Published April 19. 2012 4:00AM Updated April 23. 2012 9:51AM
Fate took us to Kensington's on a spring afternoon, and we made several delicious discoveries, the first and finest of which was this: When you lunch at a spa, there's no such thing as underdressed.
Kensington's restaurant is a grand, wainscoted parlor of a room in the lovely old Georgian Colonial building that houses The Spa at Norwich Inn.
A little like Wonderland, the inn is entered through not quite a rabbit hole but a passageway from the most mundane and commercial of roads. Turn into the drive, and the grounds open up like a magic garden: blooming trees, warm brick walls, red tulips and green, green lawns.
A couple of seasons back, two of the characters in "Mad Men" planned a romantic getaway to the Norwich Inn. To this day, it feels like a high-heels-and-off-the-shoulder place.
We weren't dressed to kill because the only thing that had died that day was our right front tire, stabbed in the heart by a screw. That meant a new tire and a delay in our plans to head up into the hills for lunch.
The inn is virtually right in the backyard of eastern Connecticut, so we changed destinations.
But what about a dress code, in so elegant a place?
When the hostess showed us to a table, we both nearly laughed aloud. Everyone else in the restaurant was wearing a white fluffy bathrobe.
And that's the key to Kensington's: elegantly formal room, classic and fairly pricey cuisine, but no expectation that the patrons should do anything but relax and enjoy excellent food and well-executed service.
Last Saturday, the soup du jour was the chef's riff on chicken vegetable. Savory and curiously dark, like an old-fashioned beef tea, it substituted spinach and asparagus for what the server described as "the usual aromatics." The result was an intriguing earthy flavor.
With every lunch seems to come two sorts of warm rolls - white and wheatier - artfully wrapped in a napkin and joined by a tiny basin of olive oil with a small island of goat cheese afloat in it.
Kensington's is mindful that bathrobed guests care about what they're putting into their mouths. The object of a spa visit is to emerge refreshed and energized, not drugged with food. The menu is annotated with fat grams and calories tactfully listed as a balance to the persuasive prose about each dish.
One of our entrees was a menu staple, French Dip, which at Kensington's means a film of melted cheese on the sliced roast beef, all in an excellent crusty bread. The dip was so good that we looked for a spoon and, finding none, gave ourselves permission to sip from the bowl.
After all, everybody else was in their bathrobes, right?
Lunch entrees come with a choice of fresh fruit, fries, tangy coleslaw or tasty-tangy cucumbers shaved sliver-thin. Both the fruit and the cukes made us happy.
The other entrée was du jour: a tilapia fillet grilled and then folded expertly in a wheat wrap with light homemade mayonnaise. Alongside was a pineapple and black bean salsa, fresh and lightly spicy.
Other interesting possibilities ranged from the 202-calorie crab-stuffed portobello to the 740 calories of Kensington's burger. Several soups and four substantial salads were also on the menu.
Kensington's takes pride in its wine list, from which we sampled a Kendall Chardonnay, nicely light and dry enough for sipping with lunch.
All that virtuous bathrobed evidence of healthful living pricked our consciences about dessert, although the choices were sumptuous, pear trifle and chocolate mascarpone cheese cake among them. Instead, we ended the meal with tea - no Mad Hatter, just more bathrobes.
Kudos to the young waitstaff, who made us feel welcomed into that elegant space.