.

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  1. Oh please don't tell me this, I love the Balsams and recommend it all the time. I better be careful until I go again. That's sad, we know the original chef - I will get the inside scoop - he may still be consulting for them.

    3 Replies
    1. re: lexpatti

      Chef Learned....GONE....and his son is now pastry chef and from what I hear, has a minimal role.

      1. re: thegolferbitch

        I also just heard that Chef Leaned's son has left too - what happened to our wonderful place. Our family had several wonderful winter vacation up there. We tried to do again several years ago but they were booked and we did the Van Trapp place up at Stowe - very nice!!

        1. re: lexpatti

          Never been to the VT place--good to know, thanks lexpatti. His son left too? Boy, Delaware North is really cleaning house...not in a good way.

    2. This really does sound like bad news. I've called The Balsams "my favorite place" without reservation and I hate to hear that things have changed and that corporate greed has penetrated even this remote northern outpost. Can any other recent visitors there confirm this report, or deny it?

      1. Sad to say, one of the few grand hotels has taken a turn for the worse. The Balsams had set the bar so high that any changes were bound to fall short. That being said, is is unlikely that the new ownership group will regroup as the key to the Balsams long term success was attention to detail, consistency, and guest recognition all developed by a long term and caring staff. Unless they bring some of those staff members back they will become another Hilton (in this case, one that is way off the beaten path.............)

        1. What a darn shame. I never knew it was renown for such great service. Your early positive review sounded very much like the Plaza Hotel in NY. I really think you should let them know in writing how disappointed you were. What you described at dinner is just plain unacceptable.

          1 Reply
          1. re: tunapet

            Hi Tunapet...never had the pleasure of going to the Plaza but I know its reputation and the analogy is dead on. I did write, in terms of a letter and in an "on-line" survey just what I've shared with you hounds...and no reply. In the olden days, when the place was managed by Steve Barba et al, I wrote notes a couple of times lauding staff that had been particularly great...and I'd get a nice reply back! I'm so sick about this. We used to plan to spend New Years every year there. No more.

          2. My memory of The Balsams was that of a great luxury liner afloat in a sea of green--totally isolated, but totally self-sustaining. We stopped in for lunch a few years back, and were impressed by the lavish buffet, complete with ice sculptures and aspic creations that harkened back to Escoffier. Service was impeccable, and the place also seemed preserved in that same aspic. Unfortunately, a corporate buyout usually focuses on the bottom line, and it sounds like the Balsams has lost its special quality.