"Oh, sorry, we're booked solid." This wasn't what I expected to hear last Friday night when I called White River Junction's Tuckerbox to inquire about a dinner reservation. I'm so accustomed to wandering in during the day for tea that I wasn't even sure the place took reservations for its newly instituted dinner service. I assumed it would be a breeze to arrive without warning.
Wrong. Ever since starting dinner service last month, Tuckerbox has been slammed. So it felt like a big-city triumph when a host announced he could find seats for us at the counter.
When I first moved to the Upper Valley more than a decade ago, I quickly developed a crush on this town of brick and open sky — with its salvage place, its Polka Dot Restaurant, the trains that rumbled and hooted through it several times a day. At night, though, White River seemed pretty dead, at least to my untrained eyes.
A few diners could always be spotted behind the windows of the Tip Top Café, and people might be puffing on cigarettes outside CJ's at Than Wheeler's or the Filling Station Bar and Grill. Occasionally the Briggs Opera House let loose a crowd after a Northern Stage play, or a band played at the Main Street Museum. Outside special events and First Fridays, though, "White River nightlife" was an oxymoron. This was certainly not a town I thought could ever host my favorite sport, app surfing — think a pub crawl, but focused on food.
Over time, White River's nights have changed. Elixir Restaurant arrived five years ago, followed by Tupelo Music Hall. Soon after, chef Eric Hartling opened Tuckerbox on a central corner. Almost instantly it became the preferred mingling place in town for students from the Center for Cartoon Studies, workers and passersby alike.
Yet unlike its predecessors in the space — an Italian restaurant and an African eatery — Tuckerbox didn't serve dinner. This was a puzzle to me. Since the café was one of my favorite daytime venues, I could easily imagine it dimly lit on a snowy evening, wine glasses on every table.
Vural and Jackie Oktay may have shared that vision. The Oktays opened Istanbul Kebab House in Essex Junction two years ago, but the Upper Valley is their home. Last November, they purchased Tuckerbox from Hartling and put big plans into motion.
The changes were subtle at first. A zucchini fritter and kebabs appeared on the menu alongside the standard offerings of granola parfaits, grilled-cheese sandwiches, pastries and bracing coffee. Then, in mid-February, the Oktays rolled out full dinner service, drawing on the culinary juju of chef Mehmet Kurtlu — who helped them open the Kebab House up north. "This is something we've always wanted to do," says Vural Oktay, who has been in the UV for close to a decade.
I can't count the times I've exclaimed, "I wish Tuckerbox was open at night, and I wish it served wine." Fortuitously, Oktay is a passionate advocate of Turkish wines, which now compose the majority of the list at Tuckerbox. More than a few come from Kavaklidere, a well-known organic Turkish winery. Oktay cheerfully pours out samples on request, bridging the gulf of unfamiliarity with his infectious enthusiasm.
These grapes have strange (to us) names, but each one we tried was fine-tuned and balanced. The Çankaya tasted like a floral, beguiling mashup of Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontés and maybe a touch of Chardonnay. A juicy dry rosé (made from a grape I'll never be able to pronounce — Çalkarasi) was a valiant complement to many of the mezze. We quaffed them faster than was probably wise.
For app surfers like us, Tuckerbox offers a treasury of choices, and many come piled together on the mezze platter — a riot of colors and textures served with a crisp puff of sesame-dusted lavash. The stuffed grape leaves were startlingly fresh and cinnamon-scented, while the creamy haydari, a dill-flecked yogurt dip, swept the palate with tang. It contrasted starkly with the smoke and bite of a Turkish tomato salsa.
Plated alone is pachanga borek, a cylinder of feather-light fried pastry stuffed with garlicky sausage and creamy farmer's cheese (Kashar), and smeared with red-pepper coulis. With its crust made mostly of butter and a meat-filled interior, this is a dish you want to inhale — and we did.
Despite our stated focus on small plates, we wanted to try at least one of Tuckerbox's entrées. Though the tomato-based casseroles called güveç were alluring, we settled on a plate of charred protein — the mixed-grill kebab. It was a succulent jumble of shaved lamb, tubes of spicy chicken Adana, mounds of meatball and buttery cubes of swordfish. Each bite deserved a corresponding sip of Yakut, a light-bodied red.
Oktay looked stricken at the idea that we would leave without dessert — baklava is a specialty — but we had other places to go on our tour of White River's new nightlife.
At the same time that Tuckerbox changed hands, Hartling sold the nearby Tip Top Café to Eileen McGuckin. She was at the hostess station on Friday night, and the menu suggested she'd decided to stick with the general theme of new American fare. Wisely so. The fries at Tip Top are among the best in the state — battered and fried, showered with salt and herbs and served in a paper cone with a pot of aioli.
My friend Kate, whom I will henceforth call "Super-Palate," was a Tip Top fry virgin but quickly nailed the kitchen's secret weapon. "Don't you taste the sugar on these?" she asked. I hadn't until she mentioned it — the sweetness was almost undetectable. We snacked on the fries and a plate of luscious braised pork belly over French lentils before departing for our third and final stop of the evening.
If we had had more room in our stomachs, we might have stopped at Than Wheeler's for a burger, or at C & S Pizza for a slice, or even at the newly installed Big Fatty's BBQ. But, in the interest of self-preservation, we bypassed those for Elixir. This wine bar and restaurant occupies the Freight House, a building that occasionally trembles when blocks of salt are unloaded from railroad cars out back. Since Elixir is a few blocks from the center of town, it's a minor miracle that the spacious restaurant has survived. But items such as cocoa-dusted petit filet Mignon and Caipirinha are strong draws.
So is bartender Keith Troy Walsh, another transplant from the north. Walsh poured at American Flatbread Burlington Hearth before migrating to the Upper Valley with his wife. A bearded, booming presence behind the bar, he set us up with a pair of dessert wines (Eden Ice Cider Heirloom Blend and late-harvest Torrontés) while we awaited our next installment of small plates. And these were sweet ones: a bananas Foster bread pudding in rum-caramel sauce and an ice cream sandwich.
By this point in our feasting, I couldn't manage more than a few bites. With its motley mix of patrons and friendly, lateish-night vibe, Elixir seemed like the ideal place to end an evening in "Rio Blanco." As we snacked and sipped, we watched concertgoers from Tupelo next door slip into the darkness beside the tracks, doing Lord knows what. It was people watching, WRJ style.