Burlington-area diners have been waiting for the perfect steak. Dry aged, well marbled and ideally seasoned, the wood-grilled ribeye at Guild & Company is just that. The slab of beef I tasted recently at the new Williston Road restaurant — created by the team behind downtown’s Farmhouse Tap & Grill — was cooked slightly beyond my requested medium rare, but it was juicy and otherwise near perfect. Still, I left wondering, was the steak worth its $40 price tag?
At the infamously pricy, No. 1-rated Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn, steak for two is $95.90. At Guild, a ribeye à deux is $80, still costly, but certainly less so. Of course, the local version is from a grass-fed animal raised in upstate New York or Vermont, which is probably not the case with the “USDA Prime” at old-school Peter Luger. It’s not hard to find an even pricier steak in New York City, but, all the same, Guild’s costly cuts may not be what meat-loving Vermonters had in mind.
Still, there is plenty to like. When the steakhouse opened in South Burlington last month, diners discovered that the former Ground Round quarters had been transformed into one of Vermont’s first urban-style restaurants. Kitchen, Restaurant + Bar Specialists, a company based in both Burlington and El Cerrito, Calif., not only made it over but created a space that makes guests feel transported from chain restaurant to hip, big-city destination.
The Ground Round floor plan remains, but the new design effectively updates the traditional old-boys’-club look of a steakhouse with a slick, modern sheen. Walls are covered in vintage meat-cut charts that include steaks with foreign or antiquated names such as “chump” and “best breast.”
An open kitchen allows diners to see a hive of activity that, on a recent Friday, appeared to include no fewer than 10 cooks. Fireplaces roar in both the barroom and the elegant extra room used for private parties or weekend overflow. The barroom is divided from the main dining room by a soaring wall, designed by Conant Metal & Light, composed of vintage meat grinders.
Even the bathrooms contribute to the meat-theme-park feel, with barnlike stalls and a woody scent. Waterfall faucets are a glamorous touch, as are the supply of necessities in the ladies’ room, including moisturizer and bobby pins. Thankfully, this is still Vermont, and no Mme. Peepee lurks about expecting a tip.
For luxury, care and class, Guild is hard to beat locally. At times during our initial visit, however, odd touches from the kitchen or the servers mitigated the glow. First, we were sent one amuse-bouche for our table of three. Dividing the tiny portion of chopped mushrooms was like slicing a bean three ways. Similarly, we also received just two pieces of crusty Red Hen Baking Co. bread. (Interestingly, when I returned later with a single companion, we got three slices.)
Quantity was an issue again when we ordered the Butcher Board, a regular special on the menu at Guild. A plate with two meats (or just one on my second visit) left me wishing for more variety. I generally expect at least three choices on a charcuterie board, especially for $18. Perhaps the cured-meat offerings will improve when the full-time processing facility for Guild Fine Meats opens in Winooski.
Still, butcher Frank Pace worked his magic on what was available. The beef bologna was speckled with big chunks of pure, snowy fat. As a kid, I dreaded kosher bologna in place of the “real” pork version. Pace’s ably seasoned sample did not disappoint. And his pâté de campagne was one of the best I’ve ever had. The flavorful slurry of pork was unconventionally dotted with spicy slivers of jalapeño, but the jewel in the middle was a single, unground chunk of toothsome meat. It was a welcome addition alongside grilled, buttery bread, pickled onions and zippy house mustard.
All entrées come with a salad for the table in a colorful Le Creuset bowl. Our seasonal treat included tender delicata squash, beets and toasty pepitas mixed with greens in tangy vinaigrette. One of my dining companions complained that the squash and beets seemed not to have been seasoned before being added to the salad. My issue was the occasional tooth-jarring grit in the otherwise delicious salad.
Sandy veggies were only a problem in the salad, but the lack of seasoning persisted in the main course. Each entrée includes the choice of one side, also served in cheery Le Creuset crocks. Of the garlic-roasted broccoli, polenta from Nitty Gritty Grain Company and steak frites, only the last had enjoyed the kiss of a saltshaker. The polenta tasted like plain, slightly gummy cornmeal. Even the fries were a minor misfire. Steakhouse frites should have a tender middle and crisp jacket. These folded flaccidly as I lifted them from their dish. I greatly enjoyed the citrusy house steak sauce, even at an extra $3. It was even better on the fries than the pleasantly acidic homemade ketchup that came with them.
As noted earlier, the steak itself was excellent. Some of the price is warranted by the fact that the meat is dry aged. Compared to wet aging, this laborious process leads to more loss from liquid weight, which leeches out, and from external mold that must be trimmed off before the delectable remaining meat is ready for the grill. Though cheaper, the wet-aging process often results in a mushy chunk of meat.
Still, other entrées at the Guild seemed more reasonably priced. One friend tried the gnocchi special with short ribs. The dumplings were pillowy and enrobed with a gutsy, flavorful sauce. However, she found that the chopped meat included connective tissue among the tender, tasty, braised strands.
Rubbery flesh was again a problem with the porchetta. The pork roasts rotated seductively on a spit in the open kitchen. But what should have been a roll of meltingly fatty, luscious pork belly around tender loin was almost inedibly chewy. The process did, however, render the loin extra tasty, and the meat’s brown jus was delicious.
I hoped to find fewer missteps when I returned a few days later to try the bar menu and, for the most part, I did.
A cup of fennel and mushroom soup was hearty and flavored with a deliciously herbaceous tarragon mascarpone. The licorice-flavored leaves made an even stronger impression in the steak tartare. The cylinder of finely chopped, raw meat from LaPlatte River Angus Farm looked traditional, but was an appealing deconstruction of steak with Béarnaise sauce. Tarragon and raw egg mixed with the meat in a manner that was surprisingly comforting and familiar — what I grew up eating with steak, but raw. Finely chopped garlic and fried capers added a distinct tang that brightened the whole plate. The meat’s platform of potato rösti was also delicious, though it could have been warmer.
Open-faced sandwiches, called tartines, are the main event on the bar menu. Since we’d already tried both steak and porchetta, we skipped them in favor of a pair of vegetarian sammies.
The Mushroom & Chèvre is a cousin to the eponymous dish at Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill in Waterbury — Guild chef-partner Phillip Clayton’s former stomping grounds. This version was spread with Does’ Leap chèvre, then piled with a mix of wild mushrooms. On top, a poached egg was a little too liquid-y to serve as a perfect sauce as intended, but was still a fun addition.
The Beets & Blue, too, had the right idea but didn’t reach tartine nirvana. Underseasoned beets reared their pretty little red heads once again. A sticky dressing of reduced cider added a nice hint of sweetness on both the sandwich and its side of arugula, but only the few bites dotted with Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen blue cheese had enough salt to awaken other flavors.
Both paired well with the cocktail I tried from the “Temperance” menu. Zelda’s Choice, presumably named for Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, was based on a golden syrup of ginger and pear made by bar manager Michael Buonocore. With bubbles to spare from both tonic and soda, the concoction didn’t need alcohol to provide a refreshing kick.
The drink was gone by dessert time, when we tried the maple pot de crème that a server recommended. One of these thick, rich delights, served in a miniature Ball jar, was enough for two already packed bellies. The sweet mixture betrayed just a subtle whisper of maple. The flavor blossomed with each bite and didn’t need the crunchy biscuit on the side to complete it.
That cookie was indicative of a trend we experienced at Guild: Nearly every dish seemed to need one element more — or less — to achieve perfection. In savory cases, just a shake of salt would have done the trick, but none is provided on the tables.
In the end, though, the steak is the thing, and chef Joe Chmielewski clearly has a way with it. With just a few tweaks, Guild & Company could be the steakhouse of local carnivores’ dreams.
Guild & Company, 1633 Williston Road, South Burlington, 497-1207. guildandcompany.com