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Taste Test: South End Kitchen


Published March 5, 2014 at 3:59 a.m.

Referencing a certain Roald Dahl classic is only natural when discussing South End Kitchen. After all, the new Burlington breakfast-and-lunch spot is flanked on one side by bean-to-bar Blue Bandana Chocolate Maker and on the other side by a culinary classroom featuring instruction in chocolate making (see sidebar). Parent company Lake Champlain Chocolates displays its products all over the café, from chocolate chips on sale in the small retail area to squeeze bottles of mole hot sauce with which diners can douse their meals.

The 8,500-square-foot former Sondik Supply building has been transformed into a chocolate-y wonderland. But diners at the fireside tables or long communal counters can choose from plenty of savory fare, too.

Executive chef Sarah Langan, a former New England Culinary Institute chef-instructor, has instituted a hyper-homemade ethos. The Kitchen's breads, pasta and even mozzarella, ricotta and crème fraîche are crafted in-house. Even in locavore, from-scratch Burlington, that's an exceptional commitment to freshness — but it comes with drawbacks. Creating a new menu each day for both meals is a major hurdle. In the three meals I had at the new Pine Street hot spot, the kitchen's difficulty balancing those demands manifested often, though not always, as a deficiency of flavor.

At my first repast at the month-old restaurant, I sampled the weekend's all-day brunch, including a pair of crêpes filled with housemade lemon ricotta and strawberries. The pillowy, cheese-filled pancakes made me think blintz more than crêpe. While the former is my preference, the dish as a whole was surprisingly low on flavor.

Breakfast at the South End Kitchen - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Breakfast at the South End Kitchen

At that same brunch, the Monte Cristo's fluffy French toast on housemade cranberry bread was a textural treat. Despite a dusting of powdered sugar on the thick sandwich, though, the only real taste came from the ham and Swiss at its center. A side salad was nicely accented with a shallot-studded dressing, but the plate was still somehow light on character.

At lunch later in the week, I had a more memorable experience with the pork mole. The dish has already appeared a few times on the bill of fare, and it was obvious why. Though I wouldn't have minded more heat in the mole poblano, the spiced, chocolate-y sauce was velvety in texture and nutty with pumpkin seeds. Dark and savory, it was brightened by a pile of fresh cilantro.

Chocolate doesn't usually dominate in mole the way it did in this one. But, as the sauce seeped into the cracks and crevices of a fatty chunk of tender pork shoulder and the aromatic yellow rice on the side, I was hooked. This entrée tasted as indulgent as dessert. My one complaint was the lack of a vegetable to counter the heaviness.

I also enjoyed that day's Asian pork-meatball soup. Sesame wafted from the meaty broth, and the tender meatballs were flecked with chile flakes. Together, the two pork dishes made a great lunch, with leftovers to eat the next day. But I suffered sticker shock when the two-item meal rang up at $17.76, my least expensive meal at SEK.

Chocolate-bar-making class at South End Kitchen - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Chocolate-bar-making class at South End Kitchen

My final meal for this review featured a large and delicious salad of shaved daikon, apple and fennel over arugula. While the tangy vinaigrette made the light, bright veggies and fruits a delight, the $8 salad would not have sustained me through my day. Some cheese or nuts might have ruined the chef's vision, but the protein would have been welcome.

I got that sustenance instead from beefy orecchiette Bolognese, served in an adorable mini cast-iron pan. The chewy, homemade "little ears" were a delight, but the basil-studded sauce lacked vivacity.

Steve Wisloski enjoys a doughnut - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Steve Wisloski enjoys a doughnut

I finished that meal with the best thing I've eaten thus far at SEK. I didn't realize that what Burlington had been missing were old-fashioned, soda-jerk-style sundaes, but the 802 opened my eyes. Now it's likely to be a regular in my dessert repertoire.

To me, the tall sundae's homemade maple-butter-pecan ice cream felt like an afterthought. The 802's appeal was all about the strata of toppings, including crunchy maple popcorn; warm, tender diced apples; and lots of whipped cream. When I plunged my spoon to the bottom, it scooped up wonderfully balanced salted-caramel sauce, picking up bits of each layer on its way back to my mouth.

I tried a number of other desserts at SEK, but none won me over as powerfully as the 802. Buttery, glazed monkey bread and a raised doughnut with fresh-strawberry-flecked frosting were delicious, but a distant second and third.

Some of the savory eats still have room to improve at South End Kitchen. But, not surprisingly, this café attached to a chocolate factory is right where it should be when it comes to sweets.

South End Kitchen, 716 Pine Street, Burlington, 864-0505. southendkitchenvt.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Pine Street and the Chocolate Factory"