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Cuisine Dreams

What's missing from Vermont's plate

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The Vermont restaurant scene is growing more diverse. We've got everything from diners and brew pubs to white-linen restaurants, from Bosnian to Indian cuisine. But, while we do pretty well for a rural state with a predominantly Caucasian population, the area still has some notable culinary lacunae. Here are some cuisines that food folks are craving.

Jewish Deli

Dana Kaplan, a member of chipper Burlington pop group The Smittens, grew up in New York City. One thing she misses about the Big Apple is its Jewish delis. "I have yet to find a good chocolate babka in this town," she complains. A few more treats that city transplants might miss are potato knishes, matzo balls and chopped chicken liver salad. The area could also use more sources of corned beef, pastrami and smoked fish.

Mexican

A lot of Mexican restaurants in Vermont have closed recently, but people are clamoring for new ones to open. Does that seem contradictory? Word is that the defunct places weren't very good - or authentic - to begin with. So what are people looking for in a Mexican restaurant? Amy Trubek, author and assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences at UVM, craves "really good regional Mexican cuisine like Oaxacan, not just generic burritos." Not familiar with the foods of Oaxaca, a.k.a. "land of the seven moles"? Famous dishes include quesadillas filled with fresh cheese and squash blossoms, and vegetables in pumpkin-seed sauce.

Spanish/Tapas

Spanish food is hot, and that doesn't mean spicy. In 2003, The New York Times called Chef Ferran Adria of Spain's El Bulli restaurant "the best chef in the world." Says Molly Stevens of Williston, a cookbook writer and food educator, "In our better restaurants you see Spanish influence, but we don't have any Spanish restaurants."

At El Bulli, Adria serves up experimental dishes such as sea-urchin foam and noodles made solely with broth and gelatin. The Spanish food Vermonters are seeking is more down to earth. What are we missing? Dishes like paella, meatballs in saffron-almond sauce and stuffed piquillo peppers.

Greek

"The Lincoln Inn has Greek stuff on the menu," Molly Stevens remarks before musing, "Is there any high-end Greek?" Kate Hays, of Dish Catering, would also enjoy genuine Hellenic options. "I would love to see a break from Olive Garden Mediterranean to [include] more [authentically] influenced cuisine," she suggests. "The stuff that's being done here is just schlock."

Traditional Greek cuisine can be found north of the border, says Stevens, citing Montréal's Mythos. A quick look at its menu reveals treats rarely seen in Vermont: charcoal-grilled sardines, moussaka and numerous dishes made with octopus and squid.

African

Amanda Verdery, owner of Dobrá Tea, misses Ethiopian food. When she lived in Boulder, Colorado, she loved to visit Ras Kassa's for its traditional North African fare. "The plate is a big basket that gets set in the middle of the table, and everybody shares," she says. "You eat the soupy, saucy bean and vegetable dishes with your hands," using "sponge-like bread" to pick up the food. Another bonus? "It's all really healthy," says Verdery.

Stevens craves food from Morocco. "It's one of the great cuisines," she suggests. Influenced by Middle Eastern, African, Mediterranean and other European cultures, Moroccan cooking is complex and flavorful. Stand-outs are eggplant salad, chicken with olives and preserved lemons, and slow-roasted lamb coated in paprika and cumin.

For now, there doesn't seem to be a single African restaurant of any type in the state. But, given Burlington's growing Sudanese, Somali and Rwandan populations, chances are we'll soon see restaurants serving sub-Saharan fare. For now, says Hays, visit the Africa Market on North Street for a taste of the future.

Vietnamese

With the Saigon Café long gone and Little Saigon recently departed, the only Vietnamese eatery left in the area is Vietnam Restaurant in Essex Junction. Hays and Kaplan both wish there were more; the latter once spent eight months traveling through Southeast Asia. What are we missing? Deep-fried sweet potato and shrimp patties. Hot and sour fish soup. Squash sautéed with garlic. Another Asian cuisine we'd eat up? Indonesian, Kaplan offers.

Street Food

Nothing says Church Street like Lois the Hot Dog Lady, but Trubek thinks Vermont street food could use a little diversification. "The truth of the matter is, we can't sustain that many restaurants in Vermont," she says. But there could be a lot more street carts.

Trubek would love to see "young entrepreneurs" turning out Indian and Nepali snacks made with local ingredients. She particularly craves bhelpuri, potatoes served with two types of chutney. The dish is popular on the beaches of Bombay. Now, if only we could find a way to import more months of India's warm weather.

Vegan/
Vegetarian

Clem Nilan, general manager of City Market in Burlington, believes restaurants ought to "reflect the character of a city." Hence he thinks what Burlington needs most is a "true vegan/vegetarian restaurant." "People here have what I would call an . . . enlightened lifestyle," he says. "Here at City Market I hear about vegan this, vegetarian that."

The popularity of Stone Soup shows there is a market for meatless cuisine, suggests Nilan. He'd appreciate something along the lines of San Francisco's Greens, a sit-down restaurant that serves entrées such as fresh pea ravioli in Meyer lemon butter and filo dough filled with artichokes, crimini mushrooms, chard and pecorino cheese. But in Nilan's view, super-fancy isn't the way to go. In Vermont, he says, "We don't care if the plates are mismatched as long as a restaurant has a happy atmosphere and good food."

Steakhouse

At A Single Pebble, Chef Steve Bogart fills a significant culinary gap by preparing authentic Chinese cuisine. "Everything I serve has a history," he says. "The masters come up with it, and I try to emulate it." Luckily for Bogart, "Burlington has such a diverse eating community . . . people have great palates," he says.

Given Bogart's Asian bent and love of fine cuisine, it may come as a surprise that he'd like to see an upscale steakhouse in the area." Even Nilan, who doesn't go in much for steaks himself, notices the absence.

As far as Bogart is concerned, "New York is the best eating place on earth . . . and high-end steakhouses are really in." Apparently, "in" is an understatement. According to Zagat online, New York City has 111 of the beef-slinging businesses.

But if the steakhouse comes to Vermont, let's hope it leaves big-city pricing behind. At the famous Delmonico's, a plain old strip steak costs $36. Vegetables are another $9, and French fries or mashed potatoes will run you an additional $7.

There's nothing like a dose of urban sticker shock to remind us of all that we do have in our dining scene: a cornucopia of local organic foods, bunches of NECI-trained restaurateurs, and entrées that cost less than $20 and come with side dishes. Population-wise, Vermont is the second smallest state in the nation. Given that, I'd say we're doing pretty well - and our edible options just keep getting better.

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