It's too big a question to take lightly. That's why, for your benefit, I have once again compiled the absolute best new dishes to grace our fair state this past year. Not all the restaurants are new; a few are just new to me. What they all have in common is an edge that makes even a jaded gastronome like myself look back and smile. Hopefully, my favorites will offer something for everyone. It's been a great year for burgers, as evidenced by the first three entries, but ethnic food and high-end eats figure in, too. Click on the names of the restaurants to learn more.
This Jeffersonville spot, located at the back of the Smugglers' Notch Inn, may at first appear to be a simple bakery, but look further. It's home to the Bright Eyed Burger, a thick patty of Boyden beef rubbed with chili and coffee, making for an intensely earthy, sensuous experience. A layer of extra-sharp cheddar adds an unexpected creamy bite to a dish with bigger flavor than anything else I tried all year. Of course, the fluffy bun and mild, fresh pickles are made on-site, too.
The Vermonter: The name says it all. What could speak more fondly of our state than a wad of ground beef maple-glazed, then topped with Cabot cheddar, thick, crispy bacon and a grilled apple? The substantial, slightly sweet bun is made in-house, as are the rest of Chef Marcus Hamblett's baked goods. You'll try not to finish the fries, but you will fail. My mother-in-law says they're better than Al's.
Sometimes it's the simple things that make the biggest impact. The burgers at Maynard's don't set off lights and buzzers. Wilma and Jerry Maynard loosely pack their local ground beef (though not as local as their own herd, which lives across the street), then fry it up just as they have for decades. The result is what I imagine all the best burgers tasted like a century ago — juicy with grease, salty and utterly fresh, especially when you ask for tomatoes and lettuce from Wilma's on-site garden. Close your vintage-style meal with a Dusty Miller, a vanilla creemee topped with hot fudge and a heavy helping of malt powder.
I thought I had had the best poutine in the world. As I write this, I am proudly sporting a T-shirt from Duckfat. The little café owned by Rob Evans, 2009's winner of the James Beard Foundation Best Chef Northeast, serves up a bowl of spuds fried in duck fat, then topped with duck gravy and curds from Silvery Moon Creamery, one of my favorite cheese makers.
Why am I telling you this? The poutine at the Bluebird is better. The fries are a wonder, always perfectly crisp, perfectly seasoned, perfectly ... perfect. Better yet? What the menu accurately refers to as "rich gravy" takes nothing from their crispness. Add some of the tastiest curds I've had, and you've got a poutine that will scare any Québecois who tries it into speaking fluent English — with a Vermont accent.
I'm not a big dessert person, nor am I passionate about breakfast. I guess that means "The Late Night Breakfast" is better than the sum of its parts. Imagine a gorgeous gaufre right off the streets of Bruges. Top it with a scoop of sunny yellow that looks like a pat of butter. It is, however, a far, far better thing — buttermilk-bacon ice cream better. The whole shebang sits in a pool of of maple syrup with a snowy dusting of powdered sugar. The final touch? An upturned arc of bacon replacing the predictable cherry.
Chef John Delpha is one of the sole New Englanders ever to win the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue. He only shows those skills in special entrées on Tuesday. That is, unless you look to the appetizers. Every night, the Red Hen Bread Tartine with Smoked Pork showcases his astonishing way with fire and pig flesh. The meat is beyond description — firm yet forgiving, delicate but strong. Topped with cheddar fondue and zesty pickled onions, the dish is so satisfying, dinner becomes an afterthought.
When Souza's flooded, it briefly ruined my life. Things brightened when it reopened. A brave new world was born when brunch came back in 2009. When eggs and bacon came back to the Sunday table, crowds lined Burlington's Main Street. Is it any wonder? Where else can you partake of a huge, diverse salad bar, light and chewy pao de queijo (cheese bread) and as much meat as you can eat for $14.99? One taste of the enormous, crispy chicken thighs, garlicky sirloin or juicy, well-marbled pork will more than prove my point.
I've been a devotee of Junior's for as long as I've lived in Vermont. Somehow, though, it took me until now to discover its killer sliders. For between $2 and $3 each, I've sampled almost all of them. The best are the Italian Special — filled with capicola, salami, pepperoni and ham, all bathed in a light layer of Italian dressing — and Buffalo Chicken, a gorgeously fried specimen of poultry drenched in addictively vinegar-intensive sauce. Despite being called sliders, they're bigger than a fast food burger. I only need one or two for a filling meal. Add some fries and a salad, and you might just have the best deal in Chittenden County.
Of all the bumper crop of local Vietnamese restaurants, none have as diverse a menu as Saigon Bistro. Somehow, though, I find it hard to have anything but the #34. I like my bun thit nuong cha gio (vermicelli with veggies and an egg roll) with the bright red barbecue pork. Just don't expect cha siu. These slices of pig aren't nearly as sweet. The complex combination of flavors gets further amped up with the addition of fresh mint to the already bright, refreshing dish.
Can there really be a hot dog worth driving two hours for? Yes, several and they're at Fat Franks. Best of all is the bacon chili cheese dog. Order the quarter-pound "Fat Frank" version for a decadently juicy, garlicky link custom-made for the Bellows Falls eatery. The chili isn't for weenies; it packs a serious punch, mitigated only by the brittle walls of bacon and the cheddar that melts as you eat. For even more flavor, choose any of the nine mustards available at every table. There's malt vinegar for your hand-cut fries, too. Just keep the ketchup away from the dog. It's on the long list of rules printed on the menu.
And a fond farewell to some old friends:
NECI at the Essex
The Country Pantry, Fairfax