There's a rule about cheese and seafood, and it doesn't favor combining the two. Centuries of culinary lore say spoiled milk overwhelms a fish's delicate flavor and squanders its potential. And since both ingredients are pricey, pious cooks allow each to shine its own light without interference from the other.
But Juniper executive chef Douglas Paine keeps piety at arm's length. At Bleu Northeast Seafood, which he opened in the Marriott Courtyard Burlington Harbor in April, one of his signature dishes is a bubbling crock of cheesy white lasagna studded with hearty chunks of lobster, crab, scallops and flounder. There's uni in the béchamel, squid ink in the pasta and no rules in sight.
Paine says his dish is rooted in tradition — he was raised in the Northeast Kingdom, and his family celebrated with a similar bake. "For holidays we'd have this kind of lasagna, with cream and cheese and fish and scallops," he says, "and I never really thought about it as wrong." Later, when he started cooking professionally, Paine says, "People would be like, 'You can't serve cheese with fish,' and I was always like, 'Well, I think you can.'"
But before you try the lasagna — it's a heady, intense dish best eaten one slow bite at a time — you'll want to start with a cocktail. Bleu's adult beverages come from Hotel Vermont general manager and cocktailier Jess Andreola, and most of them are dangerously drinkable. Sweeter souls won't regret a fresh, floral lavender lemonade or a fruity Salty Dog. Bitter types will enjoy an herby Garden Tonic, which drinks like a V&T in black tie, or a mysteriously pricey ($15) Lake Breeze, a citrusy gin martini spiked with dry cider.
The wine list is brief and skews white — the better to complement the fish, m'dear — and affordable. Just four bottles top $70, and most ring in under $50. My table went with a $24 bottle of Laurent Miquel Père et Fils Cinsault Syrah Rose, which was far better than it should have been for the price, and it drank well with our meal.
While the idea of a seafood restaurant may smell a bit fishy this far inland (would that Lake Champlain were still a saltwater sea), Paine sources most of his daily catch from Wood Mountain Fish, where fishmonger Ethan Wood gets his haul fresh off the boat in coastal New England and drives it to Vermont. In a recent Seven Days feature on Champlain fish, the chef indicated interest in putting more lake fish on the menu. He buys other ingredients — produce, grains, breads and condiments — locally, or makes them himself.
So an herb-flecked Massachusetts gras terrine, pressed in-house and dusty rose in color, comes with a crisp sourdough baguette from Red Hen Baking Company, and sweet house-pickled onions and strawberry jam from Sidehill Farm in Brattleboro. Garnished with forget-me-nots, it's some of the truest liver I've spread in a while, impeccably smooth, creamy and rich. The (local, artisanal) condiments are sweet, but use them sparingly; their strong flavors could easily overpower the delicate musk of the foie if used with abandon.
The dish, like many at Bleu, updates classic New England flavors for a sophisticated modern palate. Thus, a generous heap of fat, fried full-belly clams harks to sunny Cape Cod summers, but Paine tosses the breaded bivalves with capers and red onion for a subtle, twangy twist. Likewise, a bowl of Maine mussels, steeped in a tomato-tinged saffron broth, tastes like a fanciful take on my mother's practical Vermont cooking: inviting and understated.
Service is similarly warm and friendly. Waitstaff is pleasant, if young and far from polished, and everyone exudes an earnest desire to please. You'll never want long for anything, and they may even crumb your table between courses.
Either way, you'll feel safe in Paine's competent hands from the moment you arrive — even his less successful dishes are forgivable. I'll be honest: That lasagna was a bit rich for me. (I could handle about three succulent bites before I was creamed out.) When my table opted for a "warm" (read: mayo-free) lobster roll, we found the bun soft and stuffed with tender, bright-red meat, but it was all a bit dry and lonely without mayonnaise to moisten the dish. Granted, the error was ours in ordering; the cool Maine classic is alive and well on the menu, and savvier diners will stick to that and leave satisfied.
I might have expected a more robust shellfish selection at Bleu, especially given the upscale setting. Oysterheads will find just one raw oyster on the menu (then again, why compete with Hen of the Wood's selection next door?), and steamer clams failed to appear entirely.
Small missteps aside, Paine's Vermonta-do-what-I-wanta spirit is filling a hole in the market. "We thought it was time to have a place where people could get good fish in Burlington," the chef says. Bleu's fish is invariably good, and the menu is swimming with it, taking center stage in main courses and weaving throughout in smaller details.
Shining silver anchovies crown a chopped Caesar salad, adding fishy flavor to a crisp heap of romaine studded with crunchy croutons and sharp, shaved pecorino from Bonnieview Farm in Craftsbury. For an entrée-size salad, add a portion of house-cured Atlantic salmon, which lacks the assertive, smoky kick I'd expect from Jews in Brooklyn ... but this isn't Brooklyn, and Paine ain't Jewish. Still, his cure is solid, steeped with subtle nuance.
As an entrée, a rotund redfish fillet tastes fresh from the net. Pan-roasted and laid to rest on a blanket of wilted spinach, the fish's mild, flaky flesh falls apart under soft pressure and sings in a bed of zippy, rampy risotto.
The classed-up, semiformal cuisine matches its surroundings; Bleu's airy dining room is a chic, contemporary space with lots of west-facing glass. Dine here for fresh fish and glittering Champlain sunsets.
And for dessert, ponder the Doughnut Dilemma — a cakey concoction that seems to wonder, "Am I a doughnut soaked in buttery syrup, or am I bread pudding?" When it arrived on a plate smeared with bright lemon curd and grainy salted caramel, I couldn't tell the difference. Our waitress — a genial woman happy to stop and chat — said the doughnuts in question came from someone's mom, or someone's mom's neighbor, or someone's neighbor's mom, or ... at this point, I was too stuffed to care. The dessert was soft and sweet with a touch of home-cooked country goodness, and wherever it came from, it wasn't far from here.