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Entrées and Updates

Side Dishes: New Latin American in Stowe, and more


Published May 20, 2009 at 6:41 a.m.

When famed food blogger Ed Levine visited the 2007 “Food & Wine Classic” in Aspen, organized by the culinary mag of the same name, he posted about his five favorite dishes: One of his picks was a ceviche discovered at the “Rums of Puerto Rico” booth.

The fish dish Levine liked so much was made by Miguel Garcia Lopez, then the chef-owner of Migas in the capital city of San Juan. Now Garcia Lopez and his wife, Maria Elena Jimenez, are preparing to open a new restaurant in … Stowe.

The couple has moved full-time into what used to be their Vermont vacation home, and they’re erecting an energy-efficient building on the Mountain Road in the former site of fancy French eatery Mes Amis.

In September or October, Garcia Lopez and Jimenez will begin dishing up Latin American cuisine — including fare from their native Puerto Rico and dishes from Cuba, Peru and Argentina — at a restaurant called Santos Cocina Latina.

According to Garcia Lopez, the mix of casual and upscale eats will include “typical fritters, empanadas, mofongo — a mashed plantain dish — and roasted chicken.” His famous ceviche will show up on the menu, as will whole barbecued pigs.

The chef — who is also a serious outdoor enthusiast — says the 75-seat restaurant will accommodate everyone from skiers looking to swig specialty rum to serious diners who come to sample the chef’s tasting menu in the private dining room. Garcia Lopez, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, notes that pairing food with wine is his “specialty.”

The pair will get help from Giovanni Ventura and his future wife Idemar Aldrey, both culinary-school-trained chefs moving from Puerto Rico to work at the restaurant. As if opening the place weren’t complicated enough, Garcia Lopez is planning to manufacture a line of specialty products, including hot sauce, adobo rubs and cookies. “They’ll be showcased in the restaurant,” he notes. “We’re trying to be as natural as possible, without the crazy [ingredients] they put in most bottled stuff.”

In a novel twist, the exotic cuisine will also be localvore, save for a handful of imported tropical ingredients. “We always believed … if you use local, fresh-as-possible food from your area, that quality is going to show up in your final product,” Garcia Lopez says. In fact, he claims, the “eat local” ethos is part of the reason he and Jimenez opted to open their eatery in the Green Mountains.

“The fresh produce plus the beauty of nature were some of the reasons we decided to come to Stowe and be part of the culinary movement in Vermont,” he says. Another reason: “We see a lot of opportunity of showcasing Latin food, since there’s not much available in the state.”

Except, now, in Stowe. Santos Cocina Latina joins new arrival Frida’s, which is reviewed in this week’s food section.

In January, Seven Days published “Spare Our Fare,” a story about how restaurateurs were faring in the still-sinking economy. When we checked in with Lee Duberman, chef and co-owner of Ariel’s Restaurant in Brookfield and Ariel’s Riverside Café in Montpelier, the highly touted cook — who was blurbed by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman last year — admitted things were bad. “It’s worse than tough,” she lamented.

Despite cost-saving measures such as baking her own bread and making gelato and ice cream from scratch, Duberman and her husband, Richard Fink, were recently forced to shutter their Montpelier location. The kicker was roadwork that sent drivers on a detour away from the eatery. “It was a heartbreaking decision,” Duberman says. “We had a core of passionate customers.”

The good news? It’s just a short drive to their 13-year-old flagship in Brookfield, where, five nights a week, diners can sample seasonal specialties such as handmade gnocchi with ramps, fiddleheads and asparagus and strawberry-rhubarb crisp.

Starting in June, the couple will be revving up their localvore dinner series, featuring $20 three-course meals made with ingredients culled within a 10-mile radius of the restaurant, matched with deep discounts on wine.

What a … pairing.

No restaurant owner likes to hear potential customers say, “I drove by, but there wasn’t any room at the bar, so I didn’t come in.” Particularly when chairs are sitting empty in the dining room.

After hearing that complaint one too many times, Susan Luce, owner of the North End’s Avenue Bistro, decided to do something about it. On Monday, May 18, she closed the eatery for renovations. When it reopens on the 21st, the Bistro will have five additional seats at the lengthened bar, as well as a “cocktail” area that can accommodate 10.

More room to sit and sip won’t be the resto’s only adjustment. In keeping with the more casual vibe, the menu got some tweaking, too. “We’ll have more grill items. A selection of burgers and sandwiches,” says Luce, mentioning a “Guinness burger,” California burger and a vegetarian portabella version. She expects the Caprese sandwich — a chicken, pesto, tomato and fresh-mozzarella concoction — to be a hit.

The popular calamari appetizer with chipotle aioli will remain on the menu, joined by French onion soup and nachos. Patrons can sample the new nosh at both lunch and dinner, with heartier entrées available in the evening.

Says Luce, “We wanted a menu that was a little more accessible, so people could come more often.”

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