by Alice Levitt
1117 Williston Road, South Burlington, 802-660-7523
According to my research materials — the front page of Trader Duke's menu — the real Trader Duke allegedly lived during the Revolutionary War and led a Green Mountain Boys' faction called the Rum Runner Rebels.
The restaurant named for him is in the Doubletree Inn, so it might not be exactly the rough-and-tumble legacy Duke might have expected. Get over it. After a recent visit, I did.
I admit motel restaurants aren't generally at the top of my to-try list. But I happened across Trader Duke's menu and I was intrigued. There are the expected nachos and patty melts, but also some pretty irresistible-sounding Vermont comfort food.
I visited on a snowy Sunday night; the two-sided stone fireplace was a welcoming centerpiece to the room. I was escorted to the bar side of the restaurant, where the bartender served me at my comfortable booth. Air travelers grounded by the weather slowly streamed in from the airport, looking depressed as they watched "Family Guy" on the flat screen TVs. The bartender made small talk with them and invited them to stay until the 10 p.m. close.
I somehow swayed myself from ordering the country-fried steak with smoked bacon gravy. Such was the appeal of the "Root Cellar Stew" (right). I was impressed that the seasonal dish included not only carrots and red bliss potatoes, but rutabagas. Not an ingredient one sees on every menu. That was cool, but what really sold me was the presence of "apple cider dumplings."
The beefy stew was a nice combination of savory and sweet, with apple cider in the demi-glace. Dried thyme gave it further character. The one complaint about the sauce was an excess of flour in its roux that made the whole thing taste ever so slightly powdery.
The ingredients themselves were lovely. The vegetables were tender but not mushy. The lean chunks of beef were cooked similarly — yielding, but still requiring a knife.
I was slightly disappointed to see that the "dumplings" were more like biscuits. They were dry, but mixed into the stew, this was no longer an issue. They had a sweet tang of cider.
The puff pastry-topped turkey pot pie (right) was not quite as successful. The potatoes, carrots and peas therein were all cooked to perfection. So was the ultra-tender turkey. Unfortunately, the sauce suffered from the same floury taste as the "Root Cellar Stew." But without the same excellent seasoning, it became bland. This was easily fixed by the side of cranberry sauce, but I wish the promising dish had been as wonderful as the other stew.
A pair of gigantic desserts were both satisfying, but not quite what I expected. A cookie sundae (right), utilizing one of Doubletree's "famous" chocolate chip-walnut cookies, sounded like it would be more cookie-centered. Instead it was an ice cream sundae with a cookie perched on top. It was a great cookie, with a hint of cinnamon flavor, but would have been even better warm.
I assumed the chocolate cobbler would be a cobbler, with chocolate. Instead it looked pretty much like the cookie sundae, without a cookie. At the bottom of the dish was a thin layer of brownie. Richly chocolaty, chewy, perfect brownie, bathed in viscous hot fudge. I just wish there had been more to balance the giant scoops of vanilla ice cream.
That said, when I return for "Root Cellar Stew," I would not be adverse to finishing the meal with another chocolate cobbler.
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.