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Dining on a Dime: Penny Cluse Café


Salmon platter at Penny Cluse - SALLY POLLAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Sally Pollak ©️ Seven Days
  • Salmon platter at Penny Cluse
Maybe the next time Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez eats at Penny Cluse Café, she’ll be president. The Congresswoman from New York City got my vote when she reminded the world that men verbally assaulting women is “just another day.”

Maybe by then, the day that never seems to end — in this case, the pandemic — will be over. And we'll be eating at the Penny Cluse counter again, with its endless refills and stool-by-stool camaraderie.

Meanwhile, for $12, I got to eat Penny Cluse’s riff on my childhood birthday meal: smoked salmon, chèvre, sliced tomato, red onion, capers and buttered, grilled baguette.  I drank a spicy bloody Mary ($8) from a plastic cup  with my to-go salmon platter — 'cause I’m no longer nine and because these days could use a little oomph.

My birthday lunch — smoked salmon, bagels, cream cheese, dill pickles, potato salad — was sourced from a Jewish deli. For a lot of my life, I thought Nova, aka smoked salmon, originated from a place like Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

One day a few years ago, I caught a glimpse of  Maura O’Sullivan, Penny Cluse chef, slicing a salmon filet with a very sharp knife. It got me thinking about the fish and what happens to it at the Burlington café.

I found out Friday, when I was scanning the online menu at Penny Cluse for a meal that costs $12 or less. Spotting the salmon plate, I remembered that glistening filet and rejoiced that a piece of smoked fish could be mine with the click of a computer.

“Happy birthday!” I told myself, placing an online order — though my birthday is actually a few months away. Twenty minutes later, after a drive downtown to fetch my food from the pickup window, I was sitting at our table in private celebration.

I smeared chèvre on a length of baguette, placed smoked salmon on the cheese, laid sliced tomato on top of that and crowned the open-faced sandwich with red onions and capers. Times two.

The salmon, I learned from Penny Cluse owner Charles Reeves, is cured, dried and smoked in-house. Barney Greengrass has nothing to do with it.

“We have a really cool smoker,” Reeves told me.

The salmon and tomatoes — from Pomykala Farm in Grand Isle — match each other in consistency: fleshy but firm. The capers, not a thing when I was a kid, add a little zing.

AOC ate scrambled eggs and rye toast when she and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ate together at Penny Cluse last year. Next time, she should indulge in a meal fit for a kid on her birthday — and possibly a prez.
Dining on a Dime is a series featuring well-made, filling bites (something substantial enough to qualify as a small meal or better) for $12 or less. Know of a tasty dish we should feature? Drop us a line: food@sevendaysvt.com.