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Road Trip: A Taste of the Northeast Kingdom

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People talk plenty about food and drink in the Northeast Kingdom. Greensboro's Hill Farmstead Brewery has been lauded as the world's best brewery since Shaun Hill started making beer on the family farm in 2010. Nearby Jasper Hill Farm's cheeses continue to rack up accolades. And Caledonia Spirits' award-winning, bartender-favorite Barr Hill gin is made in Hardwick.

Those are just the famous ones, but the NEK's three counties — 1.3 million acres in Caledonia, Orleans and Essex — are home to dozens of other food and beverage artisans. In St. Johnsbury, Dunc's Mill has been distilling fine rums since 1998; in Groton, Artesano meadery mills honey into wine. In West Charleston, Albert and Eleanor Leger craft Eden Ice Cider ambrosia. And farms growing everything from catnip to beef cattle dot the rugged, rolling countryside, many claiming generations of family history.

Despite this amazing abundance, the restaurant scene remains sleepy, and, aside from a few select restaurants — such as West Glover's Parker Pie Company and Waterford's Rabbit Hill Inn — it's largely unknown to those who live outside the area. But in recent years, whispers of a culinary awakening have been swirling through the area like its slow-to-dissipate morning fog. In Newport, for example, the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center is a busy hive of artisanal activity, while in Barton, a farm-to-table diner welcomes locals and visitors with comely charm.

So last week, my husband, Dan, and I set out for a taste of the great white north. Starting in Peacham, we road-tripped more than 300 miles through the calico hills, trees splashing fiery hues onto a fading green background, and, for three days, ate our way north to Derby Line and east to Island Pond. Along the way, a colorful cast of local characters kept our bellies full.

I grew up just miles from this "royal" domain and went to high school in St. Johnsbury. Yet, returning after years away, I found myself a stranger in my old stomping grounds, dining in a place where meals unfold with a friendly, down-home cadence. From the newest neighborhood café to long-standing diner counters, flapjack flippers across the region knew their patrons' orders without having to ask. And those patrons found their seats as if their hometown eatery was an extension of their own dining rooms.

The Kingdom's spoons shine with grease, not silver, and its many diners and counters are all worthy destinations for a Sunday driver. These are places like Groton's Upper Valley Grill & General Store; Concord's Mooselook Restaurant; the Miss Lyndonville Diner (famous for its sizzling skillet breakfasts, and a hangover holdout for lifelong residents and Lyndon State College students alike); and Glover's tiny Busy Bee, which has been stuffing regulars with basic breakfasts and lunches since 1930.

Though I skipped those standards, I found the best fried chicken I've had in years at Martha's Diner in Coventry, an established but new-to-me eatery, as well as an enviable Reuben and a pea soup to best my mother's. At some of the newer places, I encountered creativity and innovation mingling with tradition in ways I've not seen in the better-known gourmet strongholds of Burlington and the Mad River Valley.

Let us begin.

Peacham Café

On a sunny Tuesday morning, two tow-headed brothers ably worked the register at this brand-new, community-supported café. They're sons to Ariel Zevon, the café's chef and manager (formerly of LACE in Barre and the daughter of late rocker Warren Zevon). Opened August 30 in an old firehouse adjacent to the Peacham General Store, the café offers affordable, inspired rustic fare. A busy buzz at 11 a.m. seemed to indicate that the place was succeeding in its dual mission: to provide a comfortable gathering spot for locals and a market outlet for area farmers.

As for the food, Ariel's mother, Crystal Zevon, said the goal is to "keep it seasonal, fresh and local." With her daughter in the kitchen, the fare is homey, polished and fun. We took our morning coffee there — poured into thrift-store mugs bearing graphics from destinations near and far — and ate thick-cut slices of country ham and cheddar tucked into pillowy pads of French toast with raspberry jam. A hearty grilled cheese came on buttered whole-grain bread with apples and ham, sided with an ample salad of fresh greens, walnuts, beets and goat cheese. Also available (to eat in or to go) is a rotating selection of harvest-fresh soups, salads, baked goods and quiches.

Dylan's Café, St. Johnsbury

If St. Johnsbury is the "Heart of the Kingdom," this charming, 8-year-old café lies at the culinary heart of St. J — not that much else competes for the title. It's housed in a former post office now owned by indie singer-songwriter Neko Case, who lives in nearby Peacham, that doubles as an annex gallery for next-door Catamount Film & Arts Center.

When we stopped in, splashy prints from Case's friend Kathleen Judge adorned the walls. The menu lists dishes named for dogs and friends (Dylan was the owner's beloved yellow Lab), and delightful details elevate simple food in a repurposed setting from tasty to sweetly elegant.

A half bottle of Maschio Prosecco Brut came with a juicy strawberry on the rim. The kitchen offers house-roasted, local meats on fresh-baked bread in a diverse sandwich selection. A creamed cauliflower soup, holding a chewy crouton and smothered with melty cheddar, tasted nutty and just a bit sweet. The French onion classic came cloaked with blistered Swiss, which hid stewed onions in a sweet, beefy broth. "It's like drinking a Vidalia onion," Dan said, slurping a spoonful.

Mike's Tiki Bar and Vermont Food Truck Company, East Burke

This seasonal, outdoor spot doesn't serve margaritas or piña coladas, but with 30 mostly local beers on tap, why drink anything else? At a thatch-roofed bar situated at the base of the Kingdom Trails single-track mountain-bike course, we felt lucky sipping Lucky Me — a golden brew somewhere between a blond and a pale ale — from Lyndonville's Covered Bridge Craft Brewery. It's a rare find outside Caledonia and Orleans counties, but it's a standard draught here.

During our visit, a pack of friendly dogs bounded through the grassy, open-air bar as their owners — a mix of grizzled mountain bikers, aging locals and young, baby-wearing parents — sipped brews on lawn chairs beneath a setting sun. The affable crowd regaled us with stories of cutting early Kingdom Trails in the 1990s; of living off the land since moving to the area in the 1970s; and of Burke Mountain Resort's periodic growth and stagnation over the years.

The bar doesn't serve food. But it has a happy partnership with the Vermont Food Truck Company, which parks footsteps away daily. The truck offers juicy, oversize burgers ($7.50 with cheese) and crisp, amber-hued fries. We gorged on these, and a huge carnitas burrito stuffed with slow-braised pork, black beans and rice. The cuisine isn't earth shattering, but, with farm-fresh ingredients and local, grass-fed meats, it's some of the finest food-truck dining I've seen all summer. (Mike's is seasonal, open May through mid-October.)

Martha's Diner, Coventry

A chrome-plated beacon on a sleepy stretch of Route 5, this classic 1953 Fodero Dining Car journeyed northward from its original home in Massachusetts and has been serving the good people of Coventry (and truck-route passersby) for more than 30 years. Though the diner's namesake owner, Martha Leblanc, died years ago, her daughter took over in 2001, and the old-fashioned country grill continues to host suspendered farmers and other locals. They perch on stools for plate-size pancakes — served with plenty of maple syrup — as well as eggs, burgers and other American classics, cooked on a flat-top griddle behind the counter.

Like many NEK eateries, Martha's makes an admirable poutine, just a few miles from the Canadian border. Smothered in savory, housemade beef gravy, the squeaky, springy curds are nestled among piping-hot, hand-cut fries, a masterwork for the French-fry canon. Or, in our case, a joyful breakfast.

A plate of lightly breaded fried chicken was an unexpected treat. Arguably the best I've tasted north of the Mason-Dixon line, the bird had a brittle, golden skin and succulent, melt-in-your-mouth meat. We enjoyed it Southern style with fluffy buttermilk waffles. Even the breakfast potatoes — unadorned diced spuds, grilled to a toasty crunch with just a hint of salt — inspired wonder: How do they make hash browns so good?

Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center, Newport

Opened a little more than a year ago, this airy market occupies an old hardware shop — its floors are polished concrete, its lighting fluorescent, its ceilings industrially high. It's home to 36 Vermont food artisans, many of whom contract its nooks and crannies for retail sales and its kitchen spaces for food production.

Here, we sampled maple syrup and honey, cheeses and meats, breads (still hot from the oven at Jocelyn & Cinta's Bake Shop, located in an ample corner at the back of the center), butters, jams and jellies, wines and spirits. Most of these products were made in the Kingdom.

"We have all this great stuff going on here," our host at the wine and spirit tasting counter said, pouring me a sipper of elderflower rum from Dunc's Mill. "But people are just very low-key about it, so no one knows it's here. I had no idea there was a distillery in St. J until I started working here!"

Perhaps the most compelling liquids on offer were from Eden Ice Cider, which has cidery space downstairs. Pressed from heirloom apples grown nearby, the juice is left outside at the owners' home facility in West Charleston to freeze, then transported to Newport for fermentation and aging at the tasting center.

"You could believe that the best ice cider in the world could come from Vermont," Eden owner Eleanor Leger told me as we toured her subterranean cidery. "People talk about terroir in [grape] wine..." she commented, going on to note the apple's rich diversity and history in the Green Mountain State. Vermont's temperamental climate is, in fact, ideal for producing ice cider, as juice left outside can freeze, thaw and refreeze. This process allows the apple sugars to concentrate at the bottom of the barrel more than a single, consistent freeze would.

On the street-side edge of the building, the Brown Dog Bistro — which offers full lunch and dinner service within the center's walls — made a wonderful stopover to soak up the booze we'd imbibed at the counter. The bistro is owned by the folks behind the nearby Newport Natural Market and Café and boasts a crafty, extensive menu. An appetizer portion of sublime chicken-liver pâté, glazed with apple-cider aspic, shattered our expectations by coming with a shot of jammy blended juice rather than the standard spreadable preserve. A plate of potato fritters — crunchy-fried outside, smooth and creamy inside — were stuffed with bacon and scallions and accompanied by a peppy, housemade ranch dressing. They were as comforting as they were exciting.

The Derby Line Village Inn

We planned to stop at this quaint country inn for a drink. But, after we glanced at the menu, which is rife with housemade sausages, schnitzels, strudels and spätzles, our 22-ounce German lagers morphed into dinner.

We chatted at the bar with Paula Halbedl, who owns the inn and restaurant with her husband, Fritz, a master chef who spent more than a decade running the culinary program at Royal Caribbean International. Meanwhile, our meal began with a velvety broccoli-cheese soup, sweetened with parsnip and thickened by reduction rather than starch.

Then came a long, lovely flatbread, its dough crusty and chewy. Topped with hearty hunks of venison sausage from nearby Hollandeer Farm, cranberries, arugula, and a blend of Asiago and mozzarella, the enchanting bread was very Vermont (who doesn't serve flatbread these days?). The knockwurst — a sweating, succulent beast of a sausage, its skin snapping as we bit into it — was entirely German, bedded on a mound of lip-smacking sauerkraut.

Alongside the meal came stories of Fritz Halbedl's old-world culinary training. "In Europe, we don't pay for cooking school," he said, cleaning his hands on a towel behind the bar, "but we get our ass kicked every day."

We could have listened for hours, drinking more beers beneath the bar's soaring cathedral ceilings as other patrons packed the cozy dining room. But we reluctantly took our leave for the next destination, promising ourselves to return, come winter.

Derby Cow Palace Steakhouse & Lounge

Trucks packed the parking lot at this Derby destination, best known for serving elk sourced from the eatery's nearby herd (guests enter the restaurant through a wide arch made of antlers). Just inside, a stuffed elk awaits, followed by a menacing polar bear standing tall on its hind legs. The place has the look and feel of a hunting lodge: The wood walls are lined with trophy deer, while light shines down from elk-horn chandeliers.

The dining room had a friendly vibe during our Wednesday-night visit. Staff exchanged mock insults and plenty of good will with regulars, and the servers called even the out-of-towners "sweetie."

We happened in on fried haddock night — all you can eat for $10.95. "One plate is enough for most people," our server confided. "But some order seconds." The fish was as moist and fresh as the portion was generous, accompanied by whipped-garlic mashed potatoes, ample tartar sauce and a salad bar.

Salad bar! How anyone could eat a second platter of fish after all that was a mystery we were content to leave unsolved. Yet we plowed our way through strips of tender elk sirloin, cooked medium-rare, which made for a wonderfully gamey de facto surf-and-turf.

The ancestor of our dinner's elk arrived in Vermont 20-odd years ago. Cow Palace owners shipped in 25 cows and a single bull from Idaho in the early `1990s; since then, the herd has grown to hundreds of animals, which are culled and set loose for hunters to stalk at the farm's 700-acre game park and lodge in Irasburg, two towns away. For those who'd rather not dress their own meat, the Palace provides.

Common Sense & the Yellow Deli, Island Pond

I've never had an issue with the Twelve Tribes — the friendly, if controversial, Old Testament devotees who appear at shows and festivals across the nation, serving up maté and comfort in vintage buses. The religious sect established the Northeast Kingdom Community Church and its first enduring communal settlement in Island Pond in the early 1980s. Its ranks work in town at an excellent outfitter called Simon the Tanner and at this hand-hewn café, which is assembled, our host said, from salvaged barn wood.

Décor is plant-based and macramé heavy, and the place offers a quiet pause from the daily bustle no matter what your creed. Wherever I can get my maté fix is good by me.

Last week, I was seduced by the breakfast: a divine sandwich of turkey sausage and farm eggs, folded into fluffy sesame rolls and served with kindness, along with satisfyingly strong maté or coffee.

The café serves other humble egg dishes, baked goods, sandwiches and salads, prepared by modest ladies in the kitchen.

It's common, sensible food, but with friendly delivery in a charming, folky setting, it serves its purpose. "We want people to come in here, sigh a sigh of relief and forget about everything else for a half hour or 45 minutes," I heard our long-haired, bearded host tell another guest as he dropped off the bill. "Or as long as they want to stay."

The Parson's Corner, Barton

On a quiet corner in the shadow of the Barton United Church stands the old parsonage, built in 1867 for the Unitarian minister and now home to a friendly, farm-fresh diner. In booths and tables in the house's former living room, chef-owner Dave Rath serves simple, unfussy food to a working-class crowd.

Local meats are slow-cooked in-house — including smoky pastrami, which our waitress advised us was not to be missed. When it arrived, my Reuben was a glorious mess. The meat, dressing, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese melted together inside buttered rye, making for a sandwich that was far more than the sum of its parts.

Dan opted for a leaner meal; his "Vermonter" wrap was stuffed with grilled chicken, bacon, red onion and spinach, all warmed with a thin gloss of maple mayo. This was paired with sublime sweet-potato fries, creamy within and fried to a delicate crisp without. We both opted for soups, as well. Bones pulled from briny breakfast hams formed the basis of a filling split-pea soup that was thick enough to hold a spoon upright, while a milky chowder was studded with sweet corn, bacon and perfectly soft potatoes light enough for lunch.

The original print version of this article was headlined "A Stranger in the Kingdom"

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