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Food Firsts, and Sometimes Seconds

Dishes, drinks and trends that left their mark on a newcomer


Published December 28, 2011 at 8:25 a.m.

Miguel Garcia at Santos Cocina Latina
  • Miguel Garcia at Santos Cocina Latina

It’s only 90-odd miles from the Upper Valley to Burlington, but for me, taking a job in Chittenden County was akin to stepping through the looking glass. Last winter, I packed up my possessions and headed north to start my new gig as a food writer for Seven Days. I’d written about food culture back in the UV, but this was new territory and, as I found out, markedly different. I haven’t yet been able to put my finger on the nature of the distinction. The restaurants here are more numerous, the willingness to engage in discussion of food, agriculture and related policy more widespread, but there’s something else.

This entire year felt like a journey through another country — disorienting, invigorating and sometimes bumpy — in which more than a few meals, trends and places stood out. Here’s a hodgepodge annotated list of the foods, libations, people and trends that left a mark on this (former) stranger.

Small plates I’ve returned for more than once:

Spring: Crunchy tofu cakes in lemon-caper emulsion, the Bearded Frog, Shelburne

Summer: Crab and avocado Napoleon, Sonoma Station, Richmond; anti-grilled pork belly with watermelon, Amuse at the Essex Culinary Resort & Spa, Essex

Fall: Hot oysters, Bluebird Tavern, Burlington

Winter: Käsespätzle, Das Bierhaus, Burlington

I’m a dedicated small-plate surfer. I usually find them more creative and original than main dishes, and their size fits the way I eat: often and in small bites, like a perpetually hungry sparrow. Some small plates vanish, as their components do, with the season — as it should be. So I revisit my favorites while they’re still around.

In Shelburne, I learned that chef Andrea Cousineau commands soy with the same skill as she does flesh. She gently fries tofu cakes in panko until crispy, then nestles them in a pool of tangy but lighter-than-air lemon-caper emulsion. I hope the dish comes around again this spring.

One momentous summer night, I happened into Richmond’s Sonoma Station and met the crab and avocado Napoleon, a Jenga-like tower of crackling wonton skins; creamy, nutty avocado; and cool, fluffy crab drizzled with an herbaceous and zesty cilantro sauce. It’s a satisfying, summery mashup of textures.

Frosty, sweet watermelon and voluptuous pork belly together on the same plate are just one of the improbable wonders that grace the tables at Amuse, the experimental small-plate heaven in Essex.

Oysters come into their prime in fall, and I was thrilled when Bluebird Tavern moved to St. Paul Street, bringing raw bivalves downtown. While I love me some oysters on the half shell, the kitchen’s hot oysters are a bombshell — smoky and topped with a mouth-filling seaweed aioli, squishy pink trout roe and a hint of maple sugar.

Das Bierhaus’ roof garden may be one of the best places to hang out in summer. Come winter, the restaurant is the place to fatten up on wurst, rouladen and, best of all, käsespätzle, a rich, cheesy tangle of noodles blended with slightly caramelized onions and topped with piquant dill and parsley. Chef-owner Nick Karabelas was generous enough to share his recipe, which I ran on our staff blog, Blurt, in the fall.

Big plate (and place) I won’t soon forget:

Churrasco a la parrilla, Santos Cocina Latina, Stowe

I pass by the now-vacant Santos often, and wish I had visited more than once. That one night I did — during Restaurant Week — chef Miguel Garcia’s grilled skirt steak was so perfect, earthy and moist, with an addictive, smoky, roasted-tomato chimichurri sauce painted across the top. The plate was the essence of warmth. This beautiful space now sits empty; I hope something just as exquisite follows in Santos’ wake.

If I had to choose a close second, anything chef John Delpha at Essex Junction’s Belted Cow Bistro does to his meat is fine by me. For instance, there was the “little bit of foie” he blended into a ragû he served once at a wine dinner there, or the plates of tender ribs that preceded it.

Liveliest place for flesh-based fare, and booze to boot:

Bar Antidote, Vergennes

Though I live in Moscow, I wonder if Vergennes might be my spiritual home, and Bar Antidote my eventual church. The green, backlit bar is reminiscent of a retro pharmacy (an intentional resemblance, I guess) and loaded with all manner of local brews and libations. The drinks are strong, the plates of local fare hulking and often fleshy — the Pig Mac has ground pork, pork belly and house-cured bacon all in one bun. And the stranger at the bar beside you might hold forth on physics, Civil War ephemera and slaughterhouses all in one conversation.

The owners have just upped the originality ante: The chef is now raising his own pigs.

Best reason to detour off I-89 in Randolph:

Black Krim Tavern

It was inside this dim, sparkly space, while eating a bowl of garlicky white-wine-butter broth full of warm kernels of sweet corn, wedges of heirloom tomato, a smear of tangy pesto and wilting baby lettuces, that Black Krim Tavern first made me weak at the knees. Chef Emily Wilkins reveres the farmers around her and transforms their efforts into unfussy but delicious fare: fish cakes with lemon aioli; poached shrimp over rice noodles with a coconut-lime sauce; braised chicken crêpes with Napa cabbage and cremini mushrooms. While you sample those dishes, Sarah Natvig, who manages the front of the house, might banter with you from behind her little bar and let you try her carefully selected wines. I only wish this place were closer.

Best why-didn’t-someone-think-of-this-sooner combination:

Sushi and local craft brews at Blackback Pub and Flyshop, Waterbury

When I moved up the road from Waterbury, I learned that Stebu Sushi chef Stephen Shaefer had a following for the imaginative rolls he created from raw fish shipped weekly from Hawaii — mahimahi, pumpkin swordfish, kaku (open-water barracuda) and barramundi, among others. This summer, the subterranean pub next door to his tiny sushi shop — Blackback Pub and Flyshop — knocked down the wall that separated the two.

Wonder Twin powers activated, and, by early September, Shaefer was serving his fare right on the bar, alongside Hill Farmstead brews and other local elixirs. Everyone seems very happy in here all the time. Maybe it’s because, while they can get all of the standard ingredients — salmon, eel, avocado, carrot — Shaefer makes his sushi doubly creative with unusual accoutrements such as mango, shiitake mushrooms and pickled vegetables, or Fukujin zuke. His tangy Little River Roll — pungent smoked trout and crisp, fresh asparagus rolled in sushi rice and again in feathery dill — is popular for a reason.

And an even better pairing:

Local porters/stouts and oysters, Three Penny Taproom, Montpelier

On Saturdays, the crew here serves shimmering raw oysters fresh from the docks in Massachusetts, with a mignonette sauce that sparks their flavors to life. The ever-changing beers with which to wash them down include such quaffs as Hill Farmstead Everett Porter and Lawson’s Finest Fayston Maple Imperial Stout. It’s like a little bit of Galway in landlocked Vermont.

Speaking of beer, the liveliest agricultural trend:

Hops revival

Once I saw one hop plant, I began seeing them everywhere: wending up posts and along trellises and the sides of buildings, dripping with aromatic cones. There was a time, in fact, when the whole of the Vermont landscape was covered in hops. One day soon, I hope — and so do local brewers — state growers will reach a critical mass and begin rivaling production on the West Coast.

Least obvious place to find amazing bread combined with a kick-ass wine selection:

Red Hen Baking Company, Middlesex

For me, Red Hen Baking Company was love at first sight: a welcoming café just off the highway I drive regularly, where I could park with my laptop and feast on scones, tea, warm bread and hearty soups. Only after a few visits did I realize it also harbors a taut yet eclectic wine selection. Whoever curates this has a head for good grapes and unusual varietals: Zweigelt, Marsanne and local wines galore.

… And, with due props to Red Hen, the best bread epiphany:

Elmore Mountain Bread Seven Grain, Elmore

I ripped apart my first warm loaf of this in the car, devouring it like a savage. I made a pilgrimage to Elmore Mountain to see how it’s made. I continue to haunt the store shelf where it arrives every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

I also keep going to Burlington’s City Market on Wednesdays in hopes of grabbing one of Gérard Rubaud’s famous loaves, but I have yet to succeed. So, for now, Elmore Mountain is my holy grail.

Best place I haven’t been yet, though everyone else talks about it:

Ariel’s Restaurant, Brookfield

I’ve called here a few times to talk with Lee Duberman or Richard Fink for stories. I’ve drooled over their menus. I’ve listened to others gush about unforgettable meals and experiences. And I have yet to make it down to Brookfield.

Most unexpected place to make it onto this list:

Harrison’s Restaurant and Bar, Stowe

Before I first darkened the threshold here, I figured Harrison’s would be a nondescript place to grab a burger or wings or a plate of something hearty. Wrong. There’s a reason this spot is always busy, even when Stowe’s Main Street is deserted: It’s a burrow into which you can descend and feel immediately at home. To boot, the fare is well rendered, and the chef pays attention to detail — crafting a spinach dip made with mascarpone and a hint of heat, for instance, or braised short ribs in a char-like blackberry chipotle barbecue sauce that tastes like midnight. The glasses of wine are generous, too. It’s the essence of an unpretentious neighborhood American bistro.

The most memorable day in food:

August 28, 2011, the day after Tropical Storm Irene

That Sunday, I watched the rain lash the windows and thought Irene wasn’t living up to the hype. I didn’t know that, a few miles away, Route 131 was being ripped to shreds by the Black River, or that the neighbor’s cornfields were filling with water or that havoc reigned by late afternoon. That is, until tweets began racing by with tales of rivers teeming with propane tanks, bridges crumbling and friends fleeing for higher ground.

Monday mornings are when fellow writer Alice Levitt and I usually collect food news. Instead of making me come straight into the office, the editors gave me carte blanche to roam. With a 2 p.m. deadline looming, I jogged a half mile of closed road into Quechee to gawk in awe at the battered covered bridge, the flooded Simon Pearce Restaurant and friends of mine sweeping mud from the stairs of the Parker House Inn & Restaurant.

An unscathed I-89 belied the fact that wrecked houses and flooded farms lined the country on either side. In Montpelier, I found business owners in a state of mute, exhausted shock after their second flood in three months.

Farther up the road in Waterbury, the waters had receded, but a similar state of shock reigned, especially inside the Alchemist Pub & Brewery, where the floors and walls were wet and the basement brewery a shambles. Employees and others had tears in their eyes. Neighbors down the street were just beginning to yank out furniture, floorboards, carpets, books and bric-a-brac, piling them on front lawns where they would remain for days, often weeks. The stock of the Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Company sat drying outside, and the inside of Juniper’s Fare looked like death.

On to Waitsfield, where, near dusk, Bridge Street business owners such as Jason Gulisano of the Green Cup and Savitri Bhagavati and Iliyan Deskov of MINT Restaurant and Tea Lounge neared the end of a long day of mucking out. An entire photo studio lay crumpled and shoved into the side of the Green Cup.

What was indelible about that day was how much destruction was wrought in such a short time, but also how tenaciously the victims got things done in those very first, surreal 24 hours. Since then, witnessing the speed with which many food producers, brewers, farmers and others have sprung back is both moving and humbling. Take, for instance, the owners of Juniper’s Fare, who rallied to put together a café even more vibrant than it was before.

The stories are not all heartwarming. Denied insurance claims mean more waiting and uncertainty for businesses such as MINT. The Green Cup remains shuttered; the Alchemist Pub & Brewery is not returning (at least, not in its former incarnation); and many farmers must wait until spring to start their year anew, some with vastly eroded footprints and concerns about what the muck has left behind on their land.

Food-related businesses account for 15 percent of Vermont’s economy, create 21,000 jobs and generate $837 million in wages. Behind those stats lie stunning resilience, creativity and connectedness from border to border. Irene brought those qualities to the fore and left many observers humbled, including me.

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