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It Feeds a Village

"The Porch" puts Rochester on the restaurant map

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The Village Porch Bar and Bistro has only been open for a couple of weeks, but, like its namesake wrap-around veranda, feels like it's been there forever. On a recent Saturday night, the Rochester restaurant was filled with old friends, most of whom were greeted by name before they'd had the chance to shake the snow from their boots. Strangers - in this case, a few outdoorsy out-of-towners - also got a full serving of Vermont hospitality, along with some really good food. That's the charm of "The Porch;" it's both homey and haute.

The restaurant occupies the ground floor of a renovated Victorian home at the corner of Route 100 and School Street. In keeping with the season, red holiday ornaments dangle from the railing, and white holiday lights and votive candles sparkle in the windows. When the weather gets warm, tables on the porch will provide for al fresco dining, promises co-owner Dean Mendell. The porch swing would have been more enticing on Saturday night were it not piled with two feet of snow.

Mendell, a builder, did the restoration on the building, including the conversion of an original mantel into a sit-down bar. At one end of it, a bartender in a velvety black beret with a sparkly pin mixed up sidecars and gin and tonics for a pair of cheerful looking older patrons. Between drinks, she chatted with a young man dressed in Carhartts and a hoodie. They were soon joined by Mendell, who sipped a Bloody Mary and exchanged pleasantries with patrons as they arrived.

The restaurant's decor is charmingly mismatched. Connie Mandell, Dean's wife and restaurant co-owner, also runs the Occasions catering business. Eclectic samples of her fine linens covered the tables in various shades of red or pink - perhaps a holdover from Valentine's Day? One was a rich crimson such as you might find in a fancy dining room, another was salmon, and still another was printed with a country-home motif of delicate pink flowers. A different pair of salt-and-pepper shakers sat on each table. Even the menus were individually crafted.

In the back dining room, a sizeable cutout in the wall allows for an unhampered view into the kitchen. Through it, patrons can watch Chef Luke Stone prepare their dinners. The well-seasoned young chef put in time at The Bobcat Café in Bristol and Christophe's on the Green in Vergennes before joining the team at The Porch.

His edible offerings are two-tiered. The left side of the menu features reasonably priced pub food, such as a $6.95 vegetarian quesadilla with peppers, onions, Monterey Jack cheese and guacamole. Meat-eaters can add cilantro-lime chicken for an extra $1.55. A mesclun salad is always available - and costs $6.50 - but the ingredients change regularly. Last week, the greens came tossed with oranges, red onions and goat cheese in a basil vinaigrette.

The pricier specials change weekly depending on the availability of ingredients and the whims of Chef Stone. There's always something for vegetarians as well as for lovers of seafood and meat, according to Connie. On Saturday night, the vegetarian entrée was grilled polenta with roasted vegetables and basil aioli. A previous menu featured hand-made tagliatelle pasta with wild mushrooms, pearl onions and corn. Carnivorous types can choose among such daring dishes as duck breast with blood orange sauce accompanied by a salad of oranges, olives, pomegranate and basil, and smoked flank steak with a chipotle demi-glace, spinach and potatoes.

A crab-cake appetizer from the pub menu was delicious - chunks of tender, sweet crab paired perfectly with spicy julienned vegetables and creamy sesame sauce. "Connie's Harvest Vegetable Soup," also from the pub menu, consisted of a lime-scented tomato broth full of carrots, onions and zucchini. Parsley caper pesto topped the soup, but the portion was too small to stand up to the soup's other flavors.

Special entrées cost more than the pub food - between $13.95 and $19.95 - but are worth it. Each dish is composed of perfectly orchestrated ingredients, and the portion sizes are just right. The roasted pork loin arrived with pear compote and a generous scoop of creamy mashed potatoes. The meat was perfectly rosy, and the well-seasoned sides perfect complements. The meal was good, but Chef Stone's creativity and skill really shone in a scallop dish. Tender nuggets of seafood had been gorgeously seared, then cut nearly in half and stuffed with savory mushroom duxelles. The scallops were served on a puddle of silky smooth, spring-green leek puree, and a truffle sabayon sauce that was lush and sensual.

Like the food, the drink menu runs the gamut from folksy to fine. Coors and Amstel Light hang out at the less expensive end of the beer menu, and local microbrews like Wolaver's and Otter Creek join Guinness at the other end. Most of the wines by the bottle cost less than $25, but those who want to spend a little bit more have a couple of options, too. Sparklers include Freixenet and Korbel - both of which are often mocked by food snobs - but for extra-special occasions, $72 bottles of Veuve Cliquot are offered as well.

Desserts are advertised on a chalkboard above the bar. The pastry in an apple strudel was lovely, but too much cinnamon in the fruit filling gave the dessert a slightly bitter edge. A chocolate hazelnut torte was pleasant but not thrilling. It was cake-like in texture and had a delicate hazelnut flavor, but the flavors didn't pop. A couple of disappointing desserts couldn't possibly spoil such a delicious dinner.

This village of just over a thousand between Brandon and Bethel doesn't seem a likely destination for fine dining. But Rochester's arts scene is growing, and good food is part of the creative-economy equation. With its relaxed atmosphere and friendly staff, the Porch also appeals if you want a couple of beers and a burger at the bar. Dean says business has been brisk since they opened two weeks before Christmas - not bad, considering that January and February tend to be slow for restaurants. Even without the outdoor swing, it's a good place to hang out.

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