Now We're Cooking | Economy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Economy

Now We're Cooking

Against expectations, 2009 has been a banner year for dining out in northern Vermont


Published August 18, 2009 at 5:26 p.m.


Necessity is the mother of invention, the saying goes. But foodies surveying the 2009 Burlington-area restaurant scene may be more tempted to say desperation is the mother of innovation.

In 2008, things looked pretty bleak for dining in our area. Decades-old Tortilla Flat was one early and conspicuous casualty of what shaped up to be a disastrous year. Big Chile Republic, which served creative food with Filipino flavor, had barely emerged from its infancy when it bit the dust. Most painful for many was the untimely demise of Smokejacks. Although the Church and Main restaurant had its share of ups and downs, it introduced many a Burlingtonian to homemade lychee soda, wedges of creamy Humboldt Fog with spiced apricots, and bacon-studded gourmet mac ’n’ cheese. The Big Bold Burger, served on foccaccia with a side of barbecue sauce, garnered attention from USA Today.

Last fall, the recession hit consumers hard, and 2009 seemed destined to be another season of dining deprivation. Taste, near Burlington’s waterfront, was scheduled to end its winter hiatus on Valentine’s Day, but it never reopened. Menores on St. Paul Street, a relatively new joint that offered tacos, quesadillas and lots of tequila, closed unexpectedly in March. With the U.S. economy showing no sign of improvement — not to mention the price of maple syrup skyrocketing — food-focused folk prepared for a dispiriting season.

But instead of staying at home, people suddenly started whispering — and, yes, Twittering — about exciting new eateries. First the talk was about the Bluebird Tavern, slated to take over the Tortilla Flat spot and offer upscale pub food. Next, a website seeking servers willing to wear dirndls and lederhosen got the sausage and ’kraut crowd worked up about a German beer garden to be housed in a new structure replacing the burnt-out Five Spice Café.

The warmer months brought news of authentic Mexican cuisine at Frida’s Taqueria and Grill in Stowe. Now the buzz is about another upcoming Stowe eatery called Santos Cocina Latina, this one offering Puerto Rican cuisine, and about the “global street food” Radio Bean owner Lee Anderson plans to serve at ¡Duino! (Duende). Finally, new Asian — and particularly Vietnamese — restaurants continue to open, giving the Queen City a crash course in the intricacies of noodles and pho.

In short, 2009 has shaped up to be one of the best years for dining in recent memory. Not only are new places opening at a fast and furious pace, but almost all of them are damned good. And while some of these restaurants — such as the Bluebird — may have equally passionate admirers and detractors, no one can deny one thing: They’re not just new, they’re novel.

“Wouldn’t you have thought that when times got tough, a lot of people would fall back on the … absolute standard crowd pleasers that we subscribe to here?” muses Rux Martin of Vergennes, who has edited numerous cookbooks for Houghton Mifflin. An adventurous eater, she is glad they didn’t, and points to the influence of some relative newcomers to Vermont as a factor. “We need more small, ethnic things run by people, like the Vietnamese, who have moved here and are actually cooking what they ate at home.”

There’s one obvious reason for more new restaurants to open during a recession: Property values have dropped, and many contractors find themselves eager for work. Still, opening a restaurant, particularly one with an innovative or risky concept, isn’t cheap. The creativity we’re seeing this year may have to do with entrepreneurs in a tough climate needing to differentiate themselves from the competition.

For some, though, “fresh” is also a matter of principle. The rise — or, more precisely, the trickle-down — of localvore notions accords with recession ideals of self-sufficiency and frugality. When even new diners and minimarts are touting their locally sourced produce, the “fresh equals flavorful” equation is a solid consumer draw. And Burlington’s new restaurants ride the trend with style.

Everyone was too busy recovering from the night’s celebrations to notice, but when Asiana Noodle Shop opened on Burlington’s Church Street on New Year’s Day, it was an omen of good eats to come. The pan-Asian spot offers fare from China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia and other Eastern countries — a risky recipe that too often results in a restaurant doing too many things not very well. But Asiana juggles its many cuisines with aplomb. Authentic ramen, served in a bowl the size of a bisected basketball, comes over curly egg noodles with bok choy, corn, scallions, seaweed, boiled egg and a pat of melting butter. The pork version is good enough to induce serious cravings.

Another fresh Asian option is Saigon Bistro, the most recent addition to the roster of Vietnamese joints in Chittenden County. Although the Bistro serves typical dishes such as fried spring rolls and beef pho, its chef puts a unique twist on the fare with her house-made sauces. Several of the entrées, including savory beef and duck stews over noodles, can’t be found anywhere else. The Bistro also excels in offering a plethora of Vietnamese desserts, many of which combine colored bits of gelatin with beans and sweetened coconut milk. It’s the only place around to get a cup of salted limeade.

For a more homestyle taste of the tropics, commuters and students have been sampling The Spot on Shelburne Road, a new surf-themed joint that dishes up healthy fare, dotted with the occasional mango or pineapple, at breakfast and lunch.

Some restaurants offer the appeal of the exotic; others trade on the excitement of the out there. It’s safe to say there are two kinds of eaters: those who would munch on deep-fried cockscombs — yes, from roosters’ heads — if they were offered, and those who would gag and run in the opposite direction. And it’s also safe to guess that diners of the former persuasion are among the Bluebird Tavern’s enthusiasts. (Its chef, Aaron Josinsky, served cockscombs at last week’s Vermont Fresh Network Forum.) They’re the ones who won’t be fazed when a fat, fried sardine comes with its head on and its battered and deep-fried spine on the side, as one did at the “gastropub” last Tuesday.

The 120-seat Bluebird isn’t universally beloved. Perhaps because it bills itself as a “pub” and serves certain dishes associated with “fast food” — fried chicken, hot dogs, burgers — some patrons have quailed at the portion-to-price ratio. The deviled farm egg “snack” with crispy pork costs $4 and comes with a single halved egg and the equivalent of a sole strip of bacon.

Of late, the place has taken a bit of a beating in the online comments section of the 7 Nights dining guide, where eaters offer feedback. “I find the portions to be so small they are comical,” notes a commenter with the username TonyO. Others find the descriptions hard to decipher: “I didn’t know what … 75 percent of the items on the menu [were],” SarahLove admits.

But many, including the foodies surveyed for this article, wax rhapsodic about the Bluebird. Penny Cluse owner Charles Reeves raves, “The place is fabulous. Aaron [Josinsky]’s a great chef, and the menu is his love child. The execution is excellent.” But, he acknowledges, “It’s not going to appeal to everybody.”

It does appeal to serious carnivores hip to the head-to-tail ethos and to localvores, who will be glad to learn that, save for the seafood, nearly every animal or vegetable plated at the Bluebird is seasonal and locally sourced. Here’s the thing: While eating locally may mean eating frugally when “local” is your garden, it generally translates into higher prices when you’re dining out. At restaurants such as the Bluebird, consumers pay for Vermont ingredients and a commitment to making food from scratch that extends from the sausages to the mayo, mustard and ketchup. When the “free” stuff that arrives with your fries isn’t Heinz, you can expect to see the labor costs of whipping it up reflected on your bill.

Those who appreciate localvore cuisine without the offal may prefer The Belted Cow, Essex Junction’s fanciest new restaurant. Its offerings are “inventive, [made of] extremely good ingredients, very well composed,” says Odin Cathcart, exhibitions director at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe. Cathcart, who bills himself a “hardcore foodie” and “amateur chef,” returned to Vermont in February after years away, sampling more urban restaurant scenes. He says Vermont “seems to be a lot more diverse than I remember it 10 years ago.”

Another newly opened place on Cathcart’s go-to list is Frida’s Taqueria, a casual, authentic Mexican restaurant in Stowe. “I lived in Santa Fe for two years, so it’s really hard for me to have any South American or Mexican food in Vermont, because they can’t spice it the way I’d like them to,” says Cathcart, voicing a common complaint. “But [the chef] still did some pretty challenging things. I eat with my eyes, and the plating was absolutely gorgeous. The food was excellent.”

This fall, Stowe will step farther south of the border with the opening of Santos Cocina Latina, which will showcase dishes inspired by the owners’ Puerto Rican heritage. Think empanadas, ceviche, whole-barbecued pigs and mofongo, a dish made of mashed plantains.

Nick Karabelas isn’t Teutonic — his family is Greek — but he spent much of his youth in Switzerland, where his father worked in the pharmaceutical industry. There he learned to love the hearty, German-style fare he’ll serve at Das Bierhaus, scheduled to open on October 1 with sausages, sauerkraut and potatoes in abundance.

Why did the New Hampshire native pick Burlington for his first restaurant venture? Karabelas says he has “been coming to the area for the last five years as a consumer … Burlington has a market made up of foodies, and I think they have been underserved. There weren’t a lot of [restaurant] choices.” He credits the current food boom to “entrepreneurs seeing that there’s a market to tap into.”

Reeves of Penny Cluse, an eatery with an enduringly winning formula, agrees that Burlington’s dining scene needed some shaking up. “The complacency, yeah, it’s there,” he says. “People find what they can do with their businesses, and they don’t want to change. I can kind of understand that side of the coin.”

“The more competition the better; it will keep people on their toes,” says new blood Karabelas. As for Reeves, he believes older eateries can stay fresh and compete with newbies as long as their owners are “able to evolve … Understand the things that are happening in the wider food world, and let your restaurant continue to develop.”

As interesting as Burlington dining is getting, some market niches haven’t been filled. Bruce Hatrak, a lawyer for Bombardier Aerospace and an adventurous eater, enjoys the fare at the Bluebird and Asiana Noodle Shop, but he hopes to see even more variety. “It always seems to be improving incrementally,” he says. “I’d like to see a Middle Eastern mezze-type place — Lebanese or Turkish, not an Ahli Baba’s kebab place … An Ethiopian place would be kind of cool.”

¡Duino! (Duende) could appease some of Hatrak’s desires. Chef Richard Witting, who is helping draft the North Winooski spot’s menu, noted last week in an email that he’s been researching global street food in an effort to “fill some of the culinary gaps in the Burlington palate.” This time next year, you could be picking up Ethiopian injera bread, the Japanese vegetable pancake called okonomiyaki and Middle Eastern manakeesh flatbread on the same block that houses the Vermont Sandwich Company.

Of course, we still don’t know which of these newcomers will be around next year. It’s a process of natural selection, with local diners only too happy to cull the candidates. Charles Reeves, for one, says he feels confident about the potential of The Spot and the Bluebird: “I think they’re great additions, and they’re young, and a year from now they’ll be standards. I’m psyched they’re both here.”

And some are just overjoyed to have choices. “It’s a complete sea change,” says Rux Martin. “Finally, Burlington [fare] doesn’t feel like that awful ’burbs food.”