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Middlebury's Coriander Aims to Please

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Summer salad - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Summer salad

The herb coriander, also known as cilantro, is polarizing. Some prize the fresh, bright flavor of the leaves, which add a refreshing zing to dishes such as shrimp tacos, Indian chutneys and Moroccan chermoula sauce. Others detest the stuff, claiming it tastes like soap. Distaste for the delicate, lacy leaves is, at least in part, hereditary: As much as 14 percent of the population has a genetically based dislike for the group of chemicals known as aldehydes, which show up in carpets, plastic, cleaners ... and coriander.

Middlebury's newest restaurant, Coriander, which opened in late June, does not share its namesake's divisive qualities. Located right next to the town's co-op and owned by creative manager Jennifer Sabourin and a pair of chefs, Dave Laferriere-Hall and Dustin Simmons — all alums of Middlebury restaurant Fire & Ice — the business seems to have been designed for broad palatability.

Bud and Bud Light appear on the beer menu alongside some suds from Burlington's Zero Gravity Craft Brewery and Fiddlehead Brewing of Shelburne. The dinner menu offers some creative touches — filet mignon comes with mint-infused honey and horseradish — without delving into the realm of the weird. There are no organ meats. There's no crudo or tartare. The vegetarian entrées lean heavily on portobello mushrooms.

In a liberal-arts college town, this is clever positioning. With entrées topping out at $30, and most hovering closer to $20, Coriander can function as a date-night spot for townies and well-heeled students alike, as well as a meeting place for faculty and staff. The well-executed dishes and pleasant décor — spare and cool with lots of gray-blue, brown and cream — will neither spur nor detract from the conversation.

Coriander - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Coriander

Such was my experience on a steamy Wednesday night, when I dropped in for dinner with two rather brilliant companions. Perusal of the menu left us more excited about the appetizers than the main courses, so we ordered a spread of small plates, plus a smoked and stuffed pork loin entrée that all of us found compelling.

As we waited, we snacked on rolls with butter and sipped a lovely hibiscus-mint soda from Still Thyme Botanical Soda of Middlesex. A few other parties dotted the dining room, but the atmosphere was serene.

Then, nearly all at once, the food arrived. It hadn't occurred to me to ask for service in courses, given that we'd ordered from the app and entrée sections of the menu, but in retrospect, I wish I had. With plates crowding the table, we had to calculate the order in which to sample the dishes before they lost their just-from-the-kitchen savor. "Calamari, fried duck, then the mussels," I suggested. "Let's go for the pork next, before the fat gets cold, and eat the salad at the end."

We dug into the calamari. The flesh was tender, the breading crisp and golden brown. The generous pile of tentacles and squid bodies was punctuated with rounds of fried jalapeño and came with a zesty dipping sauce. The logic behind the dish's name, Bubbler Dreams, remained a mystery. Perhaps it refers to a vat of boiling oil or to a style of pot pipe that filters smoke through water. (I've never craved calamari when I've had the munchies.)

The name of the duck dish, Toller's Delight, was more transparent: The Toller is a retriever from Nova Scotia that's bred for duck hunting. I'm not sure if the pups want their duck tenderloins dusted in graham-cracker crumbs and deep-fried, but I certainly do. The deep-brown nuggets were a favorite.

Mussels Renoir - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Mussels Renoir

Next came the mussels, a classic preparation in which the gleaming black shells were piled in a bowl filled with buttery white-wine sauce, dotted with chunks of onion and tomato, and flecked with herbs.

I appreciated the smokiness of the pork loin, which consisted of two sizable slices rolled around a small amount of bacon, onion and cheese filling, all sitting atop a pile of mashed potatoes over a few tender spears of verdant asparagus. The dish was drizzled with cilantro oil, which seemed entirely appropriate as a flavor component and a nod to the restaurant's name. What the dish could have used was additional seasoning — it was low on salt — and the tang of acidity. Lemon juice, vinegar or mustard would have perked up the flavors.

No matter how many times I eat it, I still love the combination of strawberries and goat cheese, especially when the pair makes its way onto a salad. This one was drizzled with balsamic reduction and studded with walnuts. The bed of greens consisted solely of baby spinach, which is not my favorite (give me some mixed baby lettuces, arugula or cress for crunch and flavor), but it's an undeniably popular choice.

Both desserts — tiramisu and Key lime pie — could use work. Only the bottom edge of the cake in the tiramisu was coffee-soaked, and it wasn't the moist, decadent treat I'd envisioned. The Key lime pie, mounded with whipped cream, simply needed more lime flavor and zip to complement its sweetness.

Every restaurateur must choose a target audience. It's one of the hardest decisions to make, requiring consideration of the existing market and an array of priorities: creativity, personal vision, the need to make a living. There are reasons to dive deep into a creative and trendy niche and hope to attract enough gourmands to give the restaurant a chance. There are also reasons to create a menu that appeals to a broad swath of the community.

Coriander has opted for the latter. The food coming out of the kitchen was adeptly made. The service was cheery — in a couple of instances, it almost seemed out of step with the minimal rapport we'd built. The dining room is nicely appointed.

Often I spend my meals out picking apart and evaluating the food to the exclusion of other types of interaction. Here, I stayed focused on the pleasure of the company I was keeping and on a conversation that swooped and swirled through a symphony of topics. The food stayed in the background like soft music or an ambient temperature so close to the warmth of your skin that you don't realize there's a temperature at all.

And that's a whole different kind of pleasure.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Herbal Essence"

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