“I’m going to get the heads going at a low temp to get them softened up,” Chef Rogan Lechthaler, 33, informs me without explanation or apology when I arrive at his restaurant in the twee Stratton Village.
Billed as a “Mediterranean Grille” by its previous chef, Verdé is hidden in a clock-tower building in this Disney-fied downtown that caters to the needs of urban visitors with ice cream from Carvel and freshly made bagels with lox. As Lechthaler puts it, “A lot of people come from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Here, they’re forced to eat the Vermont food.”
Tonight, “Vermont food” means two suckling pigs delivered the previous day by Black River Produce. Lechthaler and his sous-chef, Matt Conroy, have already cured one in salt, garlic and herbs for a confit. Another headless body hangs in the walk-in cooler alongside preserved lemons and maraschino cherries. Both heads lie on a roasting pan. They’ve already been cooked low and slow for hours, and it won’t be long before Lechthaler, Conroy and I can don rubber gloves and remove every piece of usable meat from the skulls to make head cheese — which includes no cheese, but does call for a powdered “meat glue” called Activa.
While that may sound grisly to some, a meal at Verdé in no way resembles a trip to the charnel house. With its marble bars, the dining room has the feel of a New York hot spot. The drink menu features creative cocktails such as the Sweet Pepper Margarita: Rimmed with sturdy salt grains, it’s a citrusy mix of Don Julio blanco tequila and muddled yellow peppers sweetened with agave nectar.
Those peppers are just one example of the ultra-fresh produce that arrives in Lechthaler’s kitchen each day. Todd Brookes supplies wild mushrooms harvested from the greater Manchester area. Sporting a full mullet, he creeps into the kitchen, smelling of smoke and dressed in paint-covered white sweats, while the chef is rolling the headcheese up in plastic wrap to set overnight in the walk-in.
But Brookes’ are no everyday fungi. He opens his small paper bag to reveal an array of rare ’shrooms: meaty purple fans called Polyozellus, or blue chanterelles; huge specimens of the regular yellow variety; and lots of inverted trumpet chanterelles.
He has caught Lechthaler off guard. Brookes’ one-man operation is cash only, and Lechthaler doesn’t have his wallet. Brookes, who says his livelihood makes him “feel like a leprechaun,” promises to return the next day for his pay, with an added bonus: sweet tooth mushrooms, prized for their sugary chewiness, which will cost $26 a pound. “No problem,” says Lechthaler with a nod.
Lechthaler obtains other veggies himself from local farmers markets. He’s particularly fond of Shaftsbury’s Clear Brook Farm, whose produce he finds at the Londonderry Farmers Market each week: “Their tomatoes, garlic and onions are just great,” he says.
Still, meat is the star of Verdé’s menu. Before he came to the Vermont restaurant two years ago, Lechthaler traveled to Oxford, Miss., to “blow off some steam” in the hometown of his fiancée, Abby Coker. Down south, Lechthaler spent the winter working at Italian eatery L&M’s Kitchen and Salumeria, where he learned the fine art of curing meat. “I knew I wanted to learn something like that,” he says. “I love traditional methods.”
A native of Weston, Vt., and a UVM graduate with a degree in small business, Lechthaler says he “certainly wasn’t a foodie or anything like that” until he spent a year as a “ski bum” in Colorado and found himself working in kitchens to pay the rent. Since then, he’s cooked at the Ritz in Boston and Warren’s Pitcher Inn.
Mid-decade, when he was working as sous-chef at The Pitcher Inn, “we had tinkered around with a charcuterie plate and never really had time to follow through on it,” Lechthaler says. But now, in his kitchen at Verdé, his desire to cure meat the traditional way has become a near obsession. Salumi cure in two different refrigeration units, with clubs of salty meat hanging like stalactites. Lechthaler calls his House Cured Salami Board his restaurant’s “trademark dish.” It’s easy to taste why.
I sample the offerings from two striped wooden boards bearing enough pork butt to satisfy Sir Mix-a-Lot. Hot coppa, an air-dried slab of pig, is served in thin slices that taste like Swiss Bündnerfleisch but are flecked with bright red hot peppers. Prosciutto, with a pleasantly grainy salt rub and densely porky flavor, sits in a knot of ribbons. On the other board, the duck prosciutto is wonderfully salty, with a lavishly creamy patina of fat. The fennel salami is the tastiest version of the sausage I’ve had anywhere. The slices of sopressata are as mild and complex as the chorizo is subtly spicy.
To mitigate the heat, fatty Peaked Mountain Farm sheep cheese and tiny olives make an appearance. Buttery toasted bread and two kinds of pickles — made of local onions and peppers and sweet watermelon rinds — serve as sides that hold their own against the big flavors of the meat. The best bites, however, are the mortadella cubes, bursting with the flavors of rosemary and cinnamon, as well as pistachios, and pieces of smoked prosciutto, known as “speck.” Finally, there are the hot dogs.
Yes, hot dogs. To celebrate Lechthaler’s recent engagement to Coker, his soon-to-be in-laws are visiting from Mississippi. As a special treat — and, for him, a first try — Lechthaler did his own take on the familiar cookout fare. Call it beginner’s luck, but it’s the best hot dog I’ve ever had. Imagine a Nathan’s dog made with pork and more fat, with heavy doses of garlic and mustard-seed powder. The snappy natural casing contains juicy flesh that was first boiled in a concoction of beer and onions, then grilled.
Other appetizers impress, as well. A sparklingly fresh plate of pasta stuffed with sweet homemade ricotta is swathed in butter and simply topped with basil and cherry tomatoes. Lamb sausage is lightly spiced and presented atop a pile of mashed potatoes and crunchy kraut, then bathed in Guinness mustard. Conroy fries up a single potato chip to sit jauntily on the mash. The most original plate features thick slabs of pork belly with a cap of green onion over slices of watermelon. The fat of the pork combined with the sweet and juicy fruit is a revelation, especially when dipped in a tangy puddle of Gordon’s Pond balsamic vinegar.
A salad of local greens and slightly warm raspberries, Boucher Blue cheese and Cepa Vieja vinaigrette is a refreshing intermezzo before the main course: suckling pig confit. The pulled meat is presented in cake form, studded with herbs, garlic and peppercorns. The occasional chomp of spice gets a sweet counterpart from thick cider jus and a salad of greens and matchsticks of apple. A generous triangle of crispy crackling looms over the meaty landscape like a great pyramid.
There’s more than pork on the entrée menu, which changes nightly. Lots of seafood, for one. And, in the kitchen an immersion circulator is filled with bobbing pieces of chump steak that are encased in foil — the “sous-vide” technique. The steak comes out of the cooker beside a giant roasted marrow bone and leeks, also prepared sous-vide, destined for tonight’s table.
In winter, Lechthaler showcases “rack of lamb and ribeyes as large as your head.” Braised oxtails and guinea fowl soup also made regular appearances.
After his first summer at Verdé, Lechthaler fired his pastry chef; he “couldn’t get the product” he wanted, he says. So he decided to do it himself. “I do keep the dessert pretty simple,” he assures, adding, “The ice creams are where I can really go wild.”
One example is a flavor called Earl Grey with malted milk balls — not on tonight’s menu. Instead, there’s blueberry-goat cheese and carrot-cardamom, as well as charentais melon, lemon balm and orange Campari sorbets. The most popular dessert of the night is a trio featuring a scoop of Arnold Palmer sorbet, an airy frosted donut sitting in espresso cream and a teeny but deceptively rich, bittersweet chocolate soufflé.
But there’s no sweet treat quite like what Lechthaler calls the “Late Night Breakfast.” Atop a warm, light and crisp waffle sits a yellowish mound that looks like the perfect pat of butter in an IHOP commercial. It’s actually buttermilk-bacon ice cream, drenched in maple syrup and dusted with powdered sugar. A single lardon of house-cured bacon curves across the scoop in a smile shape.
For all his whimsy, Lechthaler knows his technique. Within seconds, he had totally dismantled the suckling pig. He, Conroy and another cook, Alyssa Prouty, work the line in near silence; each beautiful dish emerges with remarkable speed. But it is creativity, not technique, that defines the cuisine at Verdé. As Lechthaler puts it, “I think it’s important that we have a good time and keep things fresh. I don’t want people saying, ‘I’ve had enough of Verdé or enough of Rogan.’”