What are you eating this year? To some of our readers, that may seem like an odd question. Dinner is dinner, right? But Seven Days' food writers spend hours in search of stimulating sustenance, probing from fine dining to greasy spoons for news you can use about what to eat in Vermont. We put our bodies on the line every day for this mission. The casualties — two waistlines and one gallbladder, so far — reflect a lifestyle that sometimes resembles a buffet line.
Plumbing the abundance our great state has to offer makes us a fickle lot. Our new favorites come and go as quickly as restaurants open and close in the grueling food and beverage biz.
So at year's end, it's a pleasure to share our collective knowledge and summarize the year that was. From Alice's hunger for perfect pasta to Hannah's cocktail consumption — and to our desire to see certain trends bite the dust — here are our thoughts on the 2014 dining scene.
Alice: Junction, Essex
Overall, I had a good but mixed experience at the Essex Culinary Resort & Spa's latest stab at fine dining, Junction. But the chef's-table dinner that put me in the hands of chef de cuisine Michael Clauss was a revelation.
I hate to use that word, but it's true. From a bloomy cheese accented with seaweed aioli, sesame seeds and beet syrup to polenta with saffron butter and pickled mushrooms, the five-plus courses Clauss fed me opened my mind to a new world of flavor combinations. Many of his creations wouldn't have worked on paper, but on my tongue, they made me rethink what does and does not go together. That's fine dining at its best.
Hannah: The Bench, Stowe
Halfway through my first meal at the Bench, opened in September by Waterbury Reservoir Restaurant & Tap Room owners Chad Fry and Mark Frier, I started to feel a familiar glow that only comes around so often. This is the best meal I've had at a restaurant in months, I caught myself thinking.
The beer list was superb and went well with the comfort-food offerings on the menu. A plate of springy, succulent seared scallops, served with just a bit of beet and a light parsnip purée, was one of the most satisfying dishes I'd encountered all year. A whopping plate of poutine, slathered in beer-soaked brown gravy, was all that a poutine could aspire to be.
Even though the kitchen mangled my entrée and I had to send it back, everything else was perfect, from the ravioli alla vodka to the pillowy, housemade marshmallow s'more that bade us farewell.
Alice: Bayview Eats, Colchester
Since 2011, Bayview Eats has been a good place for a sandwich and a brownie. But in 2014, chef Jonathan Turner brought a carefully honed culinary expertise to the little Malletts Bay café.
The standard menu showcases the Louisiana native's bayou-inflected comfort food, such as mac and cheese flavored with andouille, or pulled pork with black beans and dirty rice. But Turner especially shines with his specials. One night, I enjoyed an appetizer of perfectly rendered, bourbon-glazed pork belly. Another evening brought coffee-rubbed sirloin tacos.
In fact, uncommon tacos seem to have become Bayview's calling card. My favorite special yet was a pair of braised-lamb tacos that lit up my mouth with a mint-parsley gremolata and a tangy local feta.
Hannah: The Daily Planet, Burlington
Burlington's Daily Planet has been a downtown standby for decades. For much of that time, its menu remained largely the same — Maura's Salad, a great burger, solid cocktails. But in recent years, the kitchen has been a bit of a revolving door, and each new chef left his or her mark on familiar dishes. The DP experience became inconsistent at best, though no less beloved.
Then, in September, longtime owner Copey Houghton decided to shake things up and brought in a young, ambitious chef. Justin Bigelow, who comes from a fine-dining background, wiped the slate clean.
Bigelow's menu blends haute cuisine and comfort food (think rack-of-lamb "lollipops" and pumpkin-fennel bisque scattered with popcorn dust) without falling into a black hole of pub-fare mediocrity. Food is both accessible and impeccably prepared using techniques a mere burger-flipping cook could never imagine.
Portions are smallish and prices cheap, so diners can snack on several dishes. And at the Planet, in contrast to so many other "small plate" joints, the principle plays out well in practice. Head in on a weeknight, order five or six dishes, and mix and match bites. Whether it's about the food or not, conversation will follow.
Alice: Bunbury EAT
The moment I tried Bunbury EAT's Caribbean poutine, this contest was over. Soft, sweet plantains crunched, then melted in my mouth along with a layer of cumin-redolent split-pea gravy. Finished with cheese and crisp-edged pulled pork, this dish from a mobile eatery was better balanced than fare you'd find coming out of most fine-dining kitchens.
Indeed, everything I've tried at the truck was outstanding. The tangy, spicy curried Vermont Chevon goat is flavor personified, whether served with coconut-tinged rice and peas or chewy roti flatbread. Sadly, the owners were forced to sell the truck after this year's Champlain Valley Fair. They continue to vend sans truck.
I appreciate Matt Sargent's open-book candor and his ideas about responsible sourcing and using the whole animal. But what I really love is his fun, take-no-prisoners approach to cooking.
The dude was a contractor for half a lifetime and switched to cooking because he felt like it. So his ideas about food are flexible, with a few exceptions: He wants things to be good, affordable for an average Vermonter (say, someone making a carpenter's — or writer's — salary), and not too self-serious. Sargent's Phantom food truck was a hit on the summer food-festival circuit, and made regular appearances in the Mad River Valley and at Shelburne Vineyard.
One cool spring night at Phantom, I enjoyed a bowl of turkey-meatball soup with pickled onion and a gorgeous shaved-fennel salad. For dessert? Homemade Cracker Jacks.
The truck may have been a fleeting pleasure, though. On December 21, Sargent soft-opened a bricks-and-mortar Phantom restaurant in Waitsfield. With an ever-changing local menu (including wines and beers) and a who's who of the Vermont food, beverage and nightlife scenes already signed up to collaborate with him on wine dinners, live music and other events, the new spot is sure to keep the Phantom spirit alive.
Alice: Wood-fired ovens
This cooking method went hip when big names such as Guild Tavern and Burlington's Hen of the Wood opened with wood-fired kitchens. Now, a restaurant can't seem to open in Vermont without a woodshed, whether it sports a fiery grill, an oven or something in between.
This year, La Boca Wood Fired Pizzeria in Burlington, the Bench in Stowe and Waterworks Food & Drink in Winooski were just a few of the new restaurants turning out fire-kissed fare. I'm not complaining, but wood cooking is no longer special enough for an eatery to pin its concept on. It's almost not worth mentioning anymore, joining local sourcing of ingredients as a good "trend" that has become part of the very definition of a Vermont restaurant.
Hannah: Beer lines
I can't say that beer lines didn't exist in Vermont before 2014, but this year, Green Mountain brewheads seemed more willing than ever to stand in line to buy beer. After closing its cannery retail space in late 2013, Waterbury's the Alchemist held its first truck sale in February 2014. On that cold winter day, people shuffled into files to buy cans of Heady Topper and limited-release specialty brews off the back of a truck. The brewery has been holding similar sales almost monthly since then.
With the Alchemist's can-sale success, combined with the widespread availability of mobile canneries (which allow brewers to can on-site without ponying up cash and space to install their own canning lines), Vermont saw a surge in single-day can releases. This spring, Fiddlehead Brewing jumped on the can wagon (a decision I fully support), releasing colorful tins of Matt Cohen's stellar Hodad Porter. Green tallboys of Second Fiddle followed, and beer fans have been lining up outside the brewery periodically for an array of brews ever since.
In Greensboro Bend, folks from near and far continue to line up weekly (as they have done for many moons) for whatever's on draft at Hill Farmstead Brewery. In September, they did the same at Mad River Glen for a reprise release of Double Dose IPA, brewed by Otter Creek brewer Mike Gerhart and Sean Lawson of Lawson's Finest Liquids. Throughout the summer, Lawson's fans filed into queues at the Waitsfield Farmers Market.
Then, of course, there were the brewfests. In Burlington, the Vermont Brewers Festival sold out in an improbable 11 minutes, and the lines for the most popular breweries were close to 100 yards long at their peak.
But, as ladies waiting for the loo have known for decades, when people gather to enjoy something they love, there's no better place to enjoy friendly banter with a stranger than in line. And so much the better with a beer in hand.
Alice: Housemade pasta
I've always had a weak spot for housemade pasta. It used to be something of a rare treat, reserved for a fancy night out. But this year, I started seeing it on menus I could enjoy without waiting for a raise.
Even once-pricey restaurants are now cutting the costs of their house pastas — Bluebird Tavern's latest menu offers gnocchi or bucatini for $14 a plate. I've made no secret of my addiction to Pascolo Ristorante's tagliatelle dishes. Trattoria Delia, long a place to find a homemade pasta dish or two, unveiled a menu in August that featured homemade noodles exclusively. For a carb lover, things couldn't get much better.
Hannah: Craft cocktails
In the past few years, Vermont has started to warm to the tipple. Perhaps it's due to the rapid growth of the local distilling industry, or maybe the wild and crazy brewing industry has opened our minds to the vast variety of forms an alcoholic beverage can take.
Maybe it's all (or none) of those things, but the important part is this: Local cocktails are improving. We're warming to bitters — thank you, Urban Moonshine, for bringing artisanal aromatics to Burlington — and to amari and deeper, darker, herbal flavors, tonics, infusions and other fun stuff. And restaurants are taking note.
Though outposts such as Prohibition Pig, Bluebird Tavern and Hen of the Wood have had great cocktail programs for a few years now, in 2014 we passed the tipping point: Every new restaurant hoping to make a splash is putting serious thought into its cocktail list. And that is a trend worth celebrating.
Hannah: The Gryphon
I've said it before and I'll say it again: The cocktails at Burlington's Gryphon are just right. At the town's newest classy-but-not-super-fancy restaurant, bartenders Niall McMahon and Kat Funk put out fun, creative, unpretentious and just plain tasty drinks. They pay homage to the classics — Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, sours and juleps — with updates that keep things current for the modern palate.
This may be the most spoiled, pretentious thing I say all year, but I'm done with canelés. Sorry, but only the best and the brightest can properly execute the custardy mini Bundt-shaped pastries. I have had superior ones in Vermont (looking at you, Little Sweets!), but I've also seen enough burnt bottoms and dry insides to say, "Let it go, bakers."
Even at its best, the canelé is not a sweet I crave. Making a perfect one is so difficult that conquering the recipe gains you bragging rights. I get it, but that doesn't mean I want to eat yours.
Hannah: Comfort food
Don't get me wrong: I love comfort food. Everyone does. It's the culinary equivalent of a heavy, cozy blanket or a grandmotherly bosom, safe and warm and snuggly and, OK, comforting. What's not to love?
But here's the thing. Most comfort food is stuff you or your mom (or grandmother) might cook: mac and cheese, grilled cheese (with or without tomato soup), chicken soup (with or without star-shaped pasta), spaghetti and meatballs, meatloaf. In this domain, Mom's recipe will always yield the best, most comforting version of the dish. So eating it at a restaurant kind of defeats the purpose. Let's live a little, hey?
That's not to say I haven't enjoyed several cheffy takes on comfort classics in the last year — I have, and I'll go back for them again, maybe even crave them. But after a while, it all just starts to blur together. There are only so many ways to make an $8 crock of mac and cheese stand out, and the existing stable of restaurants is doing a fine job.
If you're one of the chefs or restaurateurs who opened a comfort-food spot in the past year, thank you. I applaud you and have probably snuggled up to a few dishes at your restaurant. With winter upon us, I look forward to doing so again soon.
But if you're a chef or restaurateur looking to open yet another new American comfort-food joint, please don't.
Leave that to the guys doing it already, and dare to look outside the comfort zone. Titillate your diners with something that strays from the beaten path; give us something to talk about. There's an old adage that says dinner at its best is just a tasty form of foreplay. If that's true, let's remember: Safe is not sexy, and grandmotherly bosoms never turned anyone on.
I used to dread going to Middlebury when Costello's Market, which supplies me with porchetta sandwiches, wasn't open. But this year, Midd got its culinary act together in a big way.
Things started changing in early 2014 with the opening of chef Michel Mahe's burger shrine, the Lobby. Its creative menu of upscale classics turned into burgers brought a much-needed sense of fun to the Middlebury dining scene.
The Diner, which replaced Steve's Park Diner, followed suit with a menu that revitalized greasy-spoon basics. It boasts dishes such as Cap'n Crunch-and-coconut-crusted French toast and a pita filled with gingery Korean beef.
This is a town that went from zero to serving Mexican finger food in the movie theater. Good on ya for embracing the joys of eating, Middlebury!
Now that storefronts are finally filling up in the Granite City's refurbished commercial strip and a brand-new state office building is bringing new bodies to town, food businesses are starting to move in.
The opening of Cornerstone Pub & Kitchen in late 2012 heralded a tasty change for downtown. The newcomer expanded on a foundation built by Espresso Bueno (home to some of the finest coffee in central Vermont), Asian Gourmet (which serves pan-Asian fare with panache) and the super-solid downtown L&M Diner.
This past summer, Culinary Institute of America grad Dustin Smith opened the Morse Block Deli, which serves up fantastic locavore soups and sandwiches. Rumor has it that Smith is working on a series of farm-to-table pop-up dinners. Meanwhile, Ellie & Shirl's Simply Delicious owner Chris Conti started pouring fine wines in her sweets shop in Barre's old train depot.
One driver of the culinary development is cheap real estate. Barre's blighted reputation makes nearby arable land more affordable than elsewhere in central Vermont. Lower in-town rents, fueled by decades of empty storefronts, mean food entrepreneurs can afford to set up shop on Main Street.
Finally, Barre boasts one of the best farmers markets in the state, where the area's vibrant farm and food folk meet weekly all summer long. It's small, but every tent offers something awesome, from basic meat and produce to goat offal to whole geese to gooseberries to heirloom cucumbers to herbs to baked goods. With a community-supported food co-op in the works and more farms taking root in the hills around town, the scene in Barre is only going to get better.
Alice: Middle East atrophy
At this time last year, I was hoping 2014 would be full of Middle Eastern cuisine. Wisam Altameemi's Arabic Supermarket, which opened in Colchester in January, was slated to start serving three meals a day in its café early this year, and I was a faithful regular at Farah's Place in Burlington.
Then it all collapsed like a bedouin tent. Farah's closed in January after two and a half years in business. Meanwhile, Iraq native Altameemi fought to open a dining spot in his one-stop Colchester market. It never materialized. The source for spices, halal meats and my favorite kohl eye pencils shuttered in the fall, leaving me (and all Middle Eastern food lovers) bereft.
Hannah: 14th Star Brewing
Every time I speak with the guys at 14th Star Brewing, I hang up the phone with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Usually, I turn to Alice (yes, we sit next to each other) and say something like, "I just love those guys ... They're such awesome guys!" Granted, I tend to say things like that a lot, because my job puts me in touch with many wonderful people doing inspiring things.
That said, the St. Albans brewery gets the 2014 gold star for do-gooding. Not only is 14th Star veteran-owned and -operated (thank you, brewers, for your service!), but brewery founder Steve Gagner seems to make every effort to serve his community. That might mean that Gagner, who was recently named president of the Vermont Brewers Association, brews a special beer for his alma mater, Norwich University, and donates 100 percent of the profits to the school's fundraising campaign. Or the brewers might sponsor fundraisers for the local food shelf, as they did on December 18, or decide to keep the menu limited at their expansive new hometown taproom in downtown St. Albans, so as not to compete with nearby restaurants. In all these instances, 14th Star's success offers proof, in case anyone needed it, that virtue and generosity are often handsomely rewarded.
Alice: Trader Joe's
Two words: Trader Joe's. Yes, readers were excited, and we tried to keep you up-to-date on the big chain's arrival. Now that it's here, I've almost forgotten about it. See you at Healthy Living.
Hannah: One-barrel breweries
Call me a snob, but I'm not going to write about your one-barrel brewery. You're a homebrewer, and that's great, but it's not news.
Unless you're the next big thing — which you might be, and I truly, honestly hope you are. But if you're that good, you should start with a bigger system.
If you can't afford a bigger system, find investors! Take out a small business loan! Wait a year or three to start your production brewery. Once you're properly set up, people are going to want your beer. And then I'll want to write about you.
Tags: Food + Drink Features, fine dining, dinner, food truck, beer, wood fire, pasta, cocktails, comfort food, soup, sandwich, Junction, The Bench, Bayview Eats, The Daily Planet, The Waterworks Restaurant, La Boca Wood Fired Pizzeria, Guild Tavern, Hen of the Wood (Burlington), The Alchemist, Hill Farmstead Brewery, Lawson's Finest Liquids, Otter Creek Brewing/Wolaver’s Certified Organic Ales, Pascolo Ristorante, Bluebird Tavern, Trattoria Delia, The Gryphon, Costello's Market, Cornerstone Pub & Kitchen, Farah's Place, 14th Star Brewing Co., Healthy Living Market & Café, Junction at the Essex Resort & Spa, Otter Creek Brewing/Wolaver’s Certified Organic Ales/The Shed Brewery, Otter Creek Brewing/The Shed Brewery