Last week, the Essex Culinary Resort & Spa began a soft opening of its latest restaurant, Junction, which will celebrate its grand opening on August 1. The new restaurant replaces Amuse, which quietly closed early this year.
According to director of culinary operations Shawn Calley, the previous restaurant was more formal than he — and many guests — wanted. The smaller Junction is a reaction to that, providing a relaxed fine-dining experience that mimics dining at the home of a chef friend in its personalized service. "For me it was about just putting out very high-end food in a really casual, casual environment," Calley says. "It's Vermont, so it's OK to wear blue jeans and eat a five-course dinner."
Calley and co. spent the spring overseeing renovations of the space. The back wall is now covered in reclaimed wood from Vermont barns. A new fireplace will keep diners warm in the cold months — as will the open kitchen.
Once the centerpiece of Amuse as part of a limited-seating chef's table, that visible-to-diners kitchen will be the site of all the food prep at Junction. Another, nearby kitchen is devoted to feeding guests at the more casual Tavern, which Calley says has become more culinarily consistent since the change.
While the Tavern can turn out savory monkey bread, grilled steak with lobster couscous and braised lamb flatbread for a crowd, Junction seats only 32 at a time. The small size allows for an uncommonly personalized meal.
"We visit each table and discuss custom menus, allergies or whatever people want. It's just really to be able to explain the food and what our thought process is on the dish," Calley explains.
"We" refers to Junction's chef de cuisine, Michael Clauss, who runs the kitchen from Wednesday through Saturday; and the resort's executive chef, Alex Casimir, who takes the reins Sunday through Tuesday. Calley fills in when necessary.
Clauss and Casimir are in charge of wine pairings. When they visit each table, they're happy to suggest glasses to order for the $50 three-course menu. For the $85 five-course dinner, they conceive a set wine flight to match each night's dishes.
Junction's cuisine follows a similar template to the ultra-modern fare at Amuse. With two new immersion circulators, food cooked sous-vide is more prominent than ever. Calley says Clauss is "getting his feet wet," on the anti-griddle, which freezes any food that touches it. And Clauss knows a thing or two about using an exacting eye — and palate — to craft creative bites. In 2010, he represented the U.S. in the elite international competition the Bocuse d'Or.
Dishes at Junction change daily. Besides the chefs' overflowing creativity, the changing menu reflects the current crop, drawn not only from Vermont farms such as Maplebrook Farm, Jericho Settlers Farm and Fischer Farm but also from the expanding harvest at the resort itself.
The kitchen garden that Calley has long nurtured provides herbs and veggies. For three years, he's used eggs laid by chickens situated nearby. Ten more will soon move in, making 30 hens whose sole job is to provide guests with eggs.
Diners can rejoice that one of Fischer Farm's wagyu cows is on its way from Springfield to Essex, part of an ongoing relationship with the farm. Calley says an all-wagyu dinner is in the works. Calley may add pigs to the on-site livestock.
With a new restaurant and an expanding farm, "Vermont's culinary resort" is living up to its name.