We may live on the “West Coast of New England,” but hit Lake Champlain looking to catch a wave and you’ll be mighty disappointed. So it’s a bit of a surprise to enter what used to be a run-down, long-vacant gas station on Burlington’s Shelburne Road and find a small version of the set of “Lost.” A sparkling clean, 150-gallon tank holds saltwater and colorful tropical fish, palm trees sprout from the center of two six-person tables, and there’s bamboo everywhere. Pineapple and mango figure largely on the menu.
No, it’s not a tiki bar, but a restaurant — The Spot, which opened for breakfast and lunch service on July 18. Owner Russ Scully gave new life to the locale with the aid of cooking siblings Chantal and Lia Beliveau, who own the Outer Space café on nearby Flynn Avenue. With a crisp white paint job outside, double garage doors to let in the not-so-tropical Route 7 breezes, and decorative elements that bring to mind a sandy beach, the café is certainly a fun place to hang out with friends or a laptop. (It’s got Wi-Fi, natch.)
But how’s the grub? That’s where things get as sticky as a day in the tropics.
When a restaurant opens, I generally make two prolonged visits — preferably at different times of day on different days of the week — before I’m comfortable drawing conclusions. To suss out The Spot, by contrast, I had to visit five times. My considered opinion: Design and décor are the eatery’s greatest assets, and the food is improving, but the baked goods need work.
A word of explanation: When a restaurant is new, I’m harder on baked items than I am on, say, scrams with cheese and veggies. That’s because, while egg dishes are whipped up in the heat of the moment as orders pour in, baked goods are typically prepared before the first customer of the day steps through the door. If the chefs have chosen good recipes, the resulting cookies, muffins and scones should be fairly consistent.
The first thing to pass my lips at The Spot was a banana-walnut scone that I ordered on the first day of operation to nibble while waiting for my omelette. To my dismay, the dough was bland, and the bits of good stuff were few and far between. I tried another scone two weeks later, blueberry this time, and found it overwhelmingly sweet and vanilla-scented, with a mushy, undercooked top.
A crumbly brownie — I like mine gooey and dense — was passable, as was a squishy, tropical no-bake cookie with brown sugar, nuts and oats. The latter was so sweet it made my fillings ache, but it might delight someone else. I can’t say the same of the coconut portion of a chocolate-dipped macaroon, which was so dry that eating it felt akin to chewing cud.
These experiences weren’t encouraging. But, for the reason noted earlier, I was less fazed when my opening-day Da Hui omelette ($7.95), stuffed with bacon, spinach and run-of-the-mill blue cheese, arrived a wee bit small and as dark as a beach bum’s tan in August. I was happy to find the Banzai Pipeline egg dish ($7.95), sampled on another visit, a great improvement. It was heftier, cooked just right, and filled with tomato slices, a scattering of black beans, some not-quite-melted cheddar and sizable hunks of perfectly ripe avocado.
I was pleased with the Cloudbreak Salad ($8.95), which is basically a classic Cobb served with balsamic vinaigrette. The romaine was fresh and crisp, and the portions of chicken, bacon and hard-boiled eggs ample. I’d have enjoyed a choice of dressings — perhaps something creamy or featuring tropical rather than Italian flavors — but it was good nonetheless.
My other fave: The Makaha ($7.95). The filling breakfast — eggs, peppers, onions and a choice of protein swathed in a white or wheat wrap from New World Tortilla — was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Before I opted for sausage in my Makaha, I made sure to ask the friendly girl at the counter about its provenance. She told me she herself was a localvore, then popped into the kitchen, where a cook confirmed that the meat originates on a Vermont farm but couldn’t specify which one. Given that The Spot’s prices are a hair outside the super-cheap range, naming local suppliers on the snazzy, seaside-themed menu would be a good move.
For a place with water everywhere — in addition to the fish tank, there’s a banquette painted to look like a wave rising over the occupants’ heads — The Spot can make it tough to find a drop to drink. Water isn’t self-serve, unlike the java, silverware and napkins, and it’s no fun trying to inquire at the counter during the breakfast or lunch rush. A jug of H20 on the coffee bar would solve this problem in a jiffy.
Although a sign at the pickup counter reminds eaters to bus their own dishes, people occasionally leave without doing so. At 1:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, I noticed plates and food detritus covering two tabletops, and it took a while for the staffers to find time to clear them. Are the bus tubs not conspicuous enough, or is this a civility issue? It’s hard to say.
On my first and last visits, I found myself resorting to the bins in the back to dispose of the sweet-potato homefries that came with my omelette. The first time around, they were undercooked; the second, when they came alongside my delicious Makaha wrap, they were just right: spicy, tender and properly seasoned. The third time, though, they smelled overwhelmingly of powdered ginger and came with pieces of barely cooked onion. I tossed them.
A tuna-fish sandwich was good, and a chicken-and-avocado version was decent. But the much-touted Peahi fish taco ($10.95) was mucho disappointing. Expecting fragrant corn tacos filled with juicy hunks of fish, like the ones I’ve had in San Diego, I was chagrined to find a thin strip of unidentifiable seafood mashed to the consistency of canned tuna and spread on flour tortillas. The fresh mango salsa and chipotle sauce tasted good, but the nondescript fish got lost in the mix. The tacos came with a side of stale corn chips and some salsa, which did nothing to improve the situation.
Another disappointing item was a strawberry, banana and mango smoothie ($3.50). While very large, the concoction was quite sour, and the only real fruit flavor was a hint of strawberry. The banana was barely discernable in the background, the mango undetectable. Why not make the serving size smaller and beef up the fruit? After all, that’s the good part.
Another portion problem: A side of slaw ($1.80) consisted of two forkfuls. That’s the perfect size for something made of luxe ingredients, but shredded cabbage? Surely they could afford to dole out a little more.
While more than one of my acquaintances has complained about lackadaisical service at The Spot, I’ve found the staffers pleasant and accommodating. A friendly brunette woman, present on all my visits, was patient with my numerous questions and made several trips to the kitchen to answer them. Right before closing time on a Wednesday afternoon, the young man working the counter let me know I could stay an extra half-hour to keep working as the staffers cleaned. I also appreciated the fresh flowers on the tables and the upbeat but nonintrusive music.
Summing up The Spot is like summing up seaside weather. On the sunny side, it’s smack dab in the middle of a commuter corridor, offers a breezy place for laptop work between busy mealtimes, and has shown significant improvement in two weeks. I look forward to dropping in and playing around with the build-your-own omelette and sandwich options. On the stormy side ... well, let’s just say I’ll leave the fish tacos and baked goods for imaginary seagulls as I gaze at the décor and pretend the surf is just yards away.