Queen City Café’s Biscuits Are Hot at Burlington's Coal Collective | First Bite | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Queen City Café’s Biscuits Are Hot at Burlington's Coal Collective


Published May 7, 2024 at 1:31 p.m.
Updated May 8, 2024 at 10:12 a.m.

Queen City Café chicken and biscuits - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Queen City Café chicken and biscuits

Sean Richards didn't intend to open a biscuit restaurant. His plan for Queen City Café was wide-ranging — breakfast, lunch and dinner — and built around simple, seasonal wood-fired fare, including rôtisserie chickens and whole-roasted cauliflower.

But almost as soon as he fired up the 10-by-12-foot oven in the former Myer's Bagels spot on Pine Street, Richards' biscuits became a thing. In the month since opening, he and his team have baked up to 150 per day in cast-iron pans, rotating around the oven's hot spots. As the neighboring outdoor Burlington Farmers Market returns for the season this weekend, he expects that number could grow to 500 fluffy, flaky, perfectly fired rounds on a busy Saturday.

"It's a terrible business idea to cook biscuits in a wood oven," Richards joked. "It's the hardest thing ever to get right."

Complicated as the setup may be, he and his team are nailing it. Richards, 41, grew up in Fair Haven but spent a good chunk of his early career cooking in Tennessee, both in Knoxville and at Blackberry Farm in the Great Smoky Mountains. He knows his way around a biscuit. And for now, they've become Queen City Café's main focus, whether sandwiching eggs and wood-fired bacon for breakfast or mopping up hearty chicken soup at lunch.

The change is partly because they're so popular, he said, and partly because his initial schedule was unsustainable. The café's grand opening was April 4, just in time for the April 8 eclipse. Richards went all in on breakfast, lunch and dinner, pulling a long shift from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day.

"I worked myself almost to death," he said.

The chef — whose previous gigs range from cooking on the road for touring musicians to running several high-profile kitchens in Vermont, including Prohibition Pig, ArtsRiot, Philo Ridge Farm and the Inn at Round Barn Farm — had to temporarily step away from his brand-new restaurant. Friends and family took over: His mom worked the register, his dad did dishes, his brother learned how to make biscuits, and his 70-year-old neighbor waited tables.

Barge Canal Market owners Adelle Lawrence and Jeremy Smith, the latter of whom is Richards' childhood friend, kept things running and "made me not come here for four days," Richards said. "It was driving me crazy, but it's what needed to happen, and I'm the luckiest person in the world."

Chef Sean Richards - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Chef Sean Richards

With a more manageable schedule and a more robust staff, Richards is back on track. He was fortunate — and a little surprised, he said — to find a team of cooks who have wood-oven experience. The temperature needs to hover around 450 degrees to bake the biscuits and cook chickens, but it gets much hotter near the central steel beam. Managing it and moving cast-iron pans full of biscuits to the right spots "takes a lot of training," he said.

Most of those pans are from Tennessee, too. Richards started a collection while he worked down there, taking regular trips to the Lodge Cast Iron outlet near Dollywood, singer Dolly Parton's theme park. To keep up with biscuit production, he added cast-iron sheet pans to the more than two dozen skillets he already had.

The Orleans family, who own the building, have dubbed 377 Pine Street the Coal Collective — a nod to its history as Citizens Coal Company in the early 1900s. It's now a hub for all things fun and delicious in the South End, including the Pinery's seasonal beer garden and the South End Get Down block party, which returns on Friday, May 17.

"That's why I wanted this space — to build my life around this part of town," said Richards, who lives half a mile away.

Queen City Café has photos of the buildings' past on its walls, adding to the stately library-like setting conceived by Barge Canal's Lawrence and Smith. An overstuffed leather couch and chairs, spacious tables, lots of outlets, and Wi-Fi make the café a great spot to linger over work or catch up with friends.

The dining room at Queen City Café - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • The dining room at Queen City Café

Unfortunately, I was in a rush when I stopped for breakfast last week, having underestimated the construction on Pine Street. But the smell of bacon cooking in the wood oven calmed me as soon as I walked in. I ordered the vegan breakfast sandwich ($7, plus $2 for vegan sausage), though ironically I got it with regular egg and cheese on the advice of a friend, who said the fully vegan version she tried could use a little fat. I ate it in a meeting, so engrossed in the biscuit's soft flakes that I may now have a writing assignment I don't know about.

Armed with a little bit of Crisco and a recipe he developed for nondairy buttermilk, Richards could fool the biggest butter lovers among us. It wasn't just a good vegan biscuit — it was a good biscuit.

While Queen City serves breakfast until 2 p.m., the biscuits also shine in the lunch menu's chicken and biscuits ($12). Richards called the creamy, flavor-packed stew "an old-school Vermont thing that church ladies in Fair Haven used to cook," though the café's version is "gussied up a little bit."

Whichever meal you go for, Queen City's menu blends old-school Vermont dishes with the chef's southern influence and almost sneaky touches, such as eggs fried in roasted garlic oil, and fingerling potatoes tossed with ramps on the pickup-only dinner menu that relaunched over the weekend (available Thursday and Friday, 4 to 7 p.m.).

The result is comforting, simple-seeming fare that's lighter and more complicated than it appears — bacon-and-cheese-laden biscuits aside.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Light My Fire | Queen City Café's biscuits are hot at Burlington's Coal Collective"

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