In 1969, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Jimi Hendrix closed out Woodstock and a new Toyota Corona cost $1950. It was also the year that Café Shelburne opened. Since then, the restaurant has established itself as a place where countless Chittenden County diners (and sometimes their parents and grandparents) have sat down to at least one birthday, anniversary or graduation dinner. And, for the last 25 years, it was chef Patrick Grangien sending those classically French dishes out of the kitchen, steak tartare and coquilles St. Jacques among them.
After their remarkably long run, Grangien and his wife, Christine, took their bow this past fall, handing over the reins to a new guard. Chef Bill Iliff had spent five years as Grangien’s sous chef; most recently, he was chef de cuisine at the Inn at Shelburne Farms. Chef Weston Nicoll is a New England Culinary Institute grad who worked beside Iliff at the Inn for five years.
Nicoll, 31, explains their bold move: “We want to create an updated take on the classic [French] ideas, and apply it to what we have locally.” After a brief closure, Café Shelburne reopened on November 5, its vibe little altered by the new owners. Outside is the same sign; inside, the same marble-topped bar, black wooden booths, miniature lamps and tiny vases of flowers.
In fact, someone walking into Café Shelburne might not know a change has occurred, if not perhaps for the chalkboard logo of a rabbit bisected by a chef’s knife. Even the headings on the menu are a throwback to Escoffier: Velouté aux Champignons. Entrecôte de Boeuf. Saumon à la Grille.
It’s in the fine print that the chefs’ self-proclaimed “progressive French food” ethos emerges. The velouté comes with mushroom ragù and truffle oil. The boeuf is served with frites, glazed squash and kohlrabi purée; the saumon, atop coconut rice with fennel-radish salad.
Amid all this Gallic ambiance, the succinct, four-item cocktail menu is very American. I ordered a vodka-and-ginger-beer blend called a Penny Drop — and, because the gorgeous marble bar was unmanned, one of the two servers on duty began grabbing bottles to make it.
When she delivered the drink 10 minutes later — in an ice-filled, oversize Mason jar with a red plastic stirrer — we were trying to decipher some of the less familiar French terms on the menu. “What are chickpea ‘panisses’?” my friend and I asked.
Though our server was sweet and well intentioned, she didn’t seem to know what chickpeas were, nor panisses. “I think it’s like mashed potatoes,” she offered. As she dashed to the kitchen to find out, we wondered if she had started that very evening.
The panisses ($6) turned out to be crisp, addictive chickpea fries. They were so overwhelmingly delicious (as was the citrusy aioli that came with them) that they inspired excitement for the rest of the dinner.
In fact, most of our appetizers were scrumptious and beautifully presented. A salad of curly winter spinach (Salade d’Epinard, $13) came topped with cheerfully pink watermelon radishes and julienned celeriac. Underneath, we discovered a buried treasure of salty coppa and blue-cheese crumbles, the entire thing lightly kissed by a citrusy dressing.
Inside each Canard en Tortellini ($14) was meltingly tender duck confit with fresh ricotta, resting on cranberry demi-glâce and balsam cream (made with balsam shoots provided by wildcrafters Nova Kim and Les Hook). Dairy, salt, flesh and fruit were all suspended in perfect balance. We had only one minor complaint: The dumplings’ skins quickly gummed up as they cooled.
Yet even those tender little pockets were trumped by the dainty teacup that held a nut-brown Fromage Soufflé ($13). Bucking my manners, I hastily broke into it with my fork, stealing the first bite of luscious Blue Ledge Farm Riley’s Coat goat’s-milk cheese. What appeared to be beets scattered around the cup’s base were actually sweet, soft pear quarters that had been poached in balsamic vinegar.
Less memorable was the mushroom soup (Velouté aux Champignons, $11). Though capped by a mince of oyster mushrooms and intensely earthy, the soup could have used a touch more cream to smooth out its flavors.
Before and between courses, our waits were … languorous. Wednesday has been a challenging night to staff, says Nicoll, which helps explain the gaps, the server’s occasional bewilderment and perhaps the dining room’s chill. Fortunately, we had hefty pours of excellent wines to fortify us; wine director Lauren Taratoot has put together a focused, enticing, almost entirely French list. I crushed on my Charles Gonnet Chignin Jacquère from the Savoie, a lively white wine that paired gracefully with various dishes. My friend’s Vignobles Brunier Le Pigeoulet, a Grenache-Syrah blend from Provence, was equally nimble and quaffable.
When our main courses arrived, a sudden onslaught of customers filled the dining room. And we had a little first-world problem: We were out of wine. As we waited 10 minutes or so for new glasses to go with our dinner, I envisioned the server dipping behind the bar to pour those glasses herself.
In the meantime, we discovered that each main plate had both its virtues and quirks. A Vermont rabbit loin (Lapin en Porchetta, $29) was oddly wedged between long, crunchy carrots, with a slab of pork leaning against it. The rabbit loin itself was velvety and moist, with hints of tarragon and rosemary in each bite. Yet the tangle of wilted greens was so tiny that it was gone in two bites, and the “kohlrabi-mashed potatoes” were barely a smear on the bottom of the plate. Each component was perfectly rendered, but together they formed an awkward whole.
By contrast, the kitchen’s clever take on poutine — a venison shank braised in red wine, then tumbled together with “pommes” and cheese curds in what is described as a garlic-cream sauce — was a hearty but heavy jumble, more akin to a stew. The fries had soaked up the dishes’ gravy, and the meat was flavorful, if a bit dry. Yet we found only two tiny cheese curds and the barest hint of cream, two vital “missing persons.”
For dessert, we perhaps unwisely passed over a banana-bread French toast (topped with “PB&J” ice cream) in favor of a rich, triple-chocolate mousse cake (Gâteau Mousse, $9) with a thin layer of butter crunch and a hefty layer of cream on top. The chocolate was intense, with milk- and dark-chocolate layers welded together like a sand painting, although it was crumbly; I don’t think I’ll be a return gâteau customer.
By this time, it had been nearly three hours since we’d first taken our seats in an empty dining room. At 9 p.m., the place was nearly full — but the bar remained empty and seemingly forgotten. Apparently that changes on Thursdays, when a barkeep takes over through Sunday. Moreover, says Nicoll, the bar will be one focus of an upcoming April renovation.
That’s welcome news: Iliff and Nicoll have the serious culinary chops to continue pleasing Café Shelburne’s long-standing customers with classic fare. But they may also draw in a new breed of eaters who prefer grazing on small plates, craft cocktails and offbeat wines. Hell, I’d stop in to have duck-confit-stuffed dumplings every week if I could. Since the menu changes every two weeks, I’ll instead look forward to new discoveries.
The original print version of this article was headlined "French Twist"