by Corin Hirsch
A weekend of hopping Restaurant Week events had left me ravenous by Sunday evening, but without a reservation anywhere. Tantalizingly close to the Palace 9 (where Big Night was screened) was Shelburne's The Bearded Frog, so I snuck out during the film to reserve a table.
The place had a buzzy ambience at 8 p.m. on a Sunday. Though I'm not a vegetarian, I was drawn to the panko-crusted, crispy tofu cakes, one of the appetizers on the $25 menu. They came atop a tuft of arugula and drizzled with a pale-yellow lemon-caper emulsion. In the right hands, tofu can achieve a deeply satisfying creaminess, as did these — each crunch was followed by a mouthful herbed cream.
My entreé, an oversized, buttermilk-marinated pork shank, came coated in a sweet maple-bourbon demi-glace. A confetti of roasted, shredded Brussels sprouts and cabbage clung to its sides as well, so that each forkful was a melange of moist meat, papery, charred vegetables, and soft sweet potato mash. Despite the warn spring weather, it was an autumnal experience.
We were well sated by the time the dessert's arrival stunned us into silence. I looked around the room and saw others, like me, staring at the jangle of triangles and drizzles on their plates, as if they didn't want to disturb the composition. In my case, a trio of finger-sized churros were drizzled with melted-chocolate ganache, topped with white mezcal-infused ice cream and anointed with chorizo powder. The bitterness of the chocolate wended its way around the churro's crunchy edges like a skintight dress, each bite chased by faint cinnamon and chile.
A few nights later at Montpelier's Salt Café, my friend and I were so hungry, and so stressed from our days and our drives, that we committed a culinary faux pas: We ordered the same dishes for two courses. One server, Peter Colman, rightly tut-tutted us, but both of us had our hearts set on a seared scallop in blood-orange Hollandaise sauce, and the pork liver and sausage ravioli in a nutmeg-cream sauce that had recently earned a nod in New York magazine as one of the "101 of America's Most Delicious Noodle Dishes."
But first, co-owner Suzanne Podhaizer delivered an amuse bouche — a petite cube of local goat cheese atop a drizzle of sweet and smoky maple gastrique, a few microgreens floating on top. The tiny morsel slid down our throats with a sugary tang; I ran my finger across the plate. Next up was the scallop, one side deeply seared to the color of caramel and a piece of juicy blood orange glistening on top. The scallop itself was succulent, and the mostly cream sauce had faint hints of acid. An interlude of crisp spring greens followed — tossed lightly with toasted walnuts, feta and minced ramps that had been gathered by Colman that morning — and added a woodsy piquancy.
At long last, the ravioli. We had felt teased by the smaller plates so far, wanting more of whatever it was we finished. Now we knew why; this dish packed an epic punch. Tucking into the soft pillows, bits of tender sausage would occasionally pop out. We'd drag them around the plate, scooping up the rich, nutmeg-speckled sauce with its hints of sherry. It filled us completely and absolutely. Yet we'd heard the desserts here are transportive, and it wasn't a myth. My dense, flourless chocolate cake came smothered in a melted marshmallow that looked like pale lava spilling across the top. It oozed and stretched as I ever so slowly finished off the deep, dark cake. My friend's feather-light maple pudding came with a chip of smoky, salty bacon brittle. Both left us believing in the magic of pastry and vowing to return.