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Capital Fare

The culinary landscape shifts in Montpelier — again


Published February 2, 2011 at 11:06 a.m.

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Ravioli at Salt

Barre Street is not hip downtown Montpelier. Running parallel to State Street on the river side, the residential neighborhood isn’t heavily trafficked, but it is the right place for Salt. With its piles of cookbooks and relaxed vibe, the 16-seat restaurant may feel like a visit to the home of a foodie friend — who just happens to be creating five-hour braises or homemade ravioli.

Suzanne Podhaizer and Dan Green opened Salt in November, starting with light lunches of savory bread pudding, soups and scones. Podhaizer, formerly food editor at Seven Days, and her chef husband have now cut lunch in favor of dinner Tuesday through Sunday.

Talk about coming full circle. Last July, in this paper, Podhaizer profiled three Montpelier chefs: Crystal Maderia of Kismet; Matthew Bilodeau, then of Black Door Bar and Bistro; and Joey Nagy, then of Three Penny Taproom. They were “taking cooperation to a whole new level,” she wrote, as they supported each other’s efforts to prosper on daring fare.

Less than a year later, everything has changed — except the bold food and the cooperation.

Bilodeau has left Black Door, which closed its doors after New Year’s Eve, and taken Nagy’s place at Three Penny. Nagy has moved to a new venture of the taproom’s owners, the Mad Taco in Waitsfield, where he whips up his signature Mexican fare for takeout.

As for Maderia, at the end of 2010, she moved 5-year-old Kismet to the airy State Street location vacated by last year’s big casualty, Restaurant Phoebe. And Podhaizer and Green have taken over the empty third slot in the triumvirate. Salt slid right into Kismet’s former spot at 207 Barre Street.

It may sound like musical chairs, but the players in the capital’s changing foodscape all have something in common: creative uses of ultralocal ingredients in settings that are far from stodgy fine dining.

If the comings and goings sound a bit incestuous, the restaurateurs say they wouldn’t have it any other way. When asked where the Black Door’s customers are heading for dinner now, Bilodeau immediately mentions Kismet. Maderia says that, as local chefs, farmers and producers cooperate more and more, “When I go out, I feel like the town has gotten smaller. I feel like things are shifting.”

Podhaizer also sees clear advantages to food businesses aligning instead of competing. “If people consider [Montpelier] a destination for dining, it benefits everybody,” she says.

And she proposes that the cultural shift at work in Montpelier is a microcosm of a larger movement toward more approachable high-quality food. “We’re an open kitchen. This is all part of that shift — sharing recipes with customers, explaining techniques in depth,” Podhaizer says.

Salt is the antithesis of a restaurant filled with “ghostly, flitting servers and someone in a tall hat,” as Podhaizer puts it. Starting this week, she’ll begin sharing her secrets in weekend cooking classes at the restaurant.

Those who just come for the food will find whimsical menus based on places, events or whatever catches Podhaizer and Green’s fancies. The current menu features Vermontified takes on Alsatian food. Before that, it was dishes influenced by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Next week, the three-week cycle will begin again with Italian small plates. Podhaizer says upcoming menus will include a Shakespeare-themed bill of fare, and raspberry sorbet and other Prince-inspired dishes for the Purple One’s birthday.

The themed menus aren’t just attention getters — Podhaizer sees them as a fun way to work around the limitations of Vermont’s winter produce, which she knew all too well as a critic. “I think it’s easy to fall into a cuisine rut where everything is cider braised,” she says. “We decided to let each menu have some outer inspiration to force us to try new recipes and techniques and use Vermont ingredients in all kinds of different ways.”

On the Alsatian menu, the most prevalent product is pork, which hails from three different local farms. The standout dish is a plate of extra-large, perfectly al dente ravioli filled with a mix of pork liver and sausage. Nutmeg-cream sauce brings out the slightly gamy flavor of the meat, but also subdues and sweetens it. Tender chard adds nutrition, but goes down easily in the decadent dish.

The choucroute garnie, with a base of mild sauerkraut made from Blackwell Roots Farm cabbage, includes dark, house-smoked pork hock from Jericho Settlers Farm, juicy braised shoulder from Maple Wind Farm, and sweetly garlic-flavored and red-pepper-flecked sausage prepared by Peter Colman, owner and salumiere of Vermont Salumi at East Montpelier’s Cate Farm. When not processing pork products, Colman joins Podhaizer as a jack-of-all-trades, working the front of the house, and making salads, coffee and dessert.

Pork is showcased yet again this week in an apple tart with crunchy chunks of housemade bacon resting on a bed of white-wine-flavored, caramelized fennel. Salt is expecting its meat retail license any minute, says Podhaizer, who plans to sell Colman’s frozen sausages along with her own house-muddled salts in flavors including blood orange-bay leaf, lemon and smoked paprika.

To get diners in a saline mood, chewy, crusty bread arrives at the beginning of each meal with softened, unsalted Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery butter and a trio of salts. Diners are encouraged to try some of each, and judge the difference between salts from Maine and the Himalayas and the house-smoked kind.

Podhaizer makes the desserts, including an almond-packed financier with mirabelle-plum sauce. The sweet mirabelles in the puree give the illusion of a honey-filled dessert with nary a bee involved. More of a “salt and fat tooth” herself, Podhaizer says she has been surprised to find herself enjoying her de facto role as pastry chef — she and Green are also providing goodies to the Savoy Theater concessions. “There’s this really visceral reaction to sweet things you had as a child, perhaps,” Podhaizer guesses. “I think part of the reason I’ve enjoyed it so much is it makes people so happy.”

Down on Main Street, Bilodeau has also gotten an education since he started at Three Penny Taproom on January 18. The chef says that before joining the taproom team, he was far from a beer aficionado. However, with the guidance of owners Matt McCarthy, Scott Kerner and Wes Hamilton, he’s learning not just to pair his food with suds, but to cook with them. “The whole idea is these guys put so much effort to serving the world’s finest beers, I have to make food to match them,” he says.

On a first look at lunchtime last week, Three Penny isn’t so different from any other watering hole. A few older gentlemen nurse a beer or three, watching ESPN. Then one of them pipes up, “If I’m drunk on Scotch and I hear Mozart’s Requiem, I will cry.”

It’s Montpelier, all right, where even the barflies have a certain quirky sophistication.

Bilodeau’s focus is on using of-the-moment local produce, so he changes his menu daily. The current soup of the day is actually a heavy mash of pease pudding, bolstered with pork fat, onions and Smuttynose Old Brown Dog. Atop the sweet and meaty-tasting puree are ribbons of salty pork that melt with each bite.

Amiable McCarthy, who stands at the bar, excitedly pairs each dish with a brew. Creamy, fatty Danish-style chicken-liver pâté is sweetened with Flag Hill Farm’s Pomme de Vie apple brandy. McCarthy recommends washing it down with North Coast Brewing Company’s Scrimshaw Pilsner, a refreshing, bright counterpoint to the darker, more earthy flavors of the liver.

Cured pork jowls are lightly spiced and served with pickled prunes. The accompanying Anchor Porter, with its chocolaty finish, is an ideal match for the preserved plums.

Three Penny’s kitchen is limited to a hot plate, toaster oven, panini press and half a soda cooler. But, as he prepares dishes, Bilodeau says he hasn’t felt challenged by his new digs. “I’ve had more fun here than I have in quite some time,” he admits. “I deliver the food and answer questions; I do my own dishes. It has a lot of the same personal feel of a dinner party.”

Like Podhaizer, Bilodeau says his cuisine is heavily based on Vermont’s natural assets. He prefers to make everything from scratch rather than using out-of-state products such as olives and almonds, previously staples at Three Penny. While busily researching foods that pair well with brews, Bilodeau has also learned a fair amount of Vermont food history, he says. Way back when, the carbohydrates in beer qualified it as a foodstuff in its own right. Bilodeau now has plans to produce an old-time product: bread made from a starter of hops.

On State Street, Maderia also has baked goods on her mind. She’s just hired a full-time pastry chef to make all of Kismet’s bread from scratch, the one previously missing link to the restaurant's fully handcrafted fare.

The from-scratch aesthetic makes sense in Kismet’s new location. Sure, it has a California-cool vibe, complete with chandeliers. But that doesn’t stop guests from sitting on the couch with a copy of Seven Days and a moist, flaky, gluten-free gougère, or bringing small children to enjoy the organic green eggs on toast.

Even a deceptively simple veggie panini is filled with all-local fresh mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, sweet caramelized onions and homemade olive tapenade. The bread is delightfully soft and chewy, with a crisp exterior.

Newly added dinner is more ambitious, and Maderia believes a diverse clientele has come with it. “I feel like a lot more twentysomethings and young families have come back and turned their parents on to [Kismet] — that 50-and-up Black Door crowd,” she says.

To match her more upscale clientele, Kismet is now offering a dinner menu that includes short ribs braised in Argentinian Malbec with baby winter veggies — even mini-Jerusalem artichokes. If diners are shocked by rich meat dishes at a restaurant so strongly associated with vegetarian fare, they needn’t fear. Everything on the menu can be prepared gluten free or vegan.

Kismet also has a newly bustling bar scene with local options, as well as organic and gluten-free sips. There are plenty of alcohol-free cocktails, including creative martinis.

It’s all in the spirit of inclusion and bonhomie that seems to sum up the current capital dining scene. Podhaizer credits the city’s residents with enabling fun food to thrive. “This is a town where a lot of people know where food comes from, how it’s prepared. That’s ... allowing some really neat things to happen,” she says.

There was a time when adventurous Vermont diners had to head to Burlington. But now, perhaps Bilodeau speaks for Montpelierites when he says, “I have no interest in going anywhere else.”

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