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Supper Superlatives 2012

Seven Days’ food team debates the best things to happen to Vermont food this year

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Pizzeria Verita
  • Pizzeria Verita

Another year of eating has passed, and the Vermont food world just seems to keep getting richer. It’s now more of a surprise to see a restaurant not using local ingredients than it is to find yet another one listing its farm connections. Ethnic fare, from Turkish to Indo-Chinese, continues to make our state a more diverse place to live and gorge.

This year, food writers Corin Hirsch and Alice Levitt were so impressed with the culinary treasures they found that they put together a list of notable achievements, high-school-senior-class style. Chefs, if you want to sign our yearbooks, please return them to us by the end of the day.

Best Menu Reinvention

Corin Hirsch: Though I’m told that North Hero House has always served solid fare, the dishes that new chef Tim McQuinn assembled for a recent cider-pairing dinner suggested comfort food on Venus. Think velvety, sous-vide pork belly in a cider glaze; seared foie gras atop a smear of quince paste; halibut rolled in crushed pumpkin seeds. When we talked with him, McQuinn seemed a little nervous about spending his first long winter in the islands; I hope plenty of hungry people pay him visits.

Alice Levitt: Prohibition Pig had me at hello, or at least at panko-fried pimiento cheese and chopped, smoked pork. But now, just in time for the holidays, new chef Michael Werneke has brought the restaurant a number of gifts from his former digs, the Rusty Nail Bar & Grille.

Pro Pig plus duck-fat fries and handmade banh mi? What’s a girl to do but belly up to the bar for a cocktail or some Cheerwine and pig out?

Best New Cuisine to Make It to Vermont

AL: I never thought I’d be able to get Scandinavian food on the street in Montpelier. But, thanks to the fine folks at Grünhaus Nordic Street Eats, the unlikely has become reality. Sure, there are no frikadeller or lutefisk at the food cart, but ultra-rich, dark, hot drinking chocolate and sausage-and-sauerkraut-filled potato wraps make up for it.

Best Drink

CH: The cocktails at Burlington’s Bluebird Tavern are always elegant; those of Waterbury’s Prohibition Pig are muscular and imaginative. For sheer novelty, though, the savory Mr. Figgy at Stowe’s Crop Bistro & Brewery carried the moment. It’s Maker’s Mark bourbon swirled with rhubarb bitters, fig reduction and tiny shards of rosemary, served up with a crisp slice of maple-cured bacon across the top of the glass.

Best Pizza

CH: In Pizza Land, there are sloppy, quick slices that grease up your fingers, and there are pies that require you to savor them more slowly. Pizzeria Verità’s pies are the latter; each crust begins its life with a long, lazy rise and then is blistered inside a very hot oven, its bottom dusted with char marks. The sauce is bright, and the cheese is made fresh here, so that eating a burrata-topped pie is akin to moving your mouth through a savory cloud.

Ninety miles downstate, Woodstock gained a new pizzeria this year, too — Pi Brick Oven Trattoria. Here, the pies are more raucously oily and messy but equally satisfying.

AL: Part of what makes my partnership with Corin so much fun is our contrasting tastes, but I agree wholeheartedly that Pizzeria Verità scratches an itch I didn’t even know I had. The chewy, charred crust is the blanket that wraps the whole sensuous experience luxuriously together. High-quality ingredients are key, but so are creative combinations. Last summer, the Maïs pie brilliantly married salty speck, sweet corn and heavy cream.

Don’t even get me started on the oozing chocolate of the Nutella pizza. Just try it.

Best New Chef

AL: Adam Longworth calls one of the fathers of New American cuisine his mentor, but at the Common Man in Warren, he has stepped out of Alfred Portale’s shadow. Longworth’s cooking is worth traveling for — from anywhere — and easily stands among the best in Vermont, just as the chef’s food stood out when he was chef de cuisine at Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City. Whether he’s preparing stunning salads or perfectly seared halibut with an electric coconut-lemon emulsion, the Northfield native is surely making Portale proud.

Best Mobile Eatery

AL: Maybe you don’t believe there’s such a thing as a transcendent hot dog? Then you haven’t tried one of the Noble Pig’s coarsely ground, natural-casing franks made from local beef and whey-fed pork and served on a warm, steamed, Mexican-style cemita bun. Best of all, the folks behind the Noble Pig, Cloud 9 Caterers, have a heated food truck to keep the sausages — plus ramen bowls and Mexican tortas — rolling all year long.

CH: If you blinked, it was gone, but for a glorious summery blip in time, a bright-red food truck appeared in a White River Junction lot full of rusted-out cars, like a giant cherry in a sea of mud. At the StrEats Mobile Canteen, you had to shout above the occasional passing train to order burgers topped with local eggs, or skewers of cumin-y grilled shrimp, or even cardboard containers filled with sage-flecked gnocchi. No word on what StrEats’ two owners, Jason Northup and Chris Brewer, are doing now, but I hope they resurface soon.

Gnarliest Food Fight

CH: Lots of feel-good bluster accompanied the Skinny Pancake’s recent announcement that it would take over concessions at Burlington International Airport — but what a difference a month makes. When it emerged that owners Jonny and Benjy Adler had wiggled out of paying their employees the city-ordained livable wage, the story became Crêpegate. It also jump-started a thoughtful dialogue about the real cost of local food and running a viable food business. In the end, most commentators were convinced that the Adlers were earnestly seeking to balance fairness with business sense.

AL: Buying the Rusty Nail Bar & Grille was a longtime goal for Kim Kaufman and Jim Goldsmith, owners of the Blue Donkey in Stowe. Their dream turned into a nightmare that left the couple $1.5 million in escrow when they learned the previous owners had $27,000 in back taxes and unpaid sewer fees. According to Darrow H. Mansfield, director of Kaufman and Goldsmith’s company, BIG Builders, “We are hearing that People’s United Bank seized the property and padlocked the place (mortgage default) and it is going to foreclosure. Word is it will not reopen.” If that’s true, it’s a sad end to a Stowe favorite.

Most Delicious Reason to Cross the Border

AL: So far, I’ve been too cheap to try the hot new Montréal restaurants owned by Daniel Boulud or Jamie Oliver, and, despite my best attempts to make it up there in time, I entirely missed Gordon Ramsay’s brief ownership of the Laurier 1936 rôtisserie chicken restaurant. That’s why I can’t wait to see how Taste MTL, the city’s new restaurant week, grows next year. I was mightily impressed by my meal at Bistro Le Répertoire this past fall, and I’m already primed for more creative cuisine — at a discount.

CH: A line almost always snakes out the door of Kazu, on rue Ste-Catherine Ouest in Montréal’s Concordia ghetto. I never got inside until, this summer, a late-afternoon lull allowed me to breeze right into this tiny Japanese izakaya joint and take a seat at the counter. Kazu’s magnetism suddenly made sense: The menu is huge, the portions generous and the prices low. After inhaling some gingery, 48-hour pork and a plate of razor-thin chirashi sushi, I ordered a rich, gorgeous bowl of pork-belly ramen with homemade noodles. It wasn’t easy to leave.

Biggest Bummer

AL: The untimely passing of the Cheese Outlet/Fresh Market cookie. When the take-out eatery and market closed this past fall in Burlington’s South End, it took with it the chocolate-chunk cookies that fueled my days at the office. Even after getting the recipe from the cookies’ creator, I still haven’t recovered.

CH: Elements Food & Spirit was for sale for a while, so the writing was on the wall. Still, when the two couples who managed this restaurant in a historic St. Johnsbury mill finally closed it last January, it felt like the hatch was being shut and locked on thoughtful dining in St. J. At Elements, many menu items were foraged, and the kitchen sourced from a range of nearby farms.

Fortunately, last summer a new set of owners resurrected the space as Bailiwicks on Mill, carrying over the comfort-food menu from their sister restaurant in Littleton, N.H. That menu may be what the town has been hungry for: During a recent visit to Bailiwicks, the space was more packed than I’ve ever seen it.

Best Trend

AL: Too many great things are happening for me to choose just one. The charcuterie boom is exciting, as is the sudden preponderance of homemade ramen at casual eateries and food trucks alike.

I named this the Year of the Pizza back in July, but it was new artisan ice cream makers that really made their mark on our dairy state this year. Chill Gelato in Montpelier, Scout’s Honor in Waitsfield and lu lu in Bristol all added personality to Vermont’s reputation as a destination for well-made, deliciously flavored milk products. Cheese makers, you’ve been warned.

CH: This was the year Vermont stills really got cranking and exquisite local spirits began to flow. Caledonia Spirits’ Barr Hill Gin is like the butterfly of the gin world, delicate and sweet; the creamy vanilla notes of Smugglers’ Notch Distillery Rum, which is aged in Jim Beam barrels, can get you through an entire winter. Vermont’s next distilling wave seems to promise whiskey, so 2013 should be an equally satisfying (and tipsy) year.

On the culinary side, I was intensely happy to see ceviche appear on one, then three, then numerous menus around the state. ¡Viva citrus-cooked raw fish!

What We’re Hoping for in 2013

CH: Down on Long Island, where my family lives, is a place called Mr. Sausage. Despite the ridiculous name, it’s a glorious, perpetually busy mecca. In Vermont, we have no single place to get capicola and prosciutto sliced before our eyes; an Italian sub dripping with vinegar; a fresh ball of mozzarella — the wobbly kind that hasn’t yet seen the inside of a cooler: containers of broccoli rabe sautéed with garlic; and fresh slabs of lasagna that you didn’t have to cook yourself. I wish others felt this vacuum as acutely as I do.

AL: I have the same wish every year: Korean barbecue. All I can eat and cooked right at my table.

I would also be open to great Indian food, particularly a well-stocked buffet with lots of regional specialties. Or a Slavic restaurant.

Finally, can I get a little Uyghur food in this place? I’m ready for mutton kebabs and goshnan, Vermont-style.

Best New Foodie Haven

AL: In the summer of 2011, I had every intention of lauding Waitsfield as a new foodie haven at the end of the year. Then Irene struck, and much of what made the town great was destroyed — or, at the very least, required rebuilding.

This year, the town rose again stronger than before, with a still-growing food hub, booming farms and destination eateries, including a whole new set occupying the space that once housed the beloved Green Cup Café. Way to go, Waitsfield.

CH: In what seems like less than a year, Waterbury’s downtown has changed from a pub-crawl-worthy strip to a diverse collection of places where you can not only slake your thirst but sate your appetite, many of them survivors of that storm we swear not to mention anymore. On any given night, you can get lengua tacos inside Blackback Pub & Flyshop (from the Mad Taco, which recently set up shop there); shrimp and grits at Prohibition Pig; a grass-fed burger at the Reservoir Restaurant and Tap Room; oysters and Prosecco at Cork Wine Bar & Market ... and now pizza at the Blue Stone Pizza Shop and Tavern. (We haven’t even mentioned that giant foodie haven hovering just outside of downtown, Hen of the Wood.) Now all Waterbury needs are more places to lay a drowsy head after a night out.

Which brings us to…

What We Promise Never to Write About Again

CH: In wine parlance, Tropical Storm Irene had a “lingering finish” — it was all we could think about for days, months, a year. Some food folk are still dealing with the fallout (as are homeowners still waiting for their FEMA assistance), but ask anyone who was flooded, and most will say, “Irene made us stronger.” From Quechee to South Royalton to Waterbury, Waitsfield and Rochester, it seems like most people have finally let her go. So will we.

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