118 Main Street, Montpelier, 223-3188
Back home in Connecticut, my friends and I favored lunch at a now-shuttered French bistro called Le Figaro. Steak frites at 11:30 a.m? Hell, yeah.
Now that my hometown celebrity chef Jean-Louis Gerin is at the helm of the New England Culinary Institute, a wonderful piece of home is here with me in Vermont. And just for Vermont Restaurant Week, he's imported an elegant bistro lunch to NECI on Main that I wish my childhood friends were here to share with me.
For $15, diners choose two of the three listed courses from chef Andre Burnier's bill of fare.
We started with a simple salade verte, dressed in lemon and olive oil and showered with crumbled goat cheese. Walnuts and apple matchsticks lent a dry and wet crunch, respectively.
A different "wholesome, single-vegetable soup" changes each day as the second appetizer option. Tomato was the offering that day and it was simple, comforting and flecked with garlic as well as the requisite basil. A big, grilled crostini lolled in the potage, soaking up the red broth. The flavor of the char on the bread was so enticing that I gobbled it up, despite the fact that I'd already partaken of the bread basket with three different types of home-baked breads, including a satisfyingly sour, sturdy whole-grain loaf.
The plat du jour didn't rely on stereotype. The gorgeous main course's centerpiece was Polish pierogi, but the dish was tout Français.
The pierogi themselves were crisped in butter and filled with creamy mashed potatoes. Tender smoked salmon lent a meaty element. Apple sauce was roughly chopped and had a nice balance of sweet and sour, thanks to a covering of crème fraiche. Sautéed spinach was surprisingly indulgent with a coating of butter. But it was an addictive white wine beurre blanc that tied the plate together. I sopped up the last of the sauce with another piece of sourdough.
Provençale double-baked ratatouille was a sweet and savory treat. Peppers and onions were caramelized to almost-dessert-like silkiness and tomatoes added just a hint of tang to the tender chunks of zucchini and eggplant.
A single soft-poached duck egg was placed strategically to break over the warm veggies and create a creamy sauce. A thick tomato paste added more flavor to both the egg and another grilled crostini.
It was an enormously satisfying lunch, but I didn't feel weighted down. Instead of a shot of espresso at NECI on Main, I headed down State Street to Chill Gelato. A scoop of chocolate-lavender gelato was the perfect ladylike end to my palate's afternoon jaunt to the south of France. Thank you, Montpelier, and thank you, Restaurant Week.
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