I turned around to look at the clock on the wall behind me — 11:45 a.m. I usually don't eat lunch until 2 or so, but today was different.
It's the kickoff of Vermont Restaurant Week, something we've been waiting for and working toward all year. As the menus have dribbled in, we've salivated and plotted and planned. What makes this one especially sweet for me is that four spots in the Upper Valley are taking part. That may not sound like a lot, but it's twice as many as last year.
At 11:46, I began gathering my things to go for lunch at one of them.
I don't think I've ever been disappointed with a meal at Tip Top Café, which is saying a lot for a place that's been around for seven years. When I first moved to the Upper Valley, I would hit this airy White River Junction bistro weekly for to-go lunches of curries and creative sandwiches.
At night, Tip Top morphs from a sunny café into an atmospheric, candlelit restaurant with martinis and first-rate food (on First Fridays, it's impossible to get a seat here without a long wait). This year, Tip Top is participating in Restaurant Week for the first time.
And the place is doin' it right. The kitchen is loading it on for the $10, two-course lunch special. The cup of chunky corn-and-ham chowder that kicked it off today was spicy and silky, and dense with sweet corn, minced red peppers, slivers of potato and what looked like bits of kielbasa.
Chef Tyler Brock followed that up with his fried-chicken sandwich with an Asian twist. The flop of juicy, battered white meat was flash-fried, slathered with salty miso-mayonnaise, and adorned with a pile of crunchy, drippy, seaweed slaw.
Whenever you're at Tip Top, you'll see cone after cone of frites fly onto the tables around you. That's because they're the crack of the food world: The kitchen breads the spuds before frying, giving them a bumpy surface that holds minuscule pockets of fat and sea salt.
Dusted with minced parsley and served with a garlicky aioli, they are irresistible. You'll eat every last bit no matter what your personal vow ("I'll only have two. I'll only eat half. I'll only...") Suddenly they're gone, and you emerge from your trance to find an empty cone.
Those fries weren't on the special lunch menu, but I ordered some anyway. My only regret is that I don't have time to go back for Tip Top's dinner special — there are too many other places to fit in this week.