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Best Bite of 2013: Rustic Roots


Published December 26, 2013 at 5:30 a.m.


Don’t tell my doctor, but most days I don’t eat breakfast. I might have a handful of almonds and some green tea or a protein shake, but the thought of anything more turns me several shades of green.

Owing to my lifelong distaste for eating before noon, I was in my late twenties before I developed much of a palate for eggs, morning pastries and the like. Those still aren’t items I crave — most of the time. I’d much rather have my first meal of the day be braised brisket or sushi.

But there is one exception. On quiet Falls Road in Shelburne, a breakfast spot opened this year that’s so good I yearn for its menu items as soon as I’m done eating them, and lament having to choose just one at a time. The same goes for its lunch items, and even its drinks.

I’m talking about Rustic Roots, the baby of New Jersey ex-pat couple Mike Orfan and Ashley Campbell. They purchased the business from Rob Scharf of the Lemon Peel Café & Crêperie last year. Orfan elected to keep that name until June 2013, when he was ready to unveil his everything-from-scratch concept to Vermont.

Locals quickly fell for the offerings. Rustic Roots boasts a perfect five-star rating on restaurant-review website 7 Nights and comparable scores on national sites.

In a state where chefs excel at creating flavorful dinners with ultra-local ingredients, Orfan has struck a nerve by crafting breakfast and lunch with the same care, panache and ingenuity that diners have come to expect from the Bluebird Taverns and Hen of the Woods of Vermont.

That’s why, in a year of standouts that included the debuts of groundbreaking restaurant incubator ArtsRiot Kitchen Collective and habit-forming Japanese take-out spot Bento, Rustic Roots is my choice for the best new Vermont restaurant of 2013. Here are a few more reasons in support:

Best Dish

Sometimes the only acceptable decision is not to decide. That’s why my go-to item at Rustic Roots is the signature Rustic Breakfast. At $12, it’s like a mini breakfast buffet on a plate.

Orfan honed his charcuterie skills in his previous kitchen at Rat’s Restaurant in Hamilton, N.J. His expertise shows in a pair of homemade breakfast meats included in the dish.

Fennel bacon is Orfan’s take on lean Canadian peameal bacon, with smoky loin meat subbing for fatty belly. The crisp edges are enrobed in fennel for a sophisticated hint of anise flavor. The skinny link of coffee-maple sausage, served in two halves to prolong savoring, packs a sweet, earthy punch of bursting pork fat.

When diners are presented with a choice of eggs, most chefs recommend them poached or over easy. Not Orfan, who knows his creamy scramble is something special. It’s a great complement to the tarragon-tossed potato chunks that replace more common hash browns.

The icing on the Rustic Breakfast cake is a puffy popover that bursts with herbed butter like a pastry version of chicken Kiev.

What Else to Eat

Everything. No, seriously. If you’re like me, you’ll devote yourself to trying a different menu item each time, along with your staple Rustic Breakfast.

In the morning, that might mean the salted-caramel French toast. The thick-cut, homemade sweet bread is drenched in custard that transforms its texture into something akin to bread pudding. A deep, dark slick of caramel is enlivened by a smattering of salt, which also keeps the dish from being too sweet.

At lunch, you can’t go wrong with Orfan’s from-scratch pastrami on house rye. Even the grainy mustard is prepared in-house. It would be wrong to say this sandwich tastes like a mother’s love; its appeal is far too carnal.

The more faint of heart might try the hickory-smoked chicken sandwich. Ideally balanced, its layer of onion jam sweetens the meaty bird and crisp bacon. Pungent Brie adds a comforting wash of cream to the fillings stacked on housemade focaccia.

And I haven’t even tried dinner yet. In recent weeks, Rustic Roots has added a three-course prix-fixe on Saturday nights. The $30 meal is definitely on my to-eat list.

What to Drink

At the soft opening of Rustic Roots’ now-discontinued small-plates nights, Campbell poured me a Spiked Fizz, a combination of herbaceous homemade soda and sparkling wine. I don’t drink alcohol, but I didn’t mind. I later learned there’s also the Seasonal Fizz, a booze-free version of the same drink.

My go-to beverage, however, is the rich hot cocoa. On its own, the thick drinking chocolate would be worth a try, but the addition of cinnamon and other spices makes this winter warmer taste like gingerbread cookies melted in chocolate. It’s good enough to drink even in the summer.

Food for the Eyes

The work of local artists is on display all around the small, often-bustling café, and its website offers links to the artists’ stores or websites. This support of Shelburne-area artisans is no surprise, given Campbell’s own creative inclinations. She designed Rustic Roots’ tangled logo, but her primary artistic passion is more seasonal: carving jack-o’-lantern portraits.

Campbell and her father, Steve, appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” last year with her pumpkin portrait of the syndicated TV host. This year, she carved the Rustic Roots logo into an extra-large pumpkin for diners to admire. Clearly, this couple has some serious knife skills.

Orfan and Campbell’s warm, comfortable restaurant has certainly carved out a space in my heart — and stomach.

Rustic Roots, 195 Falls Road, Shelburne, 985-9511.

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