You don’t see much gumbo or jambalaya on local menus — perhaps because Vermont’s weather doesn’t give denizens of the Deep South a great incentive to settle here. Robin Wilson, who owns Ten Acres Lodge in Stowe with her husband, Frank, is an exception — a native Louisianan. After letting their inn’s restaurant sit empty for two years, the couple decided to bring the food of Wilson’s childhood to her adopted home. In May, they opened Lagniappe.
The word is a Cajun term for a little something extra that a merchant throws in with a purchase: the 13th cookie in a baker’s dozen, for example, or the basket of bread at a restaurant. At Lagniappe, the hot, crusty loaf with Cabot butter isn’t the only thing that’s on the house — diners also get a quartet of sugary hush puppies and some mixed pickles.
My companion and I didn’t know that when we tried to order the hush puppies from the menu as a side dish. “You ruined the surprise,” our ponytailed server noted matter-of-factly, after informing us that the cornmeal nuggets would come free with our entrées. Despite knowing in advance that we’d get some starch gratis, we opted for rice and beans, too.
To Vermonters whose Cajun-culture experience is limited to grabbing beads at Burlington’s Mardi Gras parade and maybe watching “True Blood” on TV, Lagniappe’s menu may present some mysteries. The jambalaya is advertised as coming with “shrimp, andouille sausage, spices and the holy trinity,” but if you order it, don’t expect the Second Coming with your rice. In Louisianan cookery, the phrase refers to the much-used combo of onions, celery and bell peppers.
And don’t assume, as I did, that “pirogue” is an alternative spelling of “pierogi.” The latter are Eastern European dumplings that often come stuffed with potatoes and cheese or sauerkraut. The former is a type of flat-bottomed canoe made for traveling through marshes or other shallows.
Our “pirogue” appetizer turned out to be a “boat” made of cornmeal-dusted mirliton — a thin-skinned fruit in the gourd family, also known as chayote — piled with a hefty scoop of crab rémoulade.
The tangy seafood salad, which had a nice vegetal crunch, tasted more strongly of mustard and capers than of sweet crab. But I did enjoy my first taste of juicy mirliton, which I learned about years ago when my brother was into Emeril Lagasse’s cooking shows.
I should have known better than to order both the chicken-and-sausage “gumbeaux du jour” appetizer and the seafood étouffée entrée. Since both contain darkened roux, the “holy trinity” and lots of spices, they taste fairly similar. My favorite part of the gumbo was the okra, while the étouffée boasted plenty of tender seafood, including crawfish and catfish. Both were heavy on bay, and I spent a good few minutes extracting bits of the leathery leaves from my mouth. Placing the bay in a sachet and removing it from the finished product would have been a nice touch.
The best entrée was a whole, perfectly cooked lobster stuffed with a mix of anise-scented grits and corn kernels. I couldn’t figure out exactly what went into the bourbon-and-butter-laced sauce, but one of the chefs explained that it includes tomalley — the prized green lobster liver — that has been ground with a mortar and pestle.
Lagniappe has casual service that diners may construe as refreshing or unrefined, depending on their expectations for a mid-priced restaurant. When I asked about the flavor profile of Andygator, a golden, German-style lager from Louisiana’s Abita Brewing Company, I was told none of the staffers working that evening had sampled it, and was handed a packet of printed information. Luckily, Andygator turned out to go well with seafood. Because our dishes were highly seasoned and water refills were infrequent, I spent much of the meal lusting after another glass.
When my petite friend and I ordered a pair of desserts after a hearty dinner, the server’s eyes widened in disbelief.
While we were able to manage dessert — after having much of our dinner wrapped to go — it turned out to be my least favorite part of the meal. The bananas Foster was OK, albeit not flambéed. But a portion of bread pudding was bland and chewy, and the accompanying sauce tasted too boozy.
Sweet stuff aside, it seems like Lagniappe is off to a good start. It may just need to add, well, a little something extra.
One vegetarian entrée wouldn’t hurt, for example — this is Vermont, after all. And perhaps, as business picks up, the chef can expand the menu to include some additional Cajun and Creole specialties that aren’t seafood based. Right now, almost all the exciting, authentic-sounding dishes feature fruits de mer, but Louisiana cookery has plenty of enticing pork and fowl dishes.
And warm, feather-light beignets for dessert? That would be heavenly.