by Alice Levitt
140 Cottage Club Road, Stowe, 802-253-9281
I am in constant search of good barbecue in Northern Vermont. Sure, the two-hour drive to Curtis' All American Restaurant in Chester is worth it, especially on weekend buffet nights. I love the Tuesday barbecue nights at The Belted Cow Bistro in Essex. Still, I am on the hunt for nearby smoked meats that I can enjoy anytime.
Sunset Grille & Tap Room seemed like the perfect solution. Not only has the pit crew won several awards at the Harpoon Championships of New England Barbecue — including the 2006 Overall Summer Sizzler championship — they serve food until midnight.
I arrived just before ten on Saturday night to a mostly empty dining room. A large-screen TV played an Eric Clapton concert. Our server was supremely eager and friendly, though she made a few mistakes in taking our order. She admitted it was only the fourth day and we were her first table to request the massive combo platter for two.
As if a sampling of nearly every kind of meat on the menu weren't enough, the $25 meal starts with a bread basket (right) and choice of soup or salad. The buttery bread sticks tasted a tad stale, but the mini corn muffins were truly excellent. The muffins were only slightly sweet, but even more buttery than the bread sticks. They were moist and held together far better than the crumbly corn bread most restaurants serve.
Though there was nothing special about the iceberg lettuce, shredded carrot and tomato salad, I liked the novelty with which it was served. A rotating platter held metal cups filled with raw onions, croutons and bacon bits. The latter two appeared to be of the store-bought variety, but the make-you-own aspect reminded me of the relish wheel at the late Dog Team Tavern.
And then, there was meat. Lots of meat. One in our party had a shellfish allergy, so we replaced the BBQ shrimp with extra beef ribs. With four of the meaty bones, the platter resembled Fred Flintstone's favorite dino-rack. There were also three baby backs, a chicken leg-and-thigh and a grilled bar steak, all presented atop a large lettuce leaf and a long, skinny tongue of sliced carrot.
I ordered the steak medium-rare. When the sliver of meat arrived, I figured there was no way the middle would be pink. Somehow, it was. The slim-cut steak was a perfect medium-rare. It was wonderfully juicy and very nicely seasoned, too.
I was most excited for the beef ribs. I don't know why more restaurants don't serve the extra-large bones. Nine out of ten times, I prefer them to pork ribs for the luscious, almost pastry-level sweetness of the fat that renders and combines with rugged beefiness. There were hints of that in these ribs, but the slightly rank flavor of overcooked meat made the experience less pleasant. The crisp-on-the-outside, melting-inside texture and sweet tangy barbecue sauce were a pleasure, but I was still disappointed.
The same unpleasant taste was present, but less so, in the pork ribs. The meat was just the right, competition-style texture. Far from falling off the bone, it retained its muscular integrity but yielded tenderly when bitten. The chicken absorbed the flavor of smoke the best and benefited from a slightly spicy sauce. It also didn't taste like it had been reheated.
The sides I tried (right) simply weren't for me. The baked beans tasted of canned tomato sauce and molasses. They were so sweet, it genuinely hurt to eat them. Rice was studded with soft chunks of jalapeño. The seasoning was pleasant, but I just couldn't get over the presence of spice in a usually cooling dish.
Nothing was truly awful at Sunset Grille. Still, there weren't any dishes about which I'm dreaming a few days later. My aimless trek through northern Vermont's barbecue wilderness will have to continue.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to email@example.com.