- Matthew Thorsen
It’s got to happen eventually: The Winooski roundabout’s restaurant row, which has seen its share of turnover in recent years, will surely play host to a stinker sometime. But it’s not the newest addition, Mule Bar.
At its heart, the 49-seat eatery is more beer bar than culinary destination. While I dug into the well-thought-out pub fare, I observed many fellow guests simply enjoying the hard-to-find brews, which are selected with equal care. On my two visits, the 16 taps boasted uncommon attractions such as a smoked rauchbier called Smoke & Dagger, from Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham, Mass.; and Founders Porter from Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids, Mich. The latter earned a perfect 100 on RateBeer.com. There’s a small range of cocktails, too, including a Manhattan made with 12-year-old Elijah Craig bourbon and a house brandied cherry.
If Mule Bar’s beer-heavy concept sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The owners are Scott Kerner and Wes Hamilton of Montpelier’s Three Penny Taproom and Joey Nagy of Mad Taco — onetime Three Penny chef. While it took three years to expand Three Penny’s menu beyond well-prepared small plates, Mule Bar opened with all cylinders firing. Not all of chef Jean-Luc Matecat’s dishes are perfect, but some are damn close.
The first thing I tasted for this review was Matecat’s steak frites. The dish equaled, if not surpassed, any I’ve had in Paris. The sirloin was dry-aged in-house for a tenderness and depth of flavor hard to find in the Green Mountains. From there, the steak was seasoned admirably, grilled to a perfect medium rare and topped with a ball of Béarnaise butter that melted over the meat with just a whisper of the heavy sauce from which it borrowed its flavors.
Then there were the frites. Mule Bar is just steps from Misery Loves Co., which offers my previous favorite fries in Vermont. I foresee a war in the near future — for the affections of all lovers of thin, crispy, Euro-style frites. For the moment, Mule is leading. I couldn’t resist the finely chopped rosemary that coated the ungreasy potatoes, along with a liberal helping of salt.
Since it was Sunday morning, I tried an equally enchanting brunch special: pork-belly eggs Benedict. My first bite consisted of nothing but sautéed spinach on grilled bread and seasoning that satisfied on its own. But the bites kept getting better, as I found chunks of beautifully rendered pork belly beneath poached eggs and a saucy aioli. One of the two eggs was slightly overcooked, so that not all the yolk ran, but the other was the Platonic ideal of a poached egg. The side of skillet potatoes would have seemed great at most other breakfast spots, but compared to my frites, they lacked personality.
Another side dish offered it in spades. Grilled corn retained just a bit of juicy crunch under its char. Slathered in crema and cheese, the three mini-cobs made for a messy eat, but the combination of Mexican spices and a squeeze of lime made them irresistible. I just wish there had been four. Shared by two, the dish ended up in an inequitable division.
After an abortive attempt to try the bar’s weekly Mad Taco Tuesday, I decided to get to Mule early for dinner. At five-thirty, it was easy to score a seat. By eight, the bar was so buzzy I had trouble fighting my way to the bathroom. There are two lessons here: 1) If you don’t want to wait, arrive early. 2) A meal at Mule takes a long time. Our three-course dinner lasted close to two and a half hours. One-course brunch was just an hour less.
That’s not a complaint. Mule Bar’s food reflects deliberate care, and eaters in a hurry may want to order ahead or choose another destination on the block. (Tiny Thai can be very refreshing this time of year.)
The dinner crowd, when it arrived, was surprisingly diverse. I expected the tattooed hipsters and rugged beer geeks, but I also saw more than one older couple dining not far from a set of guys in Red Sox jerseys who were tucking into charcuterie boards. I don’t know how the more sedate diners felt about the Italy-versus-Japan soccer game on the TV above the bar.
I followed the Sox fans’ lead, choosing a pairing of spiced-pork-belly confit and von Trapp Farmstead’s Mt. Alice cheese. I wish there were an affordable way to try several charcuterie options at once, but, at $7 per meat and $6 per cheese, I stuck to the choices that sounded most exciting.
Meat and cheese arrived on a wooden board looking primed for a close-up on a magazine cover, along with a bowl of buttery grilled bread. Each corner of the board was dotted with a different condiment. Rings of pink pickled onions, grainy mustard and currant mostarda were all nice additions, but a sweet, tangy-rhubarb compote was my favorite. It paired especially well with the mild, milky Camembert-style fromage, one of my current Vermont favorites.
The melting pork belly was so well rendered it seemed almost lean, yet there was just enough fat for a crisp top. I didn’t taste any particular spice, but the cube of meat was sufficiently delicious to disappear far too soon. My dining partner was so fond of the bread that we ended up needing a refill, with which our server provided us quickly and at no extra cost.
The wait was longer for entrées. And, unfortunately, I wasn’t as impressed with the burger as I had been with the steak frites. I’ve enjoyed meat from Rochester’s North Hollow Farm before, but this patty had a slightly “off” taste, which may have been partly due to overcooking.
The burger was very nearly as tall as it was wide. Despite my request for medium rare, the huge patty was unevenly cooked — well done on one side and medium-well on the other. The grilled, egg-washed, housemade bun looked beautiful but only contributed further to the aridity, despite a thick slick of aioli.
The disappointing plate had one saving grace: a pile of thinly sliced bread-and-butter pickles, made from Matecat’s grandmother’s secret recipe. In Vermont’s pickle-crazy food climate, sweet pickles remain underserved, and you’re unlikely to find any better than those at Mule.
I always say that monkfish, with its meaty texture and delicate flavor, is the perfect medium between fish and chicken. It’s a great choice, then, when you can’t decide between the two. Dredge it in beer batter, and you should have the stuff dreams are made of.
At Mule Bar, the malty jacket on the toothsome monkfish nuggets did approach dreaminess, but the coating’s greasiness left it soggy as it sat on my plate. It was a bummer to see a potentially great dish lose its glow so quickly. A little moisture didn’t stop me from enjoying it, though. I dipped the fish and accompanying frites in the wonderfully balanced smoked-lemon-and-caper mayo and enjoyed the lightly dressed arugula on the side, covered with pickled onions.
Big lemon flavor also appeared in the à la carte side of sautéed spinach. The greens came with thin slices of garlic, cubes of bouncy pancetta and chickpeas for a bowl of bold tastes.
Matecat has what some might consider a heavy hand with salt in all his dishes. I like the strong flavors it affords the food, yet every dish is just a few grains away from overkill. The spinach, though delicious, had me reaching for refill after refill of water. Thankfully, it was provided in a bottle for the table to share.
Only one dessert was listed on the chalkboard menu that night. With a shower of tiny purple flowers and a sprig of mint on top, the crème caramel looked like it should have been photographed and contemplated rather than eaten.
However, I was callous enough to break the crust of the eggy custard. Both the caramel on top and the sauce in which the dessert sat tasted like a very sophisticated version of Red Hots candies. It was a fine-dining-quality sweet with a sense of fun.
Despite a few misses, that was how I felt about Mule Bar as a whole. It’s the place for well-made — sometimes ingenious — food that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And, of course, for beer.
Mule Bar, 38 Main Street, Winooski, 399-2020.