Tall orders in historic Warsaw
Valley Inn pleases all five senses with edible sculpture
When Chef Richard Bailey stood on the stoop of the Valley Inn’s gaping front door, he could see straight through the dilapidated building and out the back door.
The 152-year-old Warsaw landmark survived the Civil War and families who welcomed babies born in upstairs bedrooms. In the 1930s, it was a tearoom and, in 1952, a bed-and-breakfast hosting dignitaries from Europe and Canada—but it couldn’t weather the wear and tear of life without an owner. Bailey thought the building needed a little spit shine—and could be just the thing he was looking for.
That was fourteen years ago. With a host of renovations and Bailey’s reputation for memorable meals with visually surprising presentation, the Valley Inn is now a destination for both locals and out-of-towners willing to make the trek to Warsaw, fifty miles southwest of Rochester.
A native of nearby Gainesville, Bailey left home in 1980 to attend the US Navy’s culinary institute in San Diego. He finished the program in six months and spent the next nineteen years working on ships and bases and serving as a personal chef to Naval captains. For fourteen years, he was executive chef of the Sheraton Music City Hotel in Nashville. In 1999, Bailey returned to Warsaw to care for his aging parents.
Each dish that emerges from Bailey’s kitchen is one-of-a-kind. The menu always features seasonal items and retains old favorites, but Bailey will change up spices or add a different vegetable or garnish as he pleases.
The bread basket and accompanying dip is a good example: while the ample eight slices of thick Italian bread won’t change, the pesto varies by season and what’s in the kitchen. On this particular night, Bailey began with an olive oil and balsamic vinegar base, then placed a spoonful of pureed black bean, artichoke, and red pepper in the oil. The result was almost pesto-like, the bite of the pepper softened by the smooth notes of the olive oil.
The whimsical charm of the Valley Inn fits well with the adjacent historical downtown area. A plaque out front proudly announces its membership in the registry of historic places. Behind the house, a bed of edible flowers, fresh vegetables, and herbs dance in the breeze, waiting to become part of a guest’s meal. The interior has an open flow, encompassing a lobby and four intimate dining areas with hardwood flooring. Each area has boldly painted walls—in sage, maroon, and periwinkle—providing a backdrop to white linen-draped tables and pastel napkins folded playfully into colorful curlicues. On the walls hang Civil War sabers and gilt-framed paintings, Bailey’s nod to the varied history of the Valley Inn.
With appetizers like the potato puff ($5) and stuffed mushrooms ($7), the Valley Inn lives up to its motto: Where food is art. Both appetizers have tiny stalks of herbs plunged into them, standing upright, and a few deep-fried potato crisps for garnish. The potato puff is Bailey’s version of the knish—he was inspired by a Jewish chef he once worked with. Inside the buttery, flaky pastry skin is a potato lover’s dream: mashed taters with ample cheddar cheese whipped in. There’s a dollop of dill sour cream on top, and the whole puff rests in a ladle-sized portion of thin applesauce with a pinch of Caribbean jerk seasoning. The stuffed mushrooms offer a more traditional, yet still delicious, option. The four sand-dollar-sized portabella caps are filled with artichoke, spinach, and cheddar, then covered in mozzarella and a garlic cream sauce.
Dinner options vary according to season, but there are a few favorites on hand at all times, and Bailey is even willing to make an old favorite that might not still be on the menu. Early autumn is a fitting time to indulge in the New York Salad, with its apple chunks, sliced cheddar and sunflower seeds atop juicy green iceberg lettuce. The salad surrounds a glass shooter of warm riesling vinaigrette, freshly made by the servers each week. The dressing lends sweetness to the acidity of the apples and alkaline crunch of the seeds.
In between courses, a shaved raspberry sorbet arrives in glass goblets to cleanse the palate.
When two of the most popular entrées—beef wellington and rosemary maple pork—arrive on vintage china, they are bursting with adornments. The fresh herbs make an appearance again—full sprigs of mint, basil, chives, and parsley—as do the crispy potato slices. There are cheerful pansies, edible if a bit bitter. There are even a few deep fried spaghetti noodles to anchor the presentation. Bailey says the homegrown herbs stick around until after Columbus Day; after that, he buys fresh herbs from vendors.
The beef wellington ($23) is a succulent, seasoned four-ounce filet with mushrooms wrapped in the same flaky puff pastry as the appetizer. On the plate is a rich brown sauce that Bailey makes from vegetable stock, tomato paste, beef stock, and red wine, with a roux thickening it into a gravy that compliments the hearty texture of the beef.
The rosemary maple pork ($22) is hollowed out and stuffed with an apple bacon breading that’s the epitome of comfort food. Warm notes from the maple and bacon are balanced with tangy apple chunks and a hint of rosemary. The pork isn’t chewy, and it’s moist—the way this notoriously difficult meat should be prepared. Each entrée comes with a side of the night’s potato—mashed with cheddar, in this case—and expertly steamed vegetables.
As if there were room for dessert after such opulence, a slice of layered carrot cake ($6) arrives, drizzled with caramel sauce. The top of the dessert menu reads, “Life is uncertain, eat dessert first,” and suddenly that seems like a wonderful idea for the next visit. A homemade chocolate garnish stands in the cake beside a floret of whipped cream and mint leaves. The dessert is made in-house by Bailey’s personally recruited pastry chef, thirty-three-year-old Michael Godfrey, who has never been to culinary school. Bailey has taught him everything from scratch and is happy to have someone in charge of sweets so he can focus on the savory.
Bailey has raised the game for people looking for a top-notch dining experience at affordable prices—and neighboring eating establishments have noticed. Some have tried to copy his menu items, but Bailey isn’t concerned. He’s offered to teach other chefs how to make homemade sauces and soup bases. Last week, he chatted with a couple who held their wedding reception at the Valley Inn seventy-five years ago and were thrilled it was still operating.
For Bailey, helping the culinary scene thrive in Warsaw and Wyoming County is a pretty good reason to come home.