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Oxhead a restaurant with a view.

Byline: Bob Datz

The Oxhead Tavern is like an island where the natural ambiance has evolved separately from that of the nearby coast.

It once was sensible for Sturbridge businesses to play off the Early Americana atmosphere of Old Sturbridge Village, the town's main attraction. The Oxhead Tavern, with its dark-stained clapboard and stone facade, invited wayfarers who might be taking in the Village and staying at the adjacent motor inn to sup and quaff by subdued lantern light as in times of old.

Intruding burger joints and spreading asphalt have cut any cultural umbilical cord the tavern might have had to OSV for good, but the historic building that backs onto Cedar Lake has taken full advantage of its rear view to become a playful hotspot during these summer months. A nearby motel beach beckons by day and jazz or rock sounds issue over the water by night.

That said, diners expect the food to float on its merits, and while that shore can be a little rocky, the Oxhead does offer a larder of American favorites at decent quality and price.

Meat and seafood dinners served with salad and vegetable range from $10.95 to $24.95, with all but a few in the $13-$17 range. Three specials added tantalizing options to the 18 dinner menu selections, a sampling of which are farmer's pork chop ($15.95), Yankee pot roast ($13.95), shrimp scampi ($15.95) and seafood pesto primavera ($16.95).

Usually the Real Critic, my wife, quite enjoyed the rich, beige clam chowder with red potato pieces and clams in bits with the addition of one whole-belly specimen. Her cup ($2.95) seemed tangy on my sampling of it. French onion is the other soup choice.

My appetizer, chosen from among six, was a value at $5.95 - fifteen 3-inch portabella steak fries with breaded crunch on the outside and velvety texture within, served nice and hot with ranch dressing. They could satisfy hunger beside a beer after work or, like the majority of mine, get into a box for the ride home.

My wife homed in on a filet mignon, the $24.95 offering, and found the meal to be the best she's had here over years of occasional visits. Uniformly pink inside but just over an inch thick, it had scant seasoning and a thin brazed crust. A mushroom demi-glaze version was available as a nightly special for a dollar more.

When it comes to satisfying customers, go figure: She was taken by their placing a butter packet inside what she found to be an exquisitely baked potato, to soften it up slightly.

I ordered balsamic duck and chose the rice accompaniment. Balsamic red wine-reduction sauce had a tamped-down resemblance to Pick-a-Peppa sauce, although the two probably have little in common. It was poured with a moderate hand over grilled boneless, rolled duck breast, cut into chunky medallions that were just a bit moist inside but crusted enough on the outside to require every drop of the reduction. Paired with noticeable dryness in the herbed rice, the entree suggested a near miss.

If you're fixing for duck, however, the quantity and the effortlessness of this version - with neither bones nor grease to grapple with - might make it worth a try.

Both meals came with salads that were dropped off almost simultaneously with appetizers and rolls. Salads were a pretty sight. Four varieties of lettuce and spinach made these modest sides colorful enough to make up for the absence of tomatoes, due to the recent recall scare. Cuke slices dried out quickly on this midweek summer evening. So bring on those native gardens!

My raspberry vinaigrette dressing was thick for its type and luscious - semi-sweet without being overbearing on the raspberry or vinegar fronts. We both enjoyed a heap of lightly sweetened baby carrots with dinner.

No establishment escapes without a bread commentary and, like the cukes, these egg-based dinner rolls didn't hold up long before seeming dry. Ditto for the upward-facing edge of the decorative orange wedges served with each dinner on a vivid blue cabbage leaf.

Dessert was a heaping success. From six choices, we selected carrot cake and apple crisp a la mode. At $6.50, the moist, walnut-and-raisin flecked carrot cake was like found money. Figure it this way: Its six layers weigh in at just over a buck apiece. Drip the glaze, spread the confectioners' sugar, drop in the whipped cream as a sidekick and call it your dessert quota for a week.

Apple crisp ($4.95) alternated piles of tasty apples and crisp as opposed to mashing them all together, with the same whipped cream backup in case the generous scoop of vanilla ice cream somehow wasn't enough.

At $62.25 for two - plus beverages, taxes and gratuity - dinner held its own. But enhanced by the view of the lake from the screen porch where we sat, or from the sun-splashed vantage of the outdoor patio, the surroundings - especially on a summer night - are hard to separate from the experience.

Oxhead Tavern

Sturbridge Host Hotel and Conference Center, 366 Main St. (Route 20), Sturbridge

* *-1/2

Phone: (508) 347-7393

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday

Parking: Lot on premises.

Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express.

Prices: Moderate to high; entrees $11 to $25.

Pluses: Lakeside location, appetizers, location, menu selection, location, and especially dessert. Oh, and location.

Minuses: Dryness around the edges of some items suggests timing and preparation issues.

About the Stars

Perfection: * * * *

Very Good: * * *

Good: * *

Below Par: *

Serious Flaws: No stars

Etc. restaurant reviews are the opinions of reviewers based upon at least one visit to the restaurant. The reviewer is accompanied by at least one companion. Recommendations from readers about restaurants they would like to have reviewed are welcome.
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Title Annotation:ETC.
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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