by Alice Levitt
4000 Mountain Rd., Stowe, 253-6445
My favorite Alice Eats meals involve sharing great deals. Usually, they're meals for two for less than $35. Norma's Restaurant at Topnotch Resort might not exactly fall into that bargain-basement category, but last night I had a feast worthy of Thanksgiving, for which I am suitably grateful.
Now through December 18, Sunday through Thursday nights, Norma's is offering a deal called "Supper Club," in which diners can partake of any appetizer, entrée and dessert or cheese plate for $30. This is borderline ridiculous at a restaurant where the steak rings up at $32. I had to see if they were cutting corners.
As usual, the meal started with "Stowe spring water" -- tap water to you and me. Servers were careful to note that the crusty sourdough was "Harvest Market" bread (above right). It came with a pretty pallet of soft butter, rich olive oil and tangy, herbaceous hummus. I very nearly asked for more bread to finish the last, but decided to save room for three courses.
Having chosen to start with the kurobuta pork shortrib (usually $12), I was really going to need some gastro real estate. A softball-sized block of heritage meat filled the plate, along with startlingly sweet sweet-potato mousse and crunchy chips.
The meat reminded me of tender, flavorful pork ribs somehow worked into a boneless square. The thin but flavorful root-beer-chipotle braising liquid reinforced the upscale backyard barbecue flavor, but I wished there was more.
I felt the same way about the Cavendish quail dish (right, $12). I would have really appreciated more than the light drizzle of maple-bacon vinaigrette, especially since the little bird was a tad dry.
It tasted great, though. Heavy salt and pepper brought the flavor to four dimensions. I was a little disappointed with the chopped salad on the side. The egg described as "soft-cooked" was actually hard-boiled. It reminded me of a fancy take on the green salad at Texas Roadhouse.
The sauces were ample with both entrées. Unfortunately, the pork followed in the arid footsteps of the quail. We ordered it medium-well, hoping for some pink, and ended up something more akin to jerky. The gummy rosemary reduction didn't help to freshen up the proceedings much, but the sides were stellar.
If we had just been presented with a plate of the spaetzle and greens, the dish would have been worth its usual $22. The first time my boyfriend ever tried spaetzle, eight years ago, he remarked, "This is so good, I can't believe it's not meat." He said last night that it was never closer to the truth, as these dumplings were mixed with chunks of pleasantly spiced sausage. The two blended together seamlessly, leaving him unsure where the meat began and pasta ended.
The braised greens were also reinforced with meat — this time chunks of pork belly. They were a Southern-style treat.
To truly test the value of the meal, I had to order the $32 ribeye. The enormous steak I got would have been worth the price. There was quite a bit of fat that needed to be trimmed, but still enough meat that even a trencherman like me needed a doggie bag.
The beef was grilled to a gorgeous, tender medium rare and topped with bacon-mushroom cream that reminded me of sauces I tried on my recent trip to Poland. The sauce was wonderful over lightly charred stalks of baby asparagus.
I'd usually choose just about any other starch over a potato. The crisped, crushed one on this plate changed my mind. The chunks were bound together with a mash flavored with scallions. A decadent sauce made from Bayley Hazen Blue cheese seeped into every crevice of the uncommon potato preparation. The sauce was really a marvel, not at all sharp like blue cheese, but every bit as luscious and creamy. I would not have minded bathing in it, though I probably would not have gotten very clean.
We didn't really have room for another course, but it was worth forcing down the muffin-sized bread pudding (above right, usually $9). Filled with tender apples, the pastry's texture was a lovely combination of soft and chewy. I would have preferred it served warmer, but it was still delicious, especially topped with housemade vanilla ice cream.
The chocolate raspberry cake ($8) was remarkably well executed, with lines straight enough to please an architect. Its flavor was pleasant, though unremarkable. Cinnamon dusted across the plate added a lovely taste of Mexico mixed with the chocolate, but what set this dish apart was the orange-mint sauce.
A reduction of thick, pulpy juice, the orange was like liquid sunshine. It was even brighter dotted with fresh shredded mint, and provided an unexpected counterpoint to the dark, rich chocolate cake.
That's my story of how a dinner that would normally cost $95 before taxes and tip went down to $60. Not every detail was perfect, but many were revelatory. And I'll likely be able to say that I enjoyed the binge even more than my two Thanksgiving dinners this week. My advice: Go to Stowe and gobble, gobble.