by Alice Levitt
25 Centre Drive, Milton, 893-7425
For competition-quality smoked meats, I know I can head to Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington or hit up the Belted Cow Bistro in Essex on its Tuesday barbecue nights. But there's a new game in Chittenden County.
Barbecue specialist Rick LeBlanc of Rick's Catering quietly opened a restaurant of his own in December. The spot, just off the main road in Milton, is hard to find if you don't know where to look. For years, LeBlanc owned the space as Rick's Pizza, but it has laid dormant for years.
LeBlanc told me last night that he finally decided to open a new restaurant rather than leave the building empty.
The result is a friendly neighborhood restaurant serving food and drinks that are, frankly, better than they need to be. The only local competition at dinnertime is from fast-food joints and diners.
But LeBlanc is clearly an overachiever in his pubby genre, offering a huge menu and well-made comfort food. The restaurant even has a custom ale from Long Trail Brewing Company, along with Fiddlehead and other local and nonlocal brews. Everything I tried at Rick's was well-prepared home cooking that blended the cuisines of Vermont with those of regions farther south.
Our server Ashley was one such Southern "ingredient," sweet as praline and seemingly excited to help make our experience a great one. She recommended that we start with the boneless wings. A fine choice.
The chunky nuggets of breast meat were exceptionally juicy, with a light, crispy coat. LeBlanc said he's not a fan of the honey-garlic sauce, the invention of his manager. The the clumpy sauce wasn't pretty, but I thought the roasted allium tasted unexpectedly delicious combined with thick honey.
Another fried dish, haddock nuggets, was a success, too. Even on a Monday, the fish tasted fresh, and its thin cornmeal jacket reminded me of perch meals fresh from the lake.
My dining companion loved the fries, but I found them soggy. I also preferred the squeeze of lemon to the mayo-centric tartar sauce.
The side of coleslaw was also heavy on the white stuff, for my taste, but was still fresh and crunchy.
But I have to be honest: I was really there for the ribs.
The house salad that I ordered on the side was of nice quality, but eating it was merely an obstacle to the meat. Even the tasty onion rings, battered in the same way as the haddock, were an afterthought when I finally sank my teeth into that perfectly textured pork.
The meat yielded to the bite but adhered to the bone until I was ready for the next one.
LeBlanc admitted that he keeps the smoke on the light side for guests not accustomed to real Southern 'cue. Little by little, though, he hopes to amp up both the smoke ring around the ribs and the vinegar in his sauces, as customers get used to the flavors.
Eventually, LeBlanc says, he plans to host a regular barbecue night with multiple meat and sauce options. But for now, the $11.95 half rack is my new favorite reason to head to Milton.
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.