by Alice Levitt
438 South Prospect Street, Burlington, 656-4664
This week, my feature in Seven Days focuses on Vermont Kosher, the new kitchen that provides food for observant Jewish students around the University of Vermont. Sunday through Thursday, students and community members alike can grab a Middle Eastern-style kosher meal at Redstone Unlimited Dining. I was so impressed with chef Rachel Jacob's food, I wanted to see what else was available at the newly renovated cafeteria, formerly Simpson Dining Hall.
For an old fart like me, the LEED-certified space seemed impressively techie at first. Nonstudent diners enter and pay $10.35 at the door. From there, they head to the FÖD (Food on Demand) ordering system, a line of touch-screen computers at which diners choose what they'd like to eat. They can then elect to be sent a text message when the food is ready, or just keep tabs of their order number on one of the dining hall's TV screens.
I chose the latter, which did not keep up. When my food was up, the numbers on the screen were still two hundred behind those actually being served. The waits were also surprisingly long. Cooks labored over several of the same dish at a time, before moving on to the next one. If your selection is toward the end of the rotation, you might be standing in line for a while.
While I waited, I hit the salad bar next to the kitchen. In a nice touch, there were regular salad fixings on one side, and all the ingredients for a specialty salad on the other. I chose to assemble the latter, combining spinach, mandarin oranges, cranberries and lo mein noodles, all dressed in a surprisingly zingy, herbaceous balsamic vinaigrette.
By then, my selections were ready. And the chicken-pesto panini was totally worth the wait. The chicken was not only moist, it was actually juicy, and dressed in garlicky pesto. Tomato slices and a chewy, salty slab of fresh mozzarella tied it together. I would have been happy with the sandwich even at a "real" restaurant, though I do deduct points for curly fries.
Another potato dish also fell short of impressive. Though I liked the inclusion of a small cup of sour cream on the side, and the cheese was suitably bubbly, the potato skins lacked crispness. The slightly bland chunks of potato also appeared to be covered in something more like Bacos® Bits than real bacon.
In the realm of cured pork products, the penne with spinach, peas and pancetta was more successful, though the cream sauce that dressed it was disappointingly one-note.
The kung pao chicken, one of several Chinese dishes available last night, was quite the opposite. The dish packed a wallop of flavor that included long-lasting, lip-burning spice. I have a friend from Chongqing who cooks a fabulous, from-scratch kung pao. The only major difference between this and hers is that the chicken at Redstone was fried. The carrots and celery were crisp and fresh, and even the little balls of fried chicken were meaty. I dare diners to find a spicier, more flavorful kung pao anywhere in Burlington.
By the time we were done trying the disappointingly healthy-tasting vegan parmigiana and a slice of flatbread with Bolognese sauce, most of the desserts were picked over. There were still the diner-style Jell-O cups at right, but I prefer red and blue to the citrus flavors available.
Instead, I grabbed a chocolate cupcake, topped in Christmas-colored sprinkles. The huge mound of vanilla buttercream on top was as buttery as I might have hoped, but the cupcake itself was dry and burned in places.
There were highs and lows in the offerings at Redstone, but the highs were higher than I might have expected. All the same, if I were studying at UVM, I might take at least a few nights a week to eat kosher.
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.