by Alice Levitt
21 East Street, Northfield, 485-4857
I don't often head to Northfield for dinner. It's too far from Montpelier to do a dinner-and-a-show evening. When dining in Northfield, dinner is the destination. That's why it took me almost a year after it opened to visit Irish pub the Knotty Shamrock.
Clearly, I was in the minority. I arrived last Saturday just before 8 p.m. to find the only available table was little more than a varnished plank of wood toward the back of the restaurant. Even the bar, with its inlaid four-leaf clovers, was packed.
The extra-large menus were longer than our table was wide, but no matter: We had plenty of space and were more interested in the menu's contents, anyway. I was tempted by the special: pan-roasted, wild-caught hake with celeriac puree, organic sunflower sprouts, a sunny-side-up egg, roasted-poblano-honey gastrique, tobiko and sriracha. However, I thought it most appropriate to stick to the Irish pub menu.
It was full of gastro-pub fare in what I consider its truest form: just the basics you would find in a British pub, with creative touches and local ingredients. It was hard to skip the fish and chips, Irish stew and lamb burger, but there were more pressing matters.
One of them was the fried cheese curds. If I see the name Maplebrook Farm, I generally can't help but order a dish. The Bennington cheesemaker's cheddar curds proved me right, with their chewy texture and creamy, slightly sharp flavor.
With the boozy, crispy beer batter, the greasy treats didn't really need their accompanying maple mustard. However, it did add a pleasant hint of sweetness and tang.
Though not much to look at, the bangers and mash were exactly what I was talking about when it comes to gastro-pub eats. The juicy sausages were lightly grilled and betrayed a touch of spice along with the aromatic nutmeg and sage that made my boyfriend compare them to breakfast sausage.
The buttery mashed potatoes were made from whole spuds, leaving bits of crunchy skin among the creamy clumps. They were bathed in a gravy very unlike what I'm used to from the dish.
Instead of a dark, onion-based jus, this was so pale it resembled the gravy on a hot turkey sandwich. It tasted of onions but was also smoky with bacon flavor. Hallelujah.
It's not often that a meat-free dish entices me, but the wild-mushroom bread pudding sounded so good, I ordered it despite myself. It almost lived up to its irrestistable description.
The moist pudding, made from baguette mixed with an eggy savory custard, was delicious and mixed with earthy, locally foraged mushrooms. Though the fungus was meaty, chewy and had an appealing woodland taste, several mushrooms were insufficiently cleaned. Some were merely gritty, while one bite had a large enough pebble that it left my tooth aching.
It was a pity, but I couldn't help but continue to eat — the dish was that damned delicious. Best of all was the topping of melty blue cheese and sweet, dried figs. Except for the grit, it could easily have been an appetizer at one of the state's best restaurants. And in fact, the huge, filling dish would probably be best served half-sized as a starter. As it was, I took half home and skipped dessert.
But I hope to make it back soon for a sweet treat. And a cottage pie. I might even need the bread pudding again, if I can be guaranteed the mushrooms will be grit-free.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.