Barre is the Granite City, home to the Rock of Ages quarry and Hope Cemetery, the ne plus ultra of sculpture gardens. The town’s opera house is one of the most beautiful in the state. But one thing Barre has yet to add to its list of cultural endowments is a culinary destination. Last month’s opening of the Cornerstone Pub & Kitchen may have given it just that.
Owners Keith Paxman and Rich McSheffrey have been best friends since they attended grade school together in the town. Both grew up to work in restaurants: Paxman in fine-dining establishments, including Warren’s the Common Man, which he sold last year; McSheffrey in pubs and pizzerias in Massachusetts.
Paxman and McSheffrey say they talked for years about opening a restaurant together in their hometown. Now, with an ongoing city revitalization that includes a freshly rebuilt Main Street and a planned food co-op, the timing seems perfect for Barre’s first gastro-pub.
In an interview for the Seven Days food news column, the owners said their goal is to be the “cornerstone” of a new Barre: a bustling, friendly city similar to that of their parents’ generation. To set the appropriate mood in the dark-walled restaurant, they start with road signs and posters from the early 20th century.
Many guests won’t lack for time to peruse the decorations: There was an hour’s wait for a table at Cornerstone when I visited last Tuesday. Luckily, we had called ahead (the restaurant only accepts reservations for parties of five or more) and so were seated shortly after we arrived.
The restaurant’s popularity can mean a din sometimes fills the small dining room and big, open bar area, but it was never loud enough on my visit to prevent conversation. That bar area is visually striking, with tall tables and a wall of booths offering views of the granite “Youth Triumphant” sculpture in front of city hall. Posters leading to the still-new-smelling bathrooms date back to the 1930s, when Barre’s Magnet Theatre was showing films starring Mae West and Ginger Rogers.
If the Barre history on display at Cornerstone doesn’t clash with the predominance of contemporary trends on its plates, that’s because Vermont’s culinary present doesn’t diverge too much from its agricultural past.
Drinks are served in Mason jars, and the style of the food is rustic, with a touch of sophistication from the big city — Atlanta, to be precise. The chef, McSheffrey’s cousin Jesse LeClair, is a Barre native and New England Culinary Institute graduate whose previous job was cooking at the Ritz-Carlton in the Southern foodie city.
A pair of chalkboards above the bar notes 28 beer options on tap, including cult Vermont brands Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Hill Farmstead Brewery and Fiddlehead Brewing. Hard-to-find beers from around the country are also available, along with Pabst Blue Ribbon and Bud Light.
The suds, or selections from the full bar or boutique-wine list, are perfect for accompanying any of LeClair’s offerings, divided on the menu into six categories, including Pub Fare, Burgers & Fries and meaty Cornerstone Cuts.
I began with a salad of tender, roasted cubes of red and golden beets. Though beet-and-arugula salads with goat cheese have become a Vermont menu staple, Cornerstone’s version is a cut above. The chèvre is exceptionally creamy and tangy, but it’s the viscous maple vinaigrette and toasted pine nuts in place of croutons that separate this salad from the pack.
A plate of fish tacos reflected the kitchen’s trend of outsized portions, with two large tacos for $10. Served in special taco holders to prevent spillage, the flour tortillas were filled with thick, meaty chunks of blackened swordfish. Some were moister than others, but crisp, mayonnaise-heavy broccoli slaw, combined with nature’s mayonnaise (slices of avocado), served to alleviate any dryness. Stripes of chipotle aioli might have seemed excessive if not for the pleasant touch of heat they imparted. I also enjoyed dipping my taco in a zigzag of garlicky Sriracha sauce, quite different from the “rooster” Sriracha from Huy Fong Foods that most restaurants use.
Though our very knowledgeable server, Colby, promised us we wouldn’t be overwhelmed by all the food we ordered, our mouths hung agape as she proffered the BBQ Braised Pork Shank. The mighty specimen lay on a bed of macaroni and cheese and braised collard greens in a clay pot big enough to hold food for a medium-size family.
Size would have meant nothing if the dish weren’t delicious, but the shank was brined for a juicy salinity that penetrated the tender meat all the way down to the bone. It compared favorably with the best pork shank I’ve ever had, in Warsaw, where the skull-sized beast, called a golonka, was braised in beer and honey. Chef LeClair confirmed that both were ingredients in his own recipe.
If the meat of the dish reminded me of Poland, the sides were straight from the South, with a kiss of Vermont. The sweetness of the meltingly soft greens was slightly overbearing on its own, but in trotolle pasta covered in sharp, 2-year-old Grafton Village cheddar and well-cleaned, mild jalapeños, they found a most fortuitous match.
An ideal balance of sweet and savory was also key to the success of the duck confit. The cured leg itself was uncommonly flavorful, packing a punch of thyme and rosemary. The skin was evenly crisped, without the sogginess that often mars restaurant duck confits.
The fowl rested atop a pile of soldier beans mixed with crisp bacon prepared according to an intensely maple-flavored, but not too sweet, recipe from McSheffrey and LeClair’s grandmother. The effect was of a Vermont play on cassoulet. Big leaves of kale sautéed with chopped garlic added a pungent smack of flavor to the otherwise mellow dish.
To-go containers in hand, I still had a small patch of internal real estate reserved for dessert. Fortunately, the sweets at Cornerstone are served in small Mason jars for manageable portions. Unfortunately, there are many from which to choose.
Each day, students in the culinary arts program at the Barre Technical Center prepare a few different trifles for Cornerstone’s diners. Though a peanut-butter-and-chocolate trifle was tantalizing, I couldn’t resist the Thin Mint variety. A dense chocolate mousse provided the bottom layer for a sandwich of moist chocolate-cookie crumbs topped with a foamy-light mint mousse.
Like the trifle, jars of ice cream from Scout’s Honor were attractively presented on J.K. Adams wood boards emblazoned with straight-from-the-farm images — a chicken for the trifle, carrots for the ice cream.
The wares of Scout’s Honor, an ice cream maker located inside Waitsfield’s Sweet Spot, are a prime pick for Cornerstone. I sampled a salted-caramel scoop that captured the burnt-sugar taste of real caramel in a lusciously creamy frozen treat. Even better was midnight-dark Valrhona chocolate laced with three locally grown chiles. The peppers tasted fresh, with a slightly vegetal shade that climaxed in a slow, subtle burn at the back of my throat.
It was a strong ending to a meal that surpassed my high expectations. I’m only sorry I couldn’t experience more than one meal at Cornerstone before writing this review. It meant that I missed out on the popular edamame burger, the pan-seared diver scallops with butternut squash risotto and the almost erotic-sounding short-rib poutine.
But I’ll be back. And so will Barre.
Cornerstone Pub & Kitchen, 47 North Main Street, Barre, 476-2121. cornerstonepk.com