35 Main Street, Essex Junction 662-1501
The Essex Grill opened in April. Every time I passed it, it appeared to be packed. Very interesting... I finally ate there last week.
The building formerly housed AJ's Kitchen, which has now moved up Railroad Street. Don't expect similar diner-style fare at Essex Grill. While the menu features some of the same comfort food, everything is made on-site, mostly from local products.
Essex Grill is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. I arrived toward the end of their day, around 7 p.m. Diners filled the front deck, eating brightly colored salads and big sandwiches. I was in no danger of leaving hungry. All entrées come with a choice of soup or salad. That night's soup was a thick pea purée, made chunky with thick-cut bacon.
I chose a grass-fed steak from Wood Creek Farm for my entrée (pictured).
This was a risk for me. I generally prefer grain-fed beef, judging it more tender and flavorful. This piece of meat was cooked to perfection — a very tender medium rare. Slices of meat rubbed with garlic rested atop a mound of mashed potatoes. The spuds were creamy and tangy, the result of adding nearly as much sour cream as potato to the mix. Beautifully cooked and seasoned smiles of squash were the enjoyable vegetable of the day. The plate was slathered with beef demi-glace and scattered with chopped parsley.
Essex Grill owner Courtney Ovitt decorated the walls of her restaurant with framed photos of her dogs. Their names also appear on the menu. The "Shadow Salad" is named for her shih tzu. "Philo Chicken" is inspired by her Bernese Mountain Dog. The two big chicken breasts seemed worthy of his stature. Each is grilled, then topped with ultra-crispy bacon, sweet-and-tangy barbecue sauce, a mix of cheeses and lots of scallions and tomatoes.
I don't consider myself a sweet tooth, but desserts were the highlight of the already very satisfying meal. Our excellent server recommended the lemon cake, a thick, dense-but-moist white layer cake with lemon buttercream frosting. White chocolate pie was truly a revelation. The shaving-cream-light mousse combined beautifully with drizzles of dark chocolate and a dark chocolate crust. Wow. I don't consider white chocolate worthy of the name chocolate, but as a vessel for texture and contrast with the dark, it surpassed my expectations. My first choice desert, a chocolate pie with salty pretzels was sold-out when I visited. Hopefully they'll save me a piece next time.