by Alice Levitt
400 Pine Street, Burlington, 540-0406
I have a long list of culinary necessities that, once fulfilled, will finally make me completely comfortable living in Burlington. We're probably still a ways from my dreams of Korean barbecue and Polish comfort food, but with the recent openings of Bento and ArtsRiot Kitchen, I can now check off two of my more important needs: inexpensive, to-go Japanese bentos and groceries and regional Chinese food.
When I spoke to ArtsRiot co-owner Felix Wai last week about an upcoming slew of culinary events at the restaurant and gallery space, he wanted to make sure that people know that the high-ceilinged café is open regularly for meals, not just pop-ups. To those who haven't figured it out yet, here's what you've been missing.
In one fell swoop, this dish scratches more than one of my itches. It introduces Uyghur seasonings to Vermont, with spicy, cumin-scented beef from Boyden Farm. I'm more accustomed to the sandwich being served on an ancient style of rice bread, which is how they offer the sandwich at my beloved Maison du Nord in Montréal. But this wheat bun looked nearly the same and offered a similar combination of chew and crunch.
Chef Richard Witting's sandwich is more fusion than an attempt at authenticity, and that may be key to its success. You won't find mayo on a classic rou jai mo, nor are you likely to find cilantro and pickled carrot. Those additions are more banh mi than rou jia mo, but they're eminently refreshing with the spicy beef. So are the sides: a light cabbage salad and a single tea egg.
The hong shao rou also hit the right notes. The sticky, reddish braised pork belly was fall-apart tender and sweet, but not saccharine. A single grilled plum was a surprisingly apt pairing with the pork, as was a pair of discs of raw water chestnut, which tasted more like jicama than styrofoam-like cooked water chestnuts.
But the most interesting element of the dish was the fermented tofu. The server warned us to try just a little bit at first, and it was clear why. The cubes of bean curd take on not only a cheeselike flavor and texture in fermenting, but also a powerfully salty taste. It was delicious, but best enjoyed in small doses. The only element of the rice bowl that didn't completely work for me was big chunks of bok choy. Which makes sense. The menu said it was supposed to be Chinese broccoli, which would be a better, more flavorful fit with the other ingredients.
The fermented tofu found a brilliant home in the dipping sauce of my favorite dish from the small plates menu, "Hunan hot wings." The cheesy, salty stuff was used in an exceptionally tasty ranch dipping sauce.
And it was entirely necessary with the wings. Rather than the vinegary, front-of-the-mouth spice one expects from a buffalo wing, these exceptionally crispy wings were coated in Szechuan peppercorn. In China, the stuff is referred to as "mouth-numbing spice." And it does exactly that. A full Szechuan dinner can leave you feeling as if you've had dental work, but the light dose on the wings at ArtsRiot was just enough to make the chicken aromatic and leave the mouth tingly. I'm already hungry again as I describe them.
We ended the meal with Witting's take on tangyuan, glutinous rice balls, usually filled with a sweet flavoring such as red bean paste.
Those fillings aren't usually super-sweet, but this sweet potato version couldn't seem to decide whether or not to be sweet. Though visually stirring, the dish was more starchy than satisfying. It was too bad. I am usually a glutinous rice dessert fiend, and this simply didn't hit the spot for me, despite a lovely berry dipping sauce.
Next time, I'll end my meal with ginger frozen yogurt instead. And there will certainly be a next time. I still have to try dumplings, Shanghai dumpling soup and so many more tastes from all over the world's largest country.
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 email@example.com.