A little truffle oil is a dangerous thing. Dave Pratt, executive chef and co-owner of the Green Room - one of Burlington's hottest new restaurants - goes through two large bottles a week. Truffle oil is usually olive oil infused with the aroma of truffles - the highly prized, painfully priced gems of the fungus kingdom. It does for food what dim lighting does for people.
For one recent special, Pratt fans slices of rosy, house-smoked duck breast on a plate and tops them with a tangle of mesclun salad and two grilled crostini. A drizzle of truffle oil and the dish is done. The duck is a symphony of meatiness, salt, fat and smoke. Just as the savor of the duck begins to fade, the funky earthiness of the truffle swells; it's something you taste with your whole body, not just your tongue. A forkful of the salad brings an explosion of flavor: blue cheese, golden raisins and mustard. Welcome to dining at the Green Room.
The downtown dining establishment, which opened last winter, is something of a gastronomic rarity in Vermont. The seasonal menu is more Montréal than Burlington, featuring such luxe offerings as lobster risotto with shrimp, and Black Angus carpaccio topped with truffle oil and egg. The Green Room is one of just a few places around that regularly features the holy trinity of dining: caviar, truffles - in the form of oil - and foie gras. The twentysomething chef who's making it happen is a native son with a flair for flavor.
At 6 p.m. on a recent Saturday, the dining room is at half-capacity - most Green Room customers are late diners. Both the front-of-the-house staff and the folks in the kitchen perform their tasks at a calm bustle. The music is cool jazz and the tables are mainly occupied by middle-aged folks in professional attire. Bottles of wine rest in buckets of ice on two of the tables, while at others there are cocktails aplenty.
Pratt and his sous-chef Brycen Smith are dressed non-traditionally in black chef's coats with bare, close-cropped heads. As orders trickle into the kitchen, it becomes clear that Pratt and Smith have mastered the art of gliding around each other - neither one seems to get in the other's way. Smith runs the sauté pans on the stove while Pratt focuses on plating and "expediting" finished dishes - helping the front of the house staff know which dishes go to which tables.
Pratt isn't fazed by the fact that his parents, Randy and Nancy, and sister Allison have a clear view from the bar into his open kitchen. He effortlessly multitasks: talking to them, checking orders to see what needs to be prepared next, and doing a Jackson Pollock number on the plates, squeezing squiggles of brightly colored sauces and glossy balsamic vinegar from plastic bottles.
For one particularly pretty dish, he carefully lays a pool of orange squash onto a large white plate. On top is a single sea scallop that's been wrapped in prosciutto and cooked to a shimmery translucence. Pratt spoons a bit of caviar on the scallop and garnishes it with a sprig of arugula. Next, the sauces: alternating circles of magenta cranberry sauce and light brown balsamic vinaigrette. A drizzle of balsamic reduction finishes it off.
Randy is clearly proud when he talks about the high-quality stuff his son prepares. Nancy, who is particularly enthusiastic about this evening's butternut squash, mentions that Dave's younger siblings have highly developed palates - they'll order filets mignon while their peers ask for burgers. Before his family leaves, Pratt makes up a few containers of food for them to carry home. He loads one up with squash for his mom.
Pratt is a 1999 graduate of the Professional Foods program at the Center for Technology in Essex. He started in the culinary program, he says, because of a "lack of credits." Plus, the food was a lot different than what he got at home, which mainly consisted of "leftovers, leftovers, leftovers, then lasagna." Pratt scored an internship while at the CTE, and since graduation has been working in restaurants. The education at Essex gave him the know-how he needed. After jobs at a couple of "unmentionable" places and at the now-closed Waterworks in the Champlain Mill, Pratt became the chef at the well respected Sandbar Inn in South Hero.
When the Sandbar Inn was razed so that it could be rebuilt, Pratt agreed to do a stint at the Green Room "on loan." He had tentative plans to return, but when Green Room business partners James Ryan and Doug Wiker asked him if he wanted to buy into the restaurant, he couldn't resist the opportunity. Says Pratt, "A restaurant that's up and running is a better risk than one that doesn't exist." His business partners also own shares of Plan B on St. Paul Street in Burlington. Pratt is not on staff there, but he occasionally helps out with special events and catering gigs. Several other Green Room staff members, including Smith, are also former Sandbar Inn employees.
Pratt explains that the vision for the Green Room is to provide "interesting wine and interesting food with an upscale feel." Manager Narayan Campbell, who learned the culinary ropes at Trattoria Delia, adds that for a while the Green Room was drifting towards a nightclub atmosphere, but has since decided to "refocus on the food versus the music." The hope is to create a "more mature, lounge-type scenario" instead of running a mere bar. The muted green walls, lounge-area leather couches and black details all contribute to the restaurant's unique urban feel.
The prevalence of shared plates on the menu is also part of the vision. If there is one thing he could teach Vermonters about cuisine, Pratt says, it would be to try new things. He hopes the shared plates at the Green Room help encourage people to try a few bites of something that they might not order if it were served as a full entrée. Small shared plates cost $7 and large shared plates are $15, so you can easily make a mix-and-match meal. For those who insist on a more traditional dining experience, the entrées - which change nightly - are $22.
Pratt plans to revamp the menu after the holidays. The winter menu will feature "big, bold flavors," he says, and the wine menu is being upgraded to match. After a recent tasting with reps from Vermont Wine Merchants, the staff selected 10 additional reds and two new whites. The fresh offerings will make the wine list even more eclectic than it already is, with selections from Chile, Spain, France, Australia and the U.S., among others. Pratt is particularly proud that three of the dessert wines - Chauteau Hallet Sauternes from France, Selaks Ice Wine from New Zealand and a red called Bodegas Olivares Dulce Monstrell from Spain - were picked to pair perfectly with the Green Room's signature desserts: fruit sorbet, chocolate mousse and butterscotch crème brulée, respectively.
After 7, the people really start to roll in, and the average patron age drops precipitiously. Although a number of the men wear suit jackets, quite a few are dressed more casually. One college-age guy sports a backwards baseball cap and an orange Northface jacket. Although the music stays the same, the conversational buzz in the room increases.
By 8, the place is completely full. The staff is moving faster now, and there are a couple of high-stress moments.
"It's totally my fault," says a server, apologizing for missing something in one of her orders.
"It's a team fault," sous-chef Smith corrects her.
Pratt is clearly kidding when he threatens, "We'll execute you by firing squad later."
Throughout the rush, staff members keep their voices low and respectful, even when the chefs are facing nine tickets at a time, and the plates of cooked food begin to pile up on the counter. Nobody seems to break a sweat. When the kitchen runs out of scallops, Pratt informs the manager right away so the servers won't sell any to the customers. When a server asks the chef if he can make the goat cheese risotto without dairy, Pratt figures out a way to do it. A little eggplant puree makes the risotto "creamy." Grilled vegetables add flavor and color.
Constructing new dishes is part of what Pratt loves about his job. It's not difficult, he says. When you're thinking about food all the time, the pairings just come naturally. He demonstrates his creative capacity when it comes time to invent a new foie gras dish for a guest who's already sampled the version listed on the menu. First he places a slice of smoked duck and a piece of seared foie on a bed of wilted spinach, with grilled radicchio and pineapple spears on the side. Then he pours on a lush demi-glace. The final touch? He reaches for - you guessed it - the truffle oil.