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First Bite: Shelburne Steakhouse & Saloon

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Bouillabaisse - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Bouillabaisse

A few types of restaurants are almost guaranteed to be popular from the get-go: a good diner, for example, or a cozy, family-style Italian place. And then there’s the steakhouse. Suited to casual dinners (burgers and fries) and special occasions (filet mignon with demi-glace), the ultra-American eateries attract a wide swath of diners.

Given the crowd on a recent Wednesday night, a passerby would never guess that the Shelburne Steakhouse & Saloon on Route 7 had just opened. Couples and families with wee ones packed the booths near the salad bar and the tables in the back dining room.

While the place retains the look and feel of the old Sirloin Saloon that vacated the building in June 2008 — the “Test Your Lover” machine remains in the front lobby, along with a throw rug that might have come from grandma’s living room — the food is more exciting. The service is casual but solid.

Steakhouse fare can be painfully standard — foil-wrapped baked potatoes, bottled salad dressings — so I was pleased to see the kitchen’s creativity displayed on the menu. The dishes are filled with unexpected ingredients: escargots, fennel, homemade chutney, saffron.

Some of the surprises are of the local variety. A member of the Vermont Fresh Network, the steakhouse offers a Shelburne-centric cheese plate, and the mussels come tossed with Vermont Smoke and Cure hot Italian sausage in a Long Trail Ale sauce. Presumably there are local veggies, too, but if so, their provenance wasn’t announced on the menu or at the salad bar.

How is the salad bar? It has all the normal trappings, including marinated mushrooms, pepperoncini and cottage cheese. I took the opportunity to make a salad reminiscent of my 1980s childhood: iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, shredded cheddar, real bacon bits and creamy ranch dressing. Save the flavorless tomatoes, it was a fun rendition of a combo that’s made a comeback at upscale urban restaurants.

That said, the only things really setting this salad bar apart were the homemade dressings and the delicious breads. A wheat loaf dotted with flax seeds had a perfectly crisp crust and fine, grainy flavor. The herbed white bread was well made, too.

More good stuff came with the appetizers. Sometimes crab cakes are so loaded with bread crumbs and seasonings that you can barely discern the pricey shellfish. Here, the perfectly browned pucks tasted mainly of sweet, briny crab.

A bowl of bouillabaisse featured a nice mix of seafood in a puddle of intense, orange-fennel-tomato broth. Topped with toast points and shaved raw fennel (too much for my taste), it was also picturesque. The scallops and a lobster tail were perfectly cooked, while the shrimp and fish were a touch overdone. Still, it was a classy, classic dish.

The meat dishes, too, were pleasant if not perfect. A bone-in ribeye came with a good crust on the outside and was rare, as requested, in the middle. It had a bit too much blue cheese on top and none of the garlicky mushrooms we’d requested, but a custard-textured, baked sweet potato made a fine accompaniment. Green beans, the vegetable du jour, were a bit on the soft side.

Like the steak, a duck breast entrée was aptly cooked, but the “creamy risotto” on the side did not have the texture of a true risotto — it was more like a creamy pilaf.

I witnessed a couple of small service glitches during the evening — most notably, a used steak knife vanished from the table with our plates, then was returned a minute later because we “might need it.” Otherwise, our server was efficient and friendly. When the cabernet sauvignon I’d ordered turned out to be unavailable, he offered me a taste of a different cab; I sampled it and ended up with a third choice. It was an elegant touch.

Overall, the Shelburne Steakhouse & Saloon is a crowd-pleasing, family-friendly restaurant with good teams in the kitchen and the dining room. There is room to improve on some of the ingredients — especially at the height of the harvest season — and I wish the restaurant would offer at least one local beef option.

Are local steakhouse fans willing to shell out a few extra bucks for naturally raised meat? If you are, let the owners know. After all, being outspoken is how vegetarians ended up with an option or two on nearly every restaurant menu — including, at this one, an eggplant casserole, baked portobello mushroom and side-dish-and-salad-bar combo.

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