I never downed a pint inside the Thrush Tavern, the well-worn pub a block from the Statehouse in Montpelier, but I’ve heard it was long a smoky, dark epicenter of legislative banter. After the Thrush closed in 2008, those who mourned its passing would have to wait four years for something to take its place.
Athene Cua first noticed the space was for rent last fall when she was walking down State Street with her daughter. A geologist by training, Cua had been a full-time mom for eight years but never let go of her dream to own a restaurant. The idea had germinated while she worked in a Montpelier frame shop, but she put it on the back burner when she became pregnant with the first of her two children.
When she checked out the weathered brick structure that once housed the Thrush, Cua’s dream was rekindled. She eventually leased the space and put in motion her plans for a casual, kid-friendly eatery. Then she found chef Jon Beresford, who had just returned to Vermont from cheffing in Idaho and Utah. “He kind of fell in my lap,” says Cua.
She was thrilled that Beresford was willing to take on more than chef duties — he is also a woodworker — to help with renovations at 107 State Street. Together they painted the rooms in jewel tones and added maps and art-deco travel posters to the walls. The pair installed an open kitchen overlooking one of the two dining rooms and fit a compact bar into the other. Meanwhile, Beresford planned a menu of eclectic comfort food. On March 9, Clean Slate Café officially opened its doors, its name reflecting Cua’s new career tack and the reborn space.
The name may suggest a spare aesthetic — the resto’s logo features an empty whiteboard — but that’s misleading. Clean Slate’s space is richly hued, and the menu is just as kaleidoscopic, featuring vivid samples of Indian, Mexican, Scandinavian and Cajun cuisine. The service is ambitious, too; Clean Slate offers meals from morning to night. Cua plans to add a late-night menu soon.
I hope the crew doesn’t burn out, because there’s a lot to love about Clean Slate, despite a few early misfires. The prices are easy to take — a hulking pot pie goes for about $7; a pint of Fiddlehead is $5 — and much of the fare overdelivers. The warm waitstaff and colored walls lend the place good juju. I’m puzzled it wasn’t busier during my three visits; I don’t think I spied a single legislator, though it may have been my timing.
Clean Slate hits its stride at breakfast time, when the gold-painted main dining room is awash in light and the excellent coffee flows copiously (a waitress tops it off as soon as the meniscus hits mid-mug). The morning menu is varied, with traditional plates of bacon and eggs ($5.99) offered alongside fruit-filled crêpes ($5.99) and potato pancakes with smoked salmon ($8.99). The last dish features generous curls of fish draped across a delicate, gently fried potato mash, sprinkled with salty capers and minced red onion. Loading each bite with dill-accented cream cheese, as I did, made for sharp, cooling and creamy mouthfuls. It was breakfast bliss.
Another standout of the opposite character — sweet — was impossible to resist: banana-bread French toast, served with a wobbly mound of maple custard ($6.99). The six pieces of sweet, nutty bread were only lightly battered before being fried, and the velvety maple custard was sumptuous. It combined the butter and syrup I would normally slather on French toast, sexing up each bite with drippy maple curds.
At lunchtime, volume rules. Each day at Clean Slate brings a new soup, quiche and pot pie. On the day I visited, the pot pie ($6.99) contained lamb curry. Large enough to fill a broad pasta bowl, it was topped with an exuberantly flaky puff pastry. One bite sufficed to reveal that someone in the kitchen loves heat: The sauce that drenched the moist lamb would probably challenge some sensitive Vermont palates. The generous side salad could have been a main course; its super-fresh baby greens were kissed with a delicious, well-balanced cider vinaigrette.
If the Thrush was known for its burgers, Clean Slate ups the ante in that department: The Smokey Burger ($10.99) contains a fistful of cold-smoked local beef that’s grilled and served on a squishy fresh bun. The fries were nothing to write home about, but the moist, earthy meat was cooked perfectly to order — in my case, medium rare. I would come back for this alone. During one of my visits, a group of four arrived, and each ordered the burger, suggesting that it’s already gained a following.
The kitchen’s ethos of accenting New England dishes with exotic flavors is embodied in the warming, fragrant red-curry clam chowder ($5 for a bowl), which was both light and rich. The soup was laden with plump clams and soft cubes of potato; coconut milk and herbs washed over my tongue like creamed ocean.
Given the triumphs of breakfast and lunch, I was eager to try dinner. That menu is divided into small and large plates, and some of the former are big enough for a main course. The finger-lickin’ Maine lobster fritters ($13.99) were almost effervescent — misshapen, golden-fried orbs of lobster meat, minced scallions and corn kernels that were even livelier when dipped in a pungent, mustardy remoulade. Another not-to-be-missed dish is the corn bread ($4.99), oversized, moist and glazed with a honey butter that rendered the whole thing sweet, fatty and heavenly. My dining partner and I plowed through it.
Perhaps I was too excited for the mole turkey and dumplings ($10). I will travel far for a good mole (even to Oaxaca), but, though the meat in Clean Slate’s version was fresh and moist — and the portion tremendous — the dish was overwrought. After a few bites, we wanted to repurpose the tangle of meat and spice: load it on flatbread, top it with queso fresco, or marry it with something else that might cool it down or absorb its oil. The sauce lacked delicacy.
For mains, we followed some of the suggestions of our server. Although the baby-back pork ribs ($17.99) were fall-off-the-bone tender, they arrived lukewarm and overly slathered with a tangy cranberry barbecue sauce. The dish’s heaviness was offset, however, by a cooling, scrumptious coleslaw laced with tiny, sweet bits of fennel, or perhaps chicory.
At $24.99, braised lamb shanks are the priciest dish on the menu. While ours was flavorful and, again, the portion generous, the flesh was a touch dry. It also was delivered lukewarm, and I had to send it back for a hit of fire. The white-and-sweet potato gratin that shared the plate couldn’t save the dish: Firm and slightly undercooked, the slices didn’t meld together.
Despite my disappointment with those dishes on the night I was there, Clean Slate’s dinner menu contains much more I want to try: chicken and waffles; jambalaya; nut-crusted cod nestled in vegetable crêpes; baked polenta topped with goat cheese, roasted red peppers and pesto. The Sunday brunch menu, too, is laden with enticements such as huevos rancheros; biscuits and Andouille sausage gravy; and poached eggs with lobster.
Each meal here will be an adventure, and if you encounter a speed bump along the way, your wallet won’t suffer much in the process. Besides, who knows — the Smokey Burger might be the plate over which future legislative deals are made.
Clean Slate Café, 107 State St., Montpelier, 225-6166, cleanslatecafe.com