On a January night, the junction of Barrows and Luce Hill roads in Stowe can be a wind-whipped, dark and lonely place, with seldom a soul in sight. This remoteness is probably what makes the corner’s red lodge, built in the 1820s, seem like such an oasis.
For almost a century, travelers of all stripes have sought out the rambling Ten Acres Lodge on this corner. And for almost as long, the inn’s public rooms have sated hungry, thirsty people in a succession of restaurants. The Cajun-centric Lagniappe, Ten Acres Lodge’s most recent eatery, closed last fall.
Changing the lodge’s name was never an option for Mark Fucile and Linda Hunter, Stowe locals who bought the place in early November. Though neither of them had ever run an inn or restaurant before — Fucile worked in auto sales, the Scottish-born Hunter in finance — they wanted to open yet another center of local libations and comfort food. Within a day of their closing on the property, they plunged into a six-week renovation so they could open the Bistro at Ten Acres by the holidays and draw in some of Stowe’s winter visitors. Since then, they’ve also opened some of the inn’s rooms.
The inn’s history greeted the couple at every turn. When they ripped up some carpet in one of the dining rooms, they found gorgeous, wide-plank pine floors. In the basement, Fucile and Hunter discovered a jumble of furniture and objects left behind by previous owners, among them a Victorian couch they hoped to use upstairs but couldn’t fit through the basement door. What did fit were benches, tables and a mirror, which they wove into the bistro’s décor, along with a new long, curved bar resting atop erstwhile Jim Beam barrels. They painted the walls deep red, gold and royal blue, covered a few chairs in faux cowhide, placed a sofa in front of the dual-sided central fireplace and repurposed the base of a felled maple tree as the hostess station.
The fireplace, floors, beamed ceilings and even the narrow halls that lead to the bathroom are all part of the draw at Ten Acres Lodge. Once you step in from the cold, the building cossets you as if it had its own personality. This may be a common experience. Just days after the Bistro’s December 19 opening, the bar was already well established as a local hangout, no doubt owing in part to its all-Vermont tap list. (Sunshine & Hoppiness, from Middlebury’s Drop-In Brewing Company, was the brew of choice one night we visited.)
Hunter and Fucile made another wise decision when they kept on Lagniappe chef Gary Jacobson, who assured them that his oeuvre extended beyond Cajun food to the Euro-American-Alpine plates they hoped to serve.
Boston-born Jacobson was a longtime chef at both Zarela and Alma, upscale Mexican restaurants in New York City. His menu here reveals a tropics-inflected joie de vivre, manifesting in salads laced with jicama and citrus, sultry sauces and riotous colors.
It isn’t food for vegetarians or the faint-of-appetite. Flesh looms large at the Bistro, whether from sea or land. A few appetizers might sate meatless eaters, however, such as the pineapple salad, one of a handful of holdovers from Lagniappe. Though it may not sound enticing on a January night, the salad’s hues alone could heat your blood: It looks like an exploded piñata of diced pineapple, bright-red cherry tomatoes, sliced jicama and slivered red peppers, showered with minced scallions and sesame seeds. The citrusy dressing, tinged with sesame oil, is tart and addictive.
The moules marinières also scored big on flavor and exuberance, and boasted some of the fattest, plumpest, freshest mussels I’ve ever tasted in Vermont. (This became a theme: On my visits, the fruits de mer at Ten Acres, which come from nearby Stowe Seafood, tasted like they had been caught that morning.) The mussels’ garlicky broth was studded with tiny grape tomatoes, their skins slightly blistered from the heat; curls of steamed fennel formed a web of sweetness across the top.
Equally gorgeous, at least on the plate, was the barbecue shrimp — a handful of steamed Gulf shrimp arranged in a pool of peppery, Tabasco-laced sauce, then covered in dried, pulverized bay and rosemary. While the shrimp’s shells helped to keep their flesh succulent, both my friend and I struggled to extract the meat, which made eating them neither easy nor satisfying. Scoring the shrimp’s skin might help hapless diners like me — or perhaps I need to take a lesson from the Louisiana-based side of my family.
The bigger plates at Ten Acres separate the vegetarians from the carnivores. Pork shank, steak frites, roasted chicken — these are hearty dishes for hungry people. And these days, it seems no Vermont menu is complete without some kind of duck. At Ten Acres, the kitchen approaches the bird with simplicity: Crisp skin on the breast and leg shimmered with fat, and the meat, apparently seasoned only with salt, was rich and moist. The sliced, sautéed red potatoes on the plate were a smidge undercooked, but the bed of braised red cabbage on which the bird rested was melting, buttery and tarted up with slivers of apple.
Cherry tomatoes made a third appearance as bobbing, swollen orbs atop a seafood stew, a hillock of steamed salmon, mussels, shrimp and scallops so fresh they could almost swim from the plate. The sweet-potato broth, though fragrant with saffron, could have used more personality.
At $30, the most expensive entrée on this menu was also the most popular during our visit, judging from the diners around us. Once it arrived at our table, we understood why. The pan-seared lobster came with its limbs akimbo and curled around a pile of tarragon-flecked polenta. The scents of bourbon, butter and brine wafted into our faces before the first bite. The sauce was so luscious that I dragged my finger through it as I dug deep into the lobster’s parts to extract every last ribbon of succulent flesh. What had appeared so huge moments before was gone in a flash, and we could have ordered another.
Booze is also prominent on Ten Acres’ dessert menu, nearly half of which is devoted to alcoholic dessert drinks: coffee spiked with brandy, Kahlua or scotch; hot cider with brandy; hot buttered rum; even hot cocoa laced with peppermint Schnapps. While we didn’t indulge, the lively mix of locals and guests in the bar may have; on both our visits, their clamor trickled into the relatively sedate dining room, beckoning a few diners once their meals were eaten. As I passed the bar on my way to the bathroom, I noticed the bartender doling out the same generous pours we had received in our glasses.
Less generous was the service, which was sharp one night and extremely languid on another. Two apps, an entrée and a dessert shouldn’t require two and a half hours at a table, but on our second visit, they did. We passed the long stretches between courses — or waiting for items such as bread with our mussels or a necessary utensil — chatting, staring at the fire or trying not to watch a couple making out on a nearby couch.
Fortunately, the lovebirds didn’t distract us from our dessert. Pastry chef Tess Cashin seems to share her colleague’s penchant for largesse and drama. A Grand Marnier crème caramel, though too sweet for my taste, arrived topped with an impressive, three-inch-high crown of caramelized sugar. A plate of chocolate-bourbon-pecan pie topped with vanilla ice cream was crumbly and midnight-dark. Eating it was like mainlining cocoa and cream.
With nothing left to order, we extracted ourselves with difficulty from the table. It was tempting to take full advantage of the lodge and nab a room; instead, we trudged back into the night, warmed from the inside out.
The Bistro at Ten Acres, 14 Barrows Road, Stowe, 253-6838. Dinner Wednesday through Sunday. tenacreslodge.com
The print version of this article was headlined "Culinary Crossroads".
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