There's nothing generic about the "The Restaurant." Despite its lackluster name, Burlington's newest Church Street eatery excels in uniqueness -- from the romantic Old World decor to unorthodox food combinations such as lobster paired with black truffle bernaise.
"It's some stuff I worked on when I had a lot of down time," says dreadlocked chef Lenny Williams, a former chef at Iron Wolf who got his start running a French-fries cart. "This is basically the place I've been waiting to do in Burlington." Red Square co-owner Jack O'Brien is his partner in the project.
Maybe the Jerez sherry is what made the wild mushroom soup so mmm-mmm good on Monday night. Intensely flavorful and served at just the right temperature, it was the ideal intro to a meal that moved on to a walnut-and-pear salad, two more appetizers, an entree and chocolate lava cake for dessert. With his Boston accent, Williams butchers the pronunciation of foie gras, but its presentation is perfect in an appetizer of pan-seared sea scallops served with fresh figs roasted with madeira and serrano ham glaze that will knock your socks off -- even on a cold night. To say nothing of the filet mignon topped with Stilton blue cheese and a truffle-port-and-green-pepper-corn sauce. Sound la-di-da? The scalloped potatoes on the side bring the dish down to earth.
On the plate and in its ambience, The Restaurant gets the combination of quality and comfort just right. Ditto the funky-but-friendly wait staff. The intimate 38-seat restaurant looks French -- or French Quarter -- with chandeliers, gold-painted ceiling, red velvet chairs and cozy banquette seating. But the banana split on the dessert menu is all-American. Couples can count on spending $100 for a full meal -- cher but fair. Book early for Valentine's Day.
-The lights are still on at Starry Night Cafe in Ferrisburgh, but Fleury Mahoney is in the process of selling the artful eatery. After opening "O" in Burlington, "It became apparent that running two restaurants was going to be harder than I thought," says the 36-year-old restaurateur. So she is leasing Starry Night to Charlie and Cheryl Dooley of Charlotte, who for years have been trying to open a restaurant in their hometown. A long-time producer of large-scale food and craft shows, Charlie Dooley has a lot of experience organizing and marketing events. Cheryl will be the chef. "I feel like it's in good hands," says Mahoney.
-So is another restaurant with strong ties to Starry Night. Discriminat-ing diners have been flocking to Black Sheep Bistro in Vergennes since it opened last summer. "It's a good concept for the times and the area," says Michel Maheu, who was the original chef at Starry Night. Appetizers and entrees are $5 and $15, respectively. But don't go without a reservation. Even during the week, "It's best to call first," advises Maheu. Definitely worth the drive.
-Another new dining destination is Main Street Cabot -- a 25-seat rural restaurant in the River Run tradition. "We are very similar in that everything is home-cooked," proprietor Charlotte Faulstick says of the offbeat Plainfield establishment run by Jimmy and Maya Kennedy. Plus, David Mamet frequents both places when he's in Vermont.
"This has been a dream for about the last 27 years -- to own a restaurant in the town that I love," says 46-year-old Faulstick. She launched in June with breakfast and lunch, but recently started serving themed dinners on Thursday and Friday nights -- "mostly seafood, Thai, Indian, Cajun." Prior to Main Street, Cabot did not have an eating establishment outside the school cafeteria. Now, Faulstick notes, "People say it feels like the town has a center."
Nibbles & Bits
After 24 years in the bread-baking business, Jules and Helen Rabin have made their last loaves. The Plainfield-based couple started Upland Bakers after Jules lost his teaching job at Goddard College in 1978. Scores of Central Vermont kids teethed on their dense, brown, crusty creations, according to a recent article by Marialisa Calta in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. She quotes Ginny Callan, who founded the now-defunct Horn of the Moon Cafe in Montpelier. "There was nothing like it to be found anywhere in the area. It seems hard to believe now, with so many artisan bakers around. But the Rabins started it. They educated us."
-When she is not serving as institutional memory for the local daily, or writing essays for Eating Well magazine, Calta is working with weatherman and talk-show host Al Roker on his second cookbook. She developed the recipes for his first -- the best-selling Al Roker's Big Bad Book of Barbecue. Next up is a "holiday book," featuring Roker family recipes from Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day and Halloween. Will there be marshmallows? "Definitely," says Calta. "We say 'yes' to marshmallows." No to coconut and creamed onions. Check the portion sizes, though. Roker has dropped 100 pounds since he had his stomach stapled.
-Hey, Aren't You That Fat Chef? is the working title of a cooking show in development at the local ABC affiliate. The Restaurant's Lenny Williams came up with the concept, which involves eating and exercise. He also plays the hefty host. "They say it's going to happen," Williams says of the show, but he still can't give away any of the details. A soft-boiled version of "Iron Chef"? Fans will eat it up.