- Daria Bishop
- A selection of treats from Hangry the Donut Bar
If 2020 was a roller coaster for Vermont's food scene, 2021 brought the resulting whiplash.
As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continued in the spring, the momentum was growing. The early summer, with restrictions lifted, was the release we'd dreamed of throughout the slow climb. We thought, for a glorious, fleeting moment, that the state's restaurants might have avoided the mass closures that had been threatened (and felt elsewhere).
Then staffing challenges, rising food costs, new virus variants and increasing case numbers brought a painful redirect as the news of permanent closures started trickling in: Richmond farm-to-table destination Kitchen Table Bistro; Old North End neighborhood spot Butch + Babe's; Stowe venue the Rusty Nail and its associated restaurant, Tres Amigos; the Arcadian in Middlebury; Mary's Restaurant in Bristol; and Drifter's, the Swingin' Pinwheel and Maya's Kitchen & Bar in Burlington, to name just a few.
But it wasn't all bad news. Somehow, new restaurants kept opening. Some replaced ones that had closed, and some were relocations to new spots with more pandemic-friendly concepts. Many restaurateurs are taking a hard look at life-work balance for themselves and their employees, as well as how to increase compensation and benefits.
Chefs, cooks, and food and drink entrepreneurs kept pursuing their passions, and we ate and drank really well. So well, in fact, that we decided to review our favorites — the delicious things that crossed our palates in 2021. Here are 14 from this paper's two food writers, in roughly chronological order.
Hangry the Donut Bar, St. Albans
Melissa wrote my favorite sentence of 2021 in our very first story of the year: "In January, others may diet; we doughnut."
We'd decided to give the finger to so-called "clean eating" and briefly held New Year's resolutions, opting instead to sample some of Vermont's newest fluffy fried treats.
I headed to the St. Albans Park and Ride right at the beginning of the year to pick up the dozen assorted doughnuts I had preordered from Hangry the Donut Bar. Erica and Ed McClain launched Hangry in March 2020, making brioche-style doughnuts in their St. Albans home kitchen.
I had just enough self-control to snap a photo of the flat white box — bursting with lemon-poppy, chocolate-peanut butter, orange-whiskey and cookie-butter doughnuts — before taking a single bite of each "for research" (but really to preempt any requests to share). Those bites stuck with me all year long. In 2022, it will be even easier to get Hangry: The McClains plan to open a brick-and-mortar doughnut shop on Main Street in St. Albans in the spring.
Caspian Oyster Depot, Bristol
- File: Caleb Kenna
- Wellfleet oyster from Caspian Oyster Depot
Chef Justin Wright made some of my favorite food of 2020 at Burlington's short-lived restaurant C'est Ça, but the pop-up fish market he and his wife, Sophie Wright, hosted at Bristol's Tandem tops my winter 2021 highlight reel.
Caspian Oyster Depot helped turn small, outdoor pandemic gatherings into extra-special events in a way that only an abundance of fancy seafood can. One week, my pod and I shucked dozens of oysters by moonlight, standing knee-deep in snow. Another, we roasted them over a warm fire, then grilled perfect slabs of tuna for a second course.
The couple put Caspian on hold to welcome their first child in the spring, though they have plans to revive it in the coming year. For now, Justin Wright is working the wood-fired oven at the Tillerman, making smoking-hot meatballs, veggie dishes, pizzas — and, yes, oysters.
Best Use of Lard
All Souls Tortilleria, Burlington
- Melissa Pasanen
- All Souls Tortilleria's Sonoran-style tortillas
Even through a mask, I could smell the toasty aroma of a late-summer wheat field in the All Souls Tortilleria flour tortilla operation in Burlington. Though All Souls is best known for corn tortillas made at another nearby facility, the company started producing tortillas in the Old North End from regionally sourced flour in 2020.
I was there in April while reporting a feature about All Souls cofounder Joe Bossen, who also founded Vermont Bean Crafters. The crew was working on Sonoran-style tortillas made with lard that day. The team also makes flour tortillas with organic sunflower oil, dubbed Four Corners.
Fresh balls of dough went from a wedge press into a carousel oven, from which they emerged puffy with air bubbles. Biting into one warm from the oven, I was instantly smitten. The lard gives the tortillas a richness and pastry-like flakiness that oil just can't match.
Mara Welton, co-owner of Chile Colorado, agrees. She uses Four Corners for the burritos she sells, but for personal consumption she'd pick the Sonoran style, which she called "a fluffy dream."
Best Meading Place
Golden Rule Mead, Middlebury, goldenrulebrew.com
- File: Caleb Kenna
- Bottles from Golden Rule Mead
Golden Rule's eight-ounce glass bottles quickly became my drink of choice for Zoom happy hours and early spring gardening, particularly the beet-based Jitterbug and the floral, bubbly, wild-fermented Hilma with lavender and lemon balm.
Apfel is a wizard with wild yeast. A strain he propagated from Champlain Orchards' apples shines in the simple Wild Light, as does the honey he sources from an array of Vermont beekeepers.
These meads are dry and resemble wine, beer or cider, depending on the local ingredients Apfel plays with in each batch. And many have low ABV — the fuchsia Jitterbug is a sessionable 3.8 percent.
They're all perfect for sipping on the porch, and Golden Rule's tasting room on Middlebury's Elm Street happens to have just such a spot for hanging out.
Most Like Dining Out in Brooklyn
- Daria Bishop
- Diners at Poco
When we tentatively returned to indoor dining after being fully vaccinated in the spring, one of the first places my husband and I headed to was Poco on Burlington's Main Street. Everyone in the small, brick-walled eatery seemed so happy to be there; joy bounced palpably from the dining room to the busy open kitchen. A playlist hopscotched from Donna Summer to MF Doom; one pair of diners even busted a few dance moves.
Poco, which opened in 2019, blends a hip urban vibe with a warm Vermont-style welcome. North Bennington natives and siblings Susie Ely and Stefano Cicirello run the front and back of the house, respectively.
Cocktails are expertly conceived and shaken with a flourish behind the bar. The shareable plates burst and crunch with flavors and textures. A Caesar salad of Napa cabbage and mustard greens came with crispy chicken-skin "croutons" and a funked-up black-garlic dressing. Buttery rich slices of salmon carpaccio glowed under a bright lemon-tarragon vinaigrette, briny capers, salty Parmigiano-Reggiano and crisp radish.
We returned in July with our visiting twentysomething, former Brooklyn-dwelling son, who marveled that a place this cool existed in Vermont. A few more spots like this might tempt him to move back.
Most Whimsical Waffles
The Great Northern & Zero Gravity Craft Brewery, Burlington
- Jordan Barry
- Waffles with a Fernet Sour at the Great Northern & Zero Gravity Craft Brewery
Every year, we're blown away by the number of coffee businesses that open in Vermont, and 2021 was no different. But only one had me constantly babbling about "Waffee and Coffles," like a Sim trapped inside a video game coffee shop with no doors.
The silly name is a front for the very serious coffee and seriously good waffles at the Great Northern and Zero Gravity Craft Brewery's combined pandemic-era operations on Pine Street. Every day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the taproom, they serve perfectly pulled shots of Brio Coffeeworks espresso and ethereal, palm-size waffles with crispy, lacy edges.
Jamie Barrat-Bluck, Zero Gravity's coffee/waffle person (a real title), told me that sitting on the brewery's outdoor patio with a cappuccino and a couple of waffles is "the height of the experience," especially when paired with French poetry.
I don't often carry around a book of Baudelaire, but a Fernet Sour from the taproom, which starts serving other food and drink at noon — tends to have the same effect.
Most Virtuous Vegetable
Sea kale; Jeffersonville, Marshfield and Plainfield
- File: Glenn Russell
- Graham Unangst-Rufenacht harvesting sea kale at the Farm Between of Sterling College
Everyone knows that vegetables are good for you. This year I learned that some may also be good for the planet. In mid-May, I met Graham Unangst-Rufenacht and Aaron Guman, who are investigating the commercial potential of three perennial vegetables I'd never heard of.
Perennial plants don't need to be replanted each year. This reduces the need to disturb the soil, which keeps carbon underground, rather than in the atmosphere, helping to address the climate crisis. As a bonus, deep-rooted, hardy perennials also tend to manage weather extremes a little better than their annual counterparts.
I immediately became a vocal advocate for sea kale, which I like to describe as the love child of kale and broccoli rabe. The blue-gray leaves of Crambe maritima are interspersed with slender, broccoli-like florets. The vegetable delivers a mouthful of sweetness with a pleasant bitter edge.
Thinly sliced stems and whole florets sautéed up beautifully with slivered garlic, anchovies and red pepper flakes. Longer stems with florets were also delicious roasted whole. This new-to-me vegetable brings fresh meaning to the slogan Eat More Kale.
Wilder Wines, Burlington
- Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
- Jordan Barry with a three-liter bottle of Domaine Marcel Lapierre Morgon from Wilder Wines (other bottles for scale)
Sipha Lam really shook up the local natural wine scene when she opened her tiny Wilder Wines shop on Burlington's Cherry Street in early March. Lam is a champion for Vermont wine and affordable bottles, and she's always spot-on with recommendations for a splurge. (That's how I ended up with the most delightful three-liter bottle of Domaine Marcel Lapierre Morgon for my birthday, which was excessive in exactly the right way.)
I wasn't at all surprised when her one-night takeover at Mike Dunn's T. Rugg's Tavern on July 12 brought out a who's who of the Vermont wine and restaurant world. The Old North End dive was packed with people, and the vibe was somewhere between a collective sigh of relief and full-on bacchanalia. After all, it was July, and we thought this pandemic shit was over.
Burlington Beer's John Roettinger and Avery Buck sold out of 300 oysters in less than half an hour, and the 72 bottles of wine that Lam brought only lasted two hours. I snagged a bottle of No Es Pituko Chardonnay to share with friends and strangers, which we poured into pint glasses on the back patio. It was hot, blissful and just so much fun.
- File: James Buck
- Scorpion Bowl and General Tso's chicken with broccoli at Mandarin
I have ordered from Mandarin 27 times since March 2020. It became habit. Late night working to meet a deadline? Mandarin. A little sun-scorched from the lake and too tired to cook? Mandarin. Just because it's Thursday and we're stuck at home in a pandemic? Mandarin.
The order didn't vary much, either: sesame chicken, egg rolls, scallion pancakes and sometimes dumplings — fried or spicy Sichuan. The chicken always packed a just-right spice, and it came with green beans, so I wasn't totally skipping vegetables.
I feel sort of guilty that I've never explored the other parts of the menu, dined in-person at the bottom of the Winooski circle or had one of the cocktails that my predecessor, Hannah Palmer Egan, raved about in her year-end wrap-up in 2018. But I'll chalk it up to pandemic adaptation and a need for predictability.
Years from now, looking back on 2021, these Mandarin meals will likely stand out. Right before moving out of our Burlington apartment at the end of July, after scrubbing the fridge and patching the walls, my husband and I tucked into that same order of sesame chicken, egg rolls and scallion pancakes in the empty living room, stopping only to wipe up the duck sauce we had dripped on the freshly mopped floors.
Favorite Foodie Road Trip
- Melissa Pasanen
- Falafel bowls with pita at Yalla Vermont
In August, motivated by an outdoor Pan Evolution Steel Orchestra concert at Retreat Farm, we took a road trip south to Brattleboro. The music was a big draw, but then the question became how many food and drink destinations we could squeeze in.
We started with lunch at Yalla Vermont, which promises authentic Middle Eastern food with influences from Israel, Morocco, Turkey and Yemen. The large black-steel pita-bread oven in the corner of the counter-service spot hinted at the deliciousness ahead. I'm still salivating over the pillowy fresh pita, crisp falafel, silken fried eggplant, addictively sour pickles and cabbage, and herby-spicy skhug sauce.
Next stop: Hermit Thrush Brewery. The day was steaming hot, and I succumbed to the siren call of a fantastic and inspired Hermit "slush," which featured their sour, fruity Party Jam brew blended with frozen strawberries and blackberries.
At the concert, we headed to the Dosa Kitchen food truck. Between the infectiously danceable beats of the Brooklyn-based musicians, we relished a dosa dog, a South Indian crêpe-style pancake wrapped around a grass-fed beef hot dog with masala-spiced sauerkraut and Grafton cheddar. We also enjoyed another dosa stuffed with a more traditional spicy potato filling served with dipping chutneys.
Brattleboro delivered a party for all our senses.
Hottest New Breakfast Spot
The Café Hot., Burlington
- Melissa Pasanen
- Breakfast sandwiches from the Café Hot.
When brothers Allan and Travis Walker-Hodkin landed on the vacated Mirabelles Bakery spot on Main Street for their new breakfast place, they knew they had big shoes to fill. The Café Hot., which opened in early September, is very different from its predecessor but is rocketing its way to similar success.
The Walker-Hodkins have focused on standout breakfast sammies, excellent coffee (including their decaf) and "bonuts." The latter are a clever use of their biscuit dough and a mouthwatering addition to the Cronut-inspired tradition of frying different doughs cut in a ring shape. The flaky, crunchy bonuts are always available with espresso glaze, made from the Brio Coffeeworks beans they serve. Other inventive glazes range from Nicholas sage to Key lime-chocolate chip.
Their standard sandwich comes on a tender, house-baked milk bun with egg and cheese fused into a cohesive, mahogany-bottomed, gooey whole with a hit of harissa heat. The biscuit sandwiches are flakier than Lindsay Lohan and as delightful as the young actress was in the film Freaky Friday.
After several months of takeout, at press time the café was poised to open for on-site dining. Here's to sitting in the hot seat(s).
Best Reason to Eat a (Very) Late Lunch
Café Dim Sum, Burlington, cafe-dim-sum.business.site
- Melissa Pasanen
- From left: Turnip cake, custard tart, shrimp har gow and sticky rice chicken from Café Dim Sum
Business has been so busy since Sam Lai and his wife, Li Lin, opened their small Cantonese-style dim sum restaurant in late October that they have stopped accepting takeout orders. They don't take reservations, either, so your best bet, Lai counseled, is to come in between 3 and 4 p.m. on a weekday afternoon.
Those who can juggle their schedule will be rewarded by dim sum ranging from translucent-skinned dumplings to ginger beef tripe and chicken feet in black bean sauce. "Everything is made in-house, every day," Lai said.
The care was evident in the single meal I've managed to obtain so far. The turnip cake was seared hard around a smooth-textured middle with a mild turnip bite. Juicy shrimp har gow dumplings delivered a pleasing, tooth-resistant chew. Sticky rice chicken steamed in lotus leaves balanced savory meat with sweet rice. Small custard tarts recalled tastes from Hong Kong pastry shops.
It's never too late for lunch, right?
Other Best Use of Lard
Dedalus Wine Shop, Market & Bakery, Stowe
- Melissa Pasanen
- Pork pie from Dedalus Wine Shop, Market & Bakery in Stowe
I texted Jeremy Wood, chef de cuisine at Dedalus Wine's Stowe location, in late October for an article on Pigasus Meats in South Hero. He confirmed that he buys whole pigs and strives to utilize every morsel of the heritage-breed, pasture-raised pork. Not only are the animals raised humanely, Wood said, they also yield "some of the most tender, flavorful pork I've ever had."
A few weeks later, I happened to be driving through Stowe and stopped to check out the newest outpost of Burlington-based Dedalus. In the pastry case, my eyes lit upon a squat, golden-crusted, Melton Mowbray-style pork pie, a beloved treat from my British childhood.
The first taste was everything my memories had promised: a savory, crumbly crust cradling a deeply porky, perfectly seasoned filling. Wood later told me he uses Pigasus pork shoulder and belly for the filling and renders fresh lard for the crust. I'm quite certain it's a better version than I ever ate as a kid; I certainly never met the farmer who raised that pork.
Offbeat Creemee, Winooski
- File: James Buck
- Lemon meringue pie sundae with vanilla plant-based creemee in a cone from Offbeat Creemee
When Aisha Bassett opened Offbeat Creemee at the newly renovated Myers Memorial Pool on the July 4 weekend, she "dove in deep and ditched all the dairy," she said. Offbeat's plant-based scoops and shakes were such a hit that it seemed most of Winooski had suddenly gone vegan.
Aisha and her husband, Dan, aren't vegan themselves; the plant-based approach was their way of creating something new for the local food scene. The clever coconut- and oat-milk base is creamy enough to fool even the most die-hard dairy lovers.
Offbeat's flavors run from classic vanilla to Coconut Campfire and Sweet Potato Casserole; a "Cone It Forward" program makes sure no kids are left out.
The kombucha float I had over the summer was a perfect poolside treat. But my favorite Offbeat scoop of the year was well after swimming season: My husband and I stopped by one of the mid-December pop-ups for a scoop of lemon meringue pie and a maple creemee to fuel our holiday shopping. It turns out that Offbeat's got drip all year round.
Twenty-One Yum Salute
- Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
- Cloud Inversion cocktail at Caledonia Spirits
Of course, the best of the year could not really be winnowed to just 14 picks. So here are small tastes of another 21 faves we encountered in 2021.
Fortified wines from Brattleboro's Vermont Vermouth became a staple of cocktail lists around the state — and at my house, where they're always stored in the fridge.
Vivid Coffee's biweekly Roaster's Choice subscription kept me stocked with rare coffees, including a real stunner from Yemen, between visits to its bright new Cherry Street café in Burlington.
Speaking of biweekly subscriptions, here's a shout-out to my CSA: Monkton's Reap & Sow Farm, where escarole and dragon tongue beans came with chef-tested recipes — and where pickup was at dreamy Windfall Orchard.
Alex Newton learned how to make French fries for Lazy Breeze Farm's Burger Buggy in Waltham by watching YouTube videos; the double-fried, wedge-ish results made me like and subscribe.
Kate Wise kicked off her #drinkitforward fundraiser in May — rhubarb season — by donating $1 from every 44 Rhubies cocktail sold at Burlington's Juniper Bar & Restaurant to All Heart Inspirations' Juneteenth celebration. (In September, Wise's fundraiser went statewide, bringing in $13,792 for Outright Vermont.)
Henry Long set up his Big Green Egg on the lawn of a Burlington apartment complex and grilled up some Good Grocery. That's the name of his biz but also his term for a mouthful of really tasty food, which he produced with sticky Misty Knoll wings and delightfully charred, herb-topped sprouting broccoli.
Rescue Club Brewing's nonalcoholic IPA was my "one more round" order all summer long. The beachy cans from Burlington's Zero Gravity Craft Brewing and Kris Nelson are beer without the buzz.
I love an aptronym, and chef James Kitchens really lived up to his name with the mushroom and ricotta toast special he whipped up at Antidote in Vergennes in August.
Also in Vergennes, Lu•Lu kept the summer garden vibes going well into October with my new favorite ice cream order: a scoop each of basil ice cream and blueberry sorbet.
I found a bit of magic in Montpelier with Caledonia Spirits' Cloud Inversion, a tiki-ish drink with a lengthy list of ingredients featuring Barr Hill gin, East Hill Tree Farm's northern hardy kiwis, and tree nut allergy-friendly pepita-orgeat syrup. And it had pebble ice, the best kind.
- File: James Buck
- Misery Loves Co.'s Rough Francis sandwich
Celebrate the New Year French style, as I did with a butter- and almond-rich galette des rois made by former Parisian Shelley MacDonald. She will soon announce a brick-and-mortar spot for her Burlington-based Belleville Bakery & Catering.
My whole family loved the ease and results of the cauliflower walnut "chorizo" recipe from Sustainable Kitchen: Recipes and Inspiration for Plant-Based, Planet-Conscious Meals, a cookbook by two Windsor County residents.
If nut milks are your thing, I highly recommend the additive-free, date-sweetened, vanilla bean cashew shake from Nutty Life in Woodstock.
I will miss the incredible Heart Swap raspberry double stout brownie I ate early this year at Burlington Beer's original taproom, though I am consoled by the superlative fries at the brewery's newly opened Burlington restaurant.
Similarly, the loss of Misery Loves Co. as a Winooski dine-in destination was softened by the return of the excellent Rough Francis fried-chicken sandwich to its takeout menu.
Another of my enduring food crushes is the Hong Kong-style pineapple buns from Winooski's Morning Light Bakery because of their sweet hidden custard and golden tops that crackle into a pineapple skin pattern.
An estimated 1,000 people, myself included, waited patiently in Middlebury to buy truly authentic empanadas, gorditas and tamales prepared by the Viva el Sabor culinary collective of cooks from Mexico and Guatemala.
Unsurprisingly, Black Flannel Brewing & Distilling in Essex demonstrated a superior beverage game with its Disco Montage New England IPA and Maguey Meister cocktail made with mezcal, woodruff simple syrup, orange bitters and a froth of egg white.
Roma's Butchery in Royalton crafts all its meaty offerings from whole animals processed in an on-site meat-cutting room, including a liverwurst that surpassed everything I thought I knew about liverwurst.
Although sushi pizza is not yet on the menu at the finally open Sushi Maeda in Burlington, I happily diverted myself with sparkling gems of sushi; rich broiled salmon collar with a gulpable, citrusy miso sauce; and soft-cooked daikon with spicy ground pork.
And finally, we are both in awe of the team at Burlington's Poppy, which combined ingredients in novel ways every week to create sandwiches that we're pretty sure no one else has ever dreamed up.