But then, a basket of good crusty rolls and a complimentary plate of marinated mushrooms arrived, our wine was poured and the evening took a decided turn for the better. It turns out that excellent food and good service can make up for a lot. Well, you say: duh.
"Asiago Wood Grill & Noodle Bar Bistro" takes its moniker from the Italian cheese — from the eponymous northern Italian village — which chefs and co-owners Matthew and Joyce Buckels grate on the restaurant's homemade pastas. It's a small place — 12 tables seat a maximum of 48 — with a tiny bar serving wine and beer only. Matthew Buckels, who trained at Johnson & Wales culinary school in Rhode Island, says he and his wife came to Vermont from Nantucket restaurants — she is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. This is their first stint as owners.
The restaurant, which opened in December 1996 in the space formerly occupied by Stowe Fine Foods on the Mountain Road, is known for its wood-fired grill and homemade pastas, and if our experience is any measure, its fame will only be increasing. One friend ordered a venison osso bucco ($18) — a bone-in hunk of meat braised forever in the kind of incredibly savory sauce that you want to mop up with bread. I had a moist and flavorful grilled trout with lobster risotto and trumpet mushrooms, attractively presented with sprigs of watercress ($16).
But I tend to judge restaurants on how they treat vegetarians, and Asiago came through with flying colors. The "Veggie Pallooza" plate ($10) ordered by the third member of our party was a lovely array of wood-grilled vegetables — I recall eggplant, squash and asparagus among them — served with small mounds of mashed potatoes, giant couscous, purple sticky rice and mashed sweet potatoes. On arrival, the plate looked skimpy, but we soon realized that was because the food was served on an oversized platter; my friend did not go hungry. (Neither did the rest of us; portions were more than ample, and I saw several diners leaving with their leftovers in hand.)
A wood-grilled flatbread with mushrooms and gorgonzola ($9) rounded out our meal. Other selections included a pistachio-crusted salmon ($14.50), a grilled veal chop with a bacon and garlic-herb crust ($18.50), and a porter-braised lamb shank ($15.50). Pasta dishes — made with traditional pastas such as spaghetti and ziti, and homemade Asian noodles as well — range in price from $9 to $12. Appetizers looked tempting: fire-roasted calamari with Thai chile sauce ($5.75), warm spinach salad with grilled portobello mushrooms ($4.75), grilled sweetbreads and wilted greens ($5). The menu changes monthly.
The wine list, to an uneducated but enthusiastic oenophile like myself, could be called "interesting," mostly because it seemed to avoid all the "usual suspects" (in other words, I had never heard of most of the selections). We enjoyed our Hogue Fumé Blanc, an Oregon white ($4.75 a glass; $19 a bottle) so much that we ordered a second. The list of beers also offered some unusual choices including Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter — $3.25 on draft — and Red Hook Double Black Stout at $6 for a 24-ounce bottle.
The service was great: timely, efficient and nonintrusive, though still casual and friendly. We felt cared for but not spied upon. Even being right under the speaker soon ceased to matter; for one thing, I liked the stuff they were playing — a lively mix of jazz and light reggae.
We never asked what was on the dessert menu, as we were too satiated; instead, we finished our meal with some good decaf espresso. Matthew Buckels later told me the desserts change nightly. Recent offerings included a raspberry key lime pie, a chocolate tiramisu and pumpkin cheesecake, at around $5 a serving.
The bill for three people, excluding wine and tip, was $70. My friends, visiting from out of town, reported that they dined the following night at a more high-profile area restaurant and paid much more for a relatively inferior meal.
Seven Days is pleased to introduce a new monthly feature: local restaurant reviews by nationally known critic Marialisa Calta, who writes about food for the New York Times, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and Martha Stewart Living from her home in Calais, Vermont.
The reviewer dines at chosen restaurants anonymously, and Seven Days pays the tab, in order to ensure "normal," representative meals and service from the restaurant.
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