by Alice Levitt
70 Essex Way, Essex Junction 764-1413
I'm spread a lot thinner with my dining these days, and I had not made it back to Butler's since the New England Culinary Institute stopped using the kitchen as a classroom. I was a little worried. Without strict instruction, would the meals still be as tightly controlled, and therefore, excellent?
I'm pleased to say that some things were the same, others, dare I say, were better. The sourdough bread I've always loved was in full force, but now with warm, close-to-melting butter which somehow stayed in the molded shape of two delicate flowers.
I started with the Handmade Potato Gnocchi appetizer (pictured). I am a gnocchi fiend. I have had it made from practically everything, resulting in every texture. I had never had one like this. As I bit in these little dumplings, fried crisp on the outside, melted as if I were cutting into warm brie. Molten gnocchi? My kind of thing. Better yet, they were presented in ultra-seasonal form with fresh asparagus, wilted sorrel — which appeared to have been plucked from the backyard only moments before — and two meaty little morels. The lemon beurre blanc that tied it all together practically fried the pleasure centers of my brain.
Chicken piccata is my control group when testing a restaurant. It's one of my favorite things to cook at home, and I'm always curious to see others' interpretations of the simple dish. The one at Butler's was deeply satisfying. The lemon-garlic pan jus was just citrusy enough, and paired beautifully with the artichoke and caper ragout which filled the plate. The chicken itself was juicy and topped with fresh herbs, including parsley and what I think was a wee bit of cilantro, which made for an unexpectedly zippy, bright flavor. I ate every grain of the arborio rice beneath, which soaked up the juices of everything above it.
Dessert was a chocolate-caramel tart. Imagine stabbing into a block of chocolate ganache and it bleeding thick caramel, and you've got the idea. It may look small, but it is rich enough for sharing between two or even three people. Salted caramel ice cream on top made it even more decadent — and sophisticated. It was pretty too, with two white and dark chocolate-swirled straws protruding from the middle, intricate caramelized sugar, a glob of homemade whipped cream and marbleized drizzles of caramel and vanilla-cinnamon crème fraiche lining the plate. Will I be back for it again soon? Just let me finish digesting first.