A blackboard out front advertises sautéed free-range chicken livers. In many small Vermont towns, this might be more discouraging than enticing. But this is Montgomery Center, the town that was once home to Zack’s on the Rocks. And in some ways, a new establishment simply known as the Inn is the inheritor of Zack’s purple robes.
While the late, beloved restaurant was known for its kitsch, both the food and the ambiance at the Inn reflect more artistic sensibilities. Mere whimsy would be beneath owners and partners Nick Barletta and Scott Pasfield. During seven months last year, they transformed the former Inn at Trout River from an exploded Victorian tea cozy into a masculine-chic hunting lodge, complete with Germanic mounted antlers, crewel-adorned armchairs and even a couch stenciled with silhouettes of automatic weapons.
Of late, the Inn has gained notice for food that equals the décor in inventiveness while adding a distinctly different — and global — twist. Those who haven’t tasted the fare yet may have seen it pictured on Facebook, courtesy of Pasfield, a professional photographer.
The Inn’s restaurant wasn’t an immediate hit. Last December, the couple opened it with their chef friend Wil Crutchley, who was visiting briefly from New York City, at the helm. He offered a tapas menu. “People were really turned off,” Pasfield says. “They said, ‘Tapas? What are you doing?’”
When Crutchley’s stint ended, Barletta and Pasfield listened to recommendations from northern Vermont pals and reached out to Connie Warden, former owner of Chow! Bella in St. Albans. Since selling her restaurant in 2011, Warden had been bopping around from spots such as Anne Amie Vineyards in Carlton, Ore., to Vergennes’ Basin Harbor Club in a bohemian semiretirement.
In Warden, Barletta and Pasfield found a creative mind to suit the individually themed rooms Pasfield had hand-stenciled with trees, flowers and snowflakes to represent autumn, spring and winter. The chicken livers were her idea. “When people first heard we were doing them, we were slammed,” Barletta remembers.
With good reason. The starter presents the offal with shiitake mushrooms and caramelized onions, all rolled in a silky robe of Marsala cream sauce. It’s at once elegant and rustic, with tastes of fine dining in Italy and your Polish babcia’s kitchen.
That international fusion is exactly the point. “It reminds me totally of the Daily Planet when it first opened. It’s global, it’s fun and it just works,” Warden says. She should know: Warden was the Planet’s chef in the early 1980s, just after her stint at 135 Pearl.
As at the Planet, Warden’s concept for the Inn entails presenting not just dishes from around the world but individual plates that merge their flavors. It has aged well. Warden calls another appetizer Swedish-Southern fusion: pickled shrimp presented in a mini Mason jar with finely chopped onions and a shower of capers. Homemade crackers and a blob of cilantro pesto help diners construct something like smørrebrød from the assembled elements.
Though both owners contribute ideas to the menu, Pasfield and Warden share a particularly special culinary relationship. In his primary career, Pasfield has photographed celebrities from Joan Rivers to Colin Farrell and published the groundbreaking photographic survey Gay in America. Between his architecture studies and his time in New York, he worked at Santacafé, the restaurant of East Meets Southwest author Mike Fennelly.
Menu ideas emerge from Warden and Pasfield’s constant collaborative patter. “Connie and I drive each other crazy,” Pasfield says. “I’m throwing her ideas in the middle of service, and she’s like, ‘Not now, Scott.’”
Of course, Warden can always silence him by offering him something to eat — such as the raw dough for her griddled biscuits. Those fluffy, honeyed pastries appear on a small plate of fried chicken that debuted on the summer menu last week. “We wanted some fried chicken on here that would be delicious but not ordinary, and I think this is it,” Pasfield says.
On the plate he indicates, organic, free-range chicken thighs are fried to a surprisingly dark crispness, but not overcooked. The batter combines Buffalo sauce and honey in a sweet, zingy jacket that crackles with flavor and crunch. Besides the biscuits, dill-flecked garlic mashed potatoes and long-cooked carrots and yellow peppers come alongside.
Pasfield doesn’t just lend Warden his thoughts on “foods that will tug at the heartstrings.” While she whips up versions of his and Barletta’s favorite foods, he returns the favor by using his expertise to photograph each of her creations. The photos go straight to Facebook, where the Inn’s nearly 1000 followers are quick to comment on the attractive eats.
Barletta and Pasfield originally bought their house near the Canadian border as a second home where Pasfield could indulge his love of skiing while Barletta unwound after a long week as the vice president of operational risk at American Express. Barletta says it was the small town’s close-knit community that inspired them to open the Inn. (He now lives in Vermont fulltime, while Pasfield comes and goes for photographic assignments.)
In Montgomery Center, the pair found a group of neighbors more like them than they expected. A sizable gay community, including many couples from Boston, New York and Montréal with second homes in the area, has eased the transition. “The bluefish sold very well,” Barletta jokes of the stereotypical New York Jewish ingredient they recently featured on the menu.
Barletta, in particular, has become a pillar of the community as a member of numerous Montgomery Center organizations. The Inn hosts town events such as the monthly Celebration of Expressive Arts, featuring music, visual art and drama produced by locals.
While some may come for the arts, the Inn’s hopping bar scene is a strong draw, too. Barletta is big on local gins, particularly those from Green Mountain Distillers and Smugglers’ Notch Distillery. And bartender Lily Powers, a former chef, is just as likely to use local produce in the drinks. Take, for example, a recent tipple made from a combination of floral St. Germain, fresh cilantro and ginger.
The Inn is still developing relationships with local farmers; several have already offered to grow ingredients exclusively for Warden’s kitchen. For now, most raw materials come from Black River Produce. Warden prefers not to advertise their often-local provenance on her menu, saying that in rural Vermont it should be assumed.
The flavors don’t lie when it comes to the quality of the Inn’s ingredients. There’s nowhere to hide imperfect products in Warden’s Vietnamese pork-lettuce wraps, from a recipe she says she learned long ago from a Cambodian colleague. The soft, lemongrass-flavored meatballs, drizzled in homemade hoisin sauce, are addictive on their own, but a tangy rice-noodle salad dotted with mint and cilantro makes the dish.
When Seven Days visits, the dish gets a rave from a fellow diner and local chef, John Bolog, formerly of Montgomery Center’s Belfry. “I’m all about intensity in cooking. If there’s no intensity, you can tell,” he says. “I’ve been to Vietnam, and it was close to home.”
“Good for an Irish girl,” Warden says with a chuckle.
Pasfield agrees, saying, “This has really unleashed Connie’s creative side. She reels me in. She says menus have to function in a certain way. She’s being the technician and still releasing her creative side, too. That’s what makes it so much fun for all of us.”
The photographer hopes one day to collect his images of Warden’s food in a book, along with pictures of the Inn’s notable renovation, which next week will include a new covered-bridge entrance to the outdoor deck. Pasfield imagines that book might bring diners from beyond northern Vermont and southern Québec to try the Inn. “People will travel for good food and an experience,” he reasons.
While building a rep may be a long-term strategy, Barletta says he’s more excited by the visitors who just happen to drive past the Inn, stop and discover the hidden wonderland that he, Pasfield and Warden have crafted. “We don’t want people to come here and expect something,” he says. “We want them to find something and thrill them.”
The Inn, 241 Main Street, Montgomery Center, 326-4391.