Last Friday was the first day of the second annual Vermont Restaurant Week. Between guzzling sangria at the ¡Sangria Smackdown! at Red Square in Burlington and tucking into timpano at the Palace 9’s showing of the 1996 classic Big Night, Seven Days staffers were among the hundreds of Vermonters dining at the 80 restaurants offering discounted prix-fixe menus this weekend. Some hopped in their cars for a foodie road trip; others stayed closer to home. All of them got their “fixe” and will continue to hit restaurants through May 5.
Paris in the Springtime
One of my jobs leading up to Restaurant Week is collecting menus from the participating eateries. The first menu that came in was from Café Provence in Brandon. I’d been impressed with the food prepared by former New England Culinary Institute executive chef Robert Barral at various food events, but I’d never made the nearly hour-and-a-half trek to his restaurant. As soon as I saw the $10 lunch special he was offering, I knew it was time.
After two months of salivating over the menu, on a sunny Saturday, I hopped in a van with a group of friends and drove down Route 7. We climbed the outdoor stairs to the restaurant’s courtyard, where we enjoyed the weather and the art installations, including a rocking chair made of tires.
The dining room was packed with customers, most of whom seemed to be ordering from the Restaurant Week menu. The soup du jour was crimson lentil. Besides the legumes, the slightly sweet potage was filled with tomatoes, meltingly soft onions and the most buttery croutons I’ve ever had.
Three-fifths of my party ordered the seafood stew, which our harried server told us was a half-order of the popular dinner item. The stew contained three mussels, two shrimp, a trio of meaty scallops and beautiful saffron risotto. A pair of herbaceous slabs of garlic toast was provided for sopping up the broth.
I had long been fantasizing about the steak frites. The petite portion was perfect for lunch. It was wonderfully tender and lay in a thick puddle of hearty red-wine reduction topped with the melted remains of maitre d’hotel butter. Salty battered fries took up much of the plate, along with al dente, very fresh haricot verts.
The best dish may have been the balsamic-drizzled tomato pie. A simple assemblage of fresh tomatoes, caramelized onion, basil pesto, Blue Ledge Farm goat cheese and mesclun greens on a puff pastry crust, it was addictive — the whole far exceeding the sum of its parts.
Then came dessert, a soft crêpe filled with vanilla ice cream and surrounded by orange-scented caramel sauce. Creamy but bright, it tasted of sunshine. It was an ideal day: great weather, great friends and fabulous food — for just $10!
Das Restaurant Week
I’m typically the first person to suggest some farm-to-table comfort food and a tasty Vermont craft brew when going out for dinner. But sometimes you need something different. For that, we have the authentically German flavor of Das Bierhaus.
Das Bierhaus consists of a warm, intimate dining room on the ground floor, a ski chalet-themed bar area on the second floor and a rooftop biergarten. My partner, Jackie, and I went for the chalet, which was decked out with vintage ski resort advertisements on the walls and two big-screen TVs playing European soccer.
I started with the dumplings for my appetizer course. The two bready dumplings came out rich and flaky, almost meaty in texture, topped with a hearty gravy. Jackie opted for the spätzle: a delicious bowl of egg noodles, creamy melted cheese and chopped onions. Ever notice that the best food comes with an umlaut?
Speaking of umlauts, my jäger schnitzel entrée didn’t come with a side, but it didn’t matter — I stood no chance of finishing the enormous pork loin. The pan-fried schnitzel was perfectly crispy and slathered in more gravy, with a few mushrooms sprinkled in for good measure. Jackie ordered the wiener schnitzel, a veal cutlet with lemon slices on top. Both made for excellent leftovers the next day. We each got a cheese plate for dessert, but most of that came home with us, too — we were just too full.
And the beer! Das Bierhaus dedicates each of its eight tap lines to a rotating lineup of German imports that you won’t see elsewhere in Vermont. The Weihenstephan Hefe Weiss — aka the best wheat beer in the world — is creamy and full bodied, but bursting with flavor and so easy to drink. The Ayinger Celebrator is a dark beer that manages to taste as malty, roasted and flavorful as the best stouts, but without the heaviness.
We left Das Bierhaus stuffed, buzzed and satisfied. What better way to kick off Vermont Restaurant Week than with a taste of Germany? Prost!
Since moving here, I’d heard people express nothing but reverence for the Latin-inflected fare at Santos Cocina Latina in Stowe: “totally original” and “polished” were among the praises. So, it was a no-brainer where I choose to eat on the first night of Vermont Restaurant Week.
After the long drive to the village, the blood-colored room where we were seated set our pulses racing. The waiter confided that April is a slow time in Stowe; even still, more than a few people had trickled in for what he kept referring to as “the tasting menu.” Uh-oh, we thought, are we in for a succession of tiny bites?
We had nothing to worry about. Chef Miguel Garcia’s four-course menu would fill our gullets way before the finish line. He set us in motion with an amuse-bouche; his modern twist on tostones — the Mexican dish based on fried plantains — was pastry topped with seasoned ground beef. It was about three bites full of cuminy, oily goodness.
Each of the next few dishes was as delectable to look at as it was to eat. We rode in tandem for the next course, a Peruvian vegetable soup of lima beans and chunks of corn seasoned with ají amarillo — a yellow pepper that lent a golden hue and zingy warmth — and huacatay, a Peruvian herb akin to mint. Jiggling on top was a poached egg that oozed and melted as I broke it into the bowl. The dish delivered mouthfuls of heat, cream and menthol, and we took to nibbling on the mini-cobs of corn as we held them in our fingers.
The glistening sweet-shrimp-and-tuna ceviche that arrived next was studded with specks of red onion, garnished with a wet tangle of red peppers and surrounded by a creamy avocado sauce. On top were two tiny baby lettuce leaves that lent a springlike fragility to this otherwise chunky, briny dish with its hints of tang, sea and citrus.
My entrée — a char-grilled, sliced skirt steak in a barely visible chimichurri sauce — came with a brick of baked rice. The cream-colored rice casserole was charred in places, but the steak was perfectly moist and herbaceous from the soaked-in sauce. It was about halfway through the steak that my brain told me to cease and desist if I wanted to save my stomach. I could hardly try one bite of the earthy, rust-colored root-vegetable tamal that accompanied my boyfriend’s mahi mahi.
Even so, it would have been daft to forgo dessert. A Champlain Valley Creamery cream-cheese-and-coconut flan with maple whipped cream was only faintly sweet; a chocolate soufflé came topped with dulce de leche crème anglaise that the waiter poured over the dish at the table. The warm, squishy chocolate was light enough to dissolve on the tongue, with no hint of bitterness. I didn’t have room for it, but I finished every last bite.
Loosening the Belt
Every week, I edit the paper’s food section and read about wonderful restaurants where I can seldom afford to eat. One that often pops up in “Food News” is the Belted Cow Bistro in Essex — an avowed favorite of food writer Alice Levitt, and home of bona fide barbecue champion chef John Delpha. With a $35 Restaurant Week menu as incentive, I decided to try the Cow — and bring my mom as an early Mother’s Day treat.
The Belted Cow is located in Essex’s historic Lincoln Inn, where I haven’t been since it contained a generically upscale (for Vermont) restaurant with a lobster tank. When I was in high school in Lamoille County, this was the pre-prom destination.
Now the rooms have an airy, modern feel to go with their venerable stained glass and woodwork. The food is modern, too, with earthy twists.
For the first course, my mom had the roasted beets, endive and arugula salad coated in blue-cheese vinaigrette, which she pronounced as filling as a meal. I enjoyed a springy green asparagus purée with big, honkin’ chunks of Vermont bacon. But my real attention was reserved for the cocktail, a blood orange martini that tasted fresh squeezed. Our server called it “dangerous,” and she was right. It was hard to switch to one of the recommended wine pairings for my entrée.
I chose the grilled hanger steak, which seemed to cause a certain bemusement — “What’s a hanger steak?” I heard diners ask at two nearby tables. According to Wikipedia, the cut comes from a steer’s diaphragm and is “prized for its flavor,” but mainly it seems like something Don Draper would eat. Cooked medium rare, with Yukon gold frites on the side and a light touch of blue-cheese butter, this was classic meat and potatoes.
Meanwhile, my mom was thrilled with her lighter seared Atlantic salmon. Though she initially found the presentation “scary” — the fish came practically floating in a parsley risotto with crème fraiche — the flavors were excellent.
But it’s a Belted Cow dessert that made the strongest impression. You’ve heard of bananas Foster, of course. And cheesecake. And Jack Daniel’s. Why not layer them in a single parfait dish? That’s precisely what chef Delpha has done — and the gooey, creamy, crunchy concoction won second prize at the 21st Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue. If there was ever a dish that justified the subsequent contemplation of your cholesterol count, this is it.
I’ll confess that I usually orient to downtown Burlington for dinner, as eating out often precedes a concert or other cultural event. But my tantalizing experience at Pauline’s Café Sunday night has put Shelburne Road — and chef-owner David Hoene — on my radar.
I’m only sorry that I didn’t think to invite two people instead of one, so that we could have sampled all three offerings for each course on the prix-fixe menu. But at least my companion had no qualms about swapping plates.
First, we opted for a 2008 bottle of Le Grand Noir Cabernet-Shiraz, which proved to be a smooth, full-bodied libation with our selections — including the house made focaccia with sun-dried tomato topping and moist popovers, which appeared within moments of our placing the order.
For starters, we chose the crab cake stuffed morel mushroom and a rabbit rillette. The former was an oblong mound in a velvety lemon sauce, with delicate sautéed wild leeks. The mushroom, rather than being actually stuffed, was thinly sliced and served as a crisp bed for the crab concoction. The textures and tastes were so wonderful, my mouth is watering in memory of it.
The rabbit rillette, served cold, was ultra-tender and vaguely sweet — in truth, we couldn’t have guessed it was rabbit. This was nicely offset by tiny pickled day lily shoots and Jerusalem artichokes, as well as gritty little coltsfoot flowers and rounds of toasted focaccia. Really yummy, and we loved the crunchy textures with the soft rillette.
The foraged ingredients on our plates previewed more to come; chef Hoene is a fan not just of local but of local wild.
Our main dishes were a confit duck leg and spring fettuccine. The duck was utterly decadent, crisp and salty, served in a rich jus with wild cress and earthy Jerusalem artichokes — this time roasted and unpeeled, not pickled. The hand-cut fettuccine was tossed with a medley of wild leeks, sedum, day lily shoots and nettle and did, in fact, taste like spring. Another inspired touch: bits of Boucher Family Farm blue cheese, which provided a tart and swoon-worthy escort to the silky, mildly sweet pasta.
Despite the richness of our meal, we didn’t feel “Thanksgiving full,” which was a good thing, since there was still dessert. We chose the wild ginger crême brûlée and the flourless chocolate cake. I’m a big fan of anything pudding-y, and, though I couldn’t really discern the ginger, this crême was classically elegant. The cake was surprisingly light, almost a soufflé, and not too sugary.
All our dishes were inventive, beautifully prepared and delicious. The unexpected seasonal ingredients made eating an adventure. This was a meal that appealed to all the senses and was, well, sensational.