by Corin Hirsch
Since Seven Days held the first Vermont Restaurant Week in 2010, a spate of similar shindigs have sprung up around the region — including weeklong events in New Hampshire, Killington and now, Manchester.
This is clearly a welcome phenomenon for those of us who live to eat. Usually scheduled to coincide with slower times of year — i.e., mud season and stick season — restaurant weeks offer perfect windows during which to chow down at places hitherto unknown to the people of this area (to quote Frank Zappa).
At least a dozen restaurants are taking part in Manchester's first Restaurant Week, offering three-course, prix-fixe meals that cost $20.12 at lunch (clever) and $30.12 for dinner. For those who've never ventured there, the town is a food mecca, a liminal zone where top Vermont ingredients collide with the polished, classical techniques expected by tourists from points south. As far as I can tell, stick season is the only reason that some of the dining rooms in Manchester appeared half-empty last night, at least from the road; the two meals (!) I ate there were both spectacular, albeit in different ways.
mio bistro (pictured) is a cozy eatery in Dorset, about six miles east of Manchester proper. Dorset's main drag is lined with stately inns and buildings that look rather imposing. Inside mio, though, that chill evaporates — this oasis of warm-hued walls, patterned curtains, funky ceiling and open kitchen is enveloping.
Though mio's restaurant week menu includes only two choices for each course, there's something for all stripes — an earthy, mushroom-laced miso soup for the vegetarian; a plate of succulent, out-of-this-world seared pork tenderloin for the carnivore. In the latter dish, the meat is dusted with tangy-sweet Indian spices and smothered in a cider reduction, tiny cranberries bleeding their juices all over the plate.
In a rush to make it to another place, we took a wedge of cognac pumpkin cheesecake to go. In the car, I dipped a finger into it for a tiny taste. Big mistake. I ended up devouring half the thing with my hands, like a savage, before we had driven two miles. I hope chef Leo Ledoux is a permanent fixture at mio, because I wanted more of his food almost as soon as we were out the door.
I'd heard a lot about Brasserie L'Oustau de Provence since it opened last year, and in my mind's eye, I pictured a tiny, glittering bistro wedged into Manchester Center's downtown. Instead, the eatery is enormous — like a true 24-hour brasserie on the Boulevard des Capucines (though that's in Paris, not Provence). It has a voluminous and classically French menu to match — oysters, escargots, crispy veal sweetbreads, roast chicken and steak frites, among scads of other dishes.
As focused as it was, the RW menu still had plenty to love, with presentations that sounded deceptively simple. No matter what arrived, the presentation was something to behold — for instance, a "Mimosa salad" of butter lettuces had two crisp asparagus spears delicately perched on the greens, and a hat of minced, hard-boiled eggs grounded the tangy sherry dressing. Ditto for a pan-roasted salmon; its almost-blackened, crispy skin hid a rosy-pink interior, and the filet itself leaned against a mound of buttery mashed potatoes laced with an invisible vein of preserved lemon. A warming chermoula ringed the plate, and hair-thin scallion sprouts offered tiny bursts of spice. I had to take some of it home, if only to leave room for a crème caramel that, frankly, resembled crème brûlée — a coral-like, caramelized crust giving way to gooey, custardy guts.
If I could have fit in a third meal, I would have. The "halibut cheeks grenobloise" at Bistro Henry sound intriguing, as does the veal-and-pork terrine at Mistral's. In a state sliced by pesky mountains, I wish Manchester were closer. This place has people who obviously demand classically prepared food, and the chefs rise to the occasion.
Restaurant Week continues for 10 more days — ending November 11 — and, if you couldn't already tell, it is so worth the trip. For a list of menus, check out the Facebook page.
(Finally, on November 7, pick up Seven Days' print edition. My food-obsessed colleague, Alice Levitt, will report back from one of the grandaddies of restaurant weeks — Montréal. No, I'm not jealous.)