Diners not looking for the Wooden Spoon Bistro in South Burlington are unlikely to notice it. Unfortunately, so are people who are seeking the restaurant. While the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts and Quiznos are visible from Williston Road, the family-owned bistro is tucked out of sight between them and Higher Ground.
On two visits, I found the food at Wooden Spoon well prepared and creative in a way that appeals to foodies and fussy eaters alike. As good as the fare was, the dining room was sparsely populated, mostly by people who seemed to know the owners, chef Adam Raftery and his sister, Liza Raftery O’Brien.
On my first visit, the large, high-ceilinged space felt too open — like eating in a warehouse. Though the Wooden Spoon had already been open for a month, I was reminded of the “Restaurant Wars” episodes of “Top Chef,” in which contestants put together an eatery overnight.
A week later, the spatial arrangement looked less slapdash, with a new wall dividing the serious-looking brick bar from one set of tables. The art originally displayed on the walls — depicting old-fashioned cooking tools, including wooden spoons — had been replaced by landscape photos. These were small changes, but it seemed as if the restaurateurs were no longer trying to force a homey ambiance in the modern space.
The menu succeeded in embodying both comfort-food tradition and modernity. On both visits, not long after we were seated, our extremely friendly server brought out a colander (bright green at our first meal, light blue at our second) filled with toasted bread and a tureen of butter. The creamy, whipped spread was blended with maple syrup and salt for a subtly sweet start.
The restaurant’s emphasis on elevated home cooking extends to offering dishes such as grilled cheese and corn dogs, but they are most assuredly not like the ones mom used to make. The corn dogs, which I didn’t try, are actually whole battered shrimp — one of Raftery’s specialties when he was a private chef in the Virgin Islands, he told me in an earlier interview.
The grilled cheese ($10) was deconstructed. The bread was fried in butter and stuffed with mozzarella. On the side, fresh tomatoes, sweet caramelized onions and herb-crusted chunks of pork tenderloin dressed up the dish. It was delicious but somewhat confusing, since the menu seemed to indicate the ingredients would be inside the sandwich. Instead, I found myself eating the pile of food like side dishes.
A better-composed dish was the bruschetta ($8). Slabs of grilled bread were topped with chopped tomatoes. From there, Raftery’s version veered from the classic Italian dish, though everything was on the bread. Corn was one of the dominant flavors, and scallions got their due. Feta cheese and strong-tasting basil added flair. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar contributed a nice sweet-and-sour effect, but was reduced so much that it stuck to the plate.
On my first visit, the rum-and-Coke wings ($9) had the opposite problem. The idea sounded irresistible, but, though the wings were fabulously crisp outside and tender and moist inside, the sauce was thin and difficult to taste. When my server asked how I was enjoying them, I told her the truth. She said this was one of Raftery’s first times making the dish, conferred with him in the kitchen and reported back that he would take my suggestion to thicken the sauce.
When I ordered the wings again, a week later, they were exactly as I had hoped. The sticky combination of booze and sugar mimicked my favorite yakitori glazes. I sped through seven of the 12 big, meaty wings.
My dining partner settled the score by downing most of the smoked-salmon rangoon ($10). The dumpling skins, folded into half-moon shapes and fried, encased cream cheese blended with scallions and finely chopped smoked salmon. The molten filling exploded from the wrappers with a creamy, lightly fishy and somewhat-smoky flavor. It was countered by unexpected accompaniments of sweet apricot marmalade and sharp arugula.
To add some vegetable matter to our glut of fried small plates, we ordered a Caesar salad ($8). It was surprisingly sophisticated and authentic. The fresh romaine leaves were topped with garlic croutons, Parmesan shavings and homemade dressing with strong overtones of anchovy. Some diners might view this as an unwelcome surprise, but I found that the salty fish flavor gave the salad great personality.
Many restaurants that offer small plates exhaust the chef’s creativity on that menu and get lazy on entrées. I didn’t find much to inspire me on the Wooden Spoon’s large-plate menu, because the pork tenderloin with apple-cider reduction ($15), for instance, sounded too similar to the grilled cheese I’d already enjoyed. I didn’t feel like salmon ($15) again, either, though the entrée’s garam masala rub sounded worth a future try.
Instead, I ordered two specials from the chalkboard menu. I was pleased that the three beef and pork sliders ($9) were plum sized, not McDonald’s-sized burgers. The thick patties were juicy and peppery, covered in caramelized onions that, unlike the ones served with my grilled cheese on the previous visit, were a little too crunchy. The onions were sealed onto the burger with a layer of white American cheese. Sounds déclassé, but the fromage’s earnest, uncomplicated creaminess paired beautifully with the other ingredients. The fries, by contrast, disappointed me. Only a few were crisp, though they all were nicely browned and looked like they should have shattered at a bite.
I found the crunch I craved in the cheddar-bacon hash browns that came with the huge New York strip ($18). The chunks of crackling potato were extra crispy, with bacon and cheese well cooked into a sort of crust around them. Unfortunately, the three spears of asparagus that came with the dish were also more than a little al dente. The steak, slightly more done than the requested medium-rare, was ultra tender, but even fattier than the hash browns. This was easily trimmed, and the flavor, described as “jerk seasoned,” was good. It didn’t much remind me of hot Jamaican seasoning, but the mustard-based sauce kept me coming back for more.
Overall, however, I preferred the steak I’d ordered from the menu on my first visit. While it came with plain fingerling potatoes instead of hash browns, and the undercooked asparagus was the same, the marinated beef was lean and easy to eat. It was also seasoned in a way I’ve never had in Vermont, with strong suggestions of Roumanian steaks I ate as a kid in New York. The garlicky marinade is usually used to tenderize skirt steaks, but it was an even greater delight applied to a hanger steak.
Though we lacked room and time for dessert, we ordered a tarte tatin to go at the end of my first meal at the Wooden Spoon. Despite our stated hurry to make an appointment, the folks in the kitchen seemed to take their time warming and boxing the already prepared dessert. We enjoyed it anyway, later. The bottom layers of flaky puff pastry were sometimes difficult to cut with a fork, but the effort was worth it. The warm, tender chunks of apple on top melted the vanilla ice cream. On my second visit, we simply didn’t have room to try one of the appetizing chocolate cakes on offer.
With any luck, some of the passers-by on Williston Road will turn into the Higher Ground parking lot for a taste of the quickly improving food at the Wooden Spoon. Or, perhaps concertgoers will get in the habit of grabbing rum-and-Coke wings after a show — the bistro is open late to accommodate these potential customers. On a stretch where fast food dominates, the Wooden Spoon is a worthy alternative.
The Wooden Spoon Bistro, 1210 Williston Road, South Burlington, 399-2074. woodenspoonbistro.com