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The Restaurant Week Diaries 

This week's about dining out, and we're eating it up.

Last Friday, the inaugural Vermont Restaurant Week got under way with a party at Red Square and a movie-and-wine pairing at Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas. Like Restaurant Week’s more than 900 Facebook fans, Seven Days staffers have been traversing the state in search of dining delights. We’ve attended events in Essex and Burlington and grazed in Bristol, Vergennes and Shelburne, to name a few participating towns. Here’s a sampling of what’s going down.

A Square Meal

During Vermont Restaurant Week, plenty of eateries are offering menu items that usually run only as specials. But one restaurant’s menu is a complete departure from its usual fare.

Matt Birong, chef-owner of 3 Squares in Vergennes, generally plies a hearty trade in contemporary breakfast fare, panini and house-baked pastries. This week, his $25 prix-fixe menu was made up of Mexican dishes. ¿Porque no?

Our fiesta started with a pair of stews. The grilled-chicken posole was clean and incredibly fresh, given character by just the right amount of spice. In addition to chicken, the reddish-brown broth was filled with hominy, big leaves of cilantro and crunchy radishes. I liked the chile verde even more. The tomatillo-and-green-chile stew was thickened with masa and topped with a glop of sour cream.

The earthy wild-mushroom tamales featured pillowy-soft masa and liberal zigzags of spicy roasted-chile sauce. Grilled grouper with pepita pesto was a perfectly cooked square of fish with a wonderful citrusy zest.

Meaty plates were the best of all. A giant pile of braised short ribs studded with onions, black beans and topped with avocado sat between two fried corn tortillas for a museum-worthy tostada. Ancho-rubbed pork tenderloin, languidly resting in a rich chile demi-glace, was worthy of the finest restaurant. With its elegant, starchy-sweet plantain cake accompaniment and jicama-pepper slaw, the dish seemed somewhat out of place in the cozy bakery-café setting. Somehow that made the meal feel even more special.

We would not have ordered dessert had it not been included in the prix fixe. Despite the Herculean efforts it took to fit another ounce of food into my body, I’m glad I did. The domed Mexican-chocolate torte was densely chocolaty and flavored with a strong smattering of cinnamon and just a hint of spice. Kahlua crème anglaise sweetened the proceedings, along with a gorgeous pair of blackberries. It is rare that a meal for which I already had high hopes wildly exceeds my expectations. This one did.

— Alice Levitt

We’re Jammin’

An 8 p.m. dinner for four people with an 8-month-old baby in tow is always a crapshoot, but when it came to finding a suitable venue for the opening night of Restaurant Week, the Windjammer in South Burlington was a no-brainer. It has ample seating, large, sound-muffling booths and just enough background noise in case the little girl cranked it up.

Thankfully, Manya was on her best behavior, which only contributed to a great evening of fine dining. A $25 fixed-price menu at the Windjammer is a real bargain, as many of their entrées normally run at least $25. Two of my dining companions added the $15 three-glass wine match, and they said food and drink were paired very well.

I opted for the Windjammer’s big and hearty Bloody Mary, with lots of horseradish and accoutrements. Not that you ever lack for veggies at the Windjammer, which probably has the best salad bar in Chittenden County. That, too, was included in the prix fixe and made for a good start along with the fried calamari with banana peppers, scallions and a balsamic drizzle. My wife had tasty shrimp bruschetta. Our entrées were perfectly cooked Thai glazed salmon and porcini purses — a simply delicious dish.

They were out of vanilla-bean crème brûlée by the time we ordered our third course, but there was a silver lining: Our waiter gave us the run of the dessert menu. As I was already stuffed, I got my pecan pie to go.

My dining companions seemed thoroughly fat and happy by the end of the night, as evidenced by the numerous snores in the car on the drive home.

— Ken Picard

The View at La Villa

Shawn and I had big plans for a “date night” at Café Shelburne this Saturday. Our first trip to the venerable French restaurant was to be a reward for a marathon week of event planning. Turned out some friends from Boston and New York were in town for the night, and we wanted to take them all out. We postponed our original reservations and frantically scanned the Restaurant Week website for a quick Saturday night backup that could accommodate a party of seven on a casual-dining budget.

We opted for the nearby Windjammer because some of us had a hankering for the salad bar. When we called for a reservation, the main dining room was booked, but we headed over to South Burlington anyway to take our chances on getting a table in the Upper Deck Pub.

The parking lot was full of prom- goers, wedding parties and new grads. We quickly realized that a salad bar was not in our future, and we were HUNGRY!

We hopped into our cars and headed, reservation-less, to Shelburne’s La Villa Bistro & Pizzeria, a restaurant none of us — not even the native Vermonters — had ever tried. The menu sounded great, the price was right, and, sure enough, we beat the dinner rush and found a table for our boisterous party of seven. Whew!

We all got the prix fixe for $25, and everyone was happy with their meals — even the doubting vegetarians, who were wowed by the porcini sacchetti entrée made with locally foraged mushrooms. I had duck confit, bouillabaisse and limoncello cheesecake with pine-nut brittle; all were new to me, delicious and beautifully presented. An unexpected treat: sharing four bottles of wine from The Other Guys, Restaurant Week’s wine sponsor.

We couldn’t have asked for a more adventurous night of delicious food and fun. However, I’m still looking forward to this week’s date night at Café Shelburne. Mais oui!

— Don Eggert

Edible Ethics

It’s worth noting that the guiding principles of today’s “food consciousness movement” are as old and frill free as my dead grandparents: Fresh, seasonal and local is the best way to eat. The panelists who weighed in last Saturday at The Essex — an award-winning chef, a Harvard-educated farmer, a food writer and an academic — offered all kinds of evidence that sustainable food systems are better for humans, animals and the environment.

They also acknowledged the danger of moralizing about healthy eating. Kristin Kimball runs a wildly successful farm in Essex, N.Y., that supplies its “members” with vegetables, meat, eggs and dairy year round. She said the only customers who’ve dropped out are those who joined solely because it was the “right thing to do.”

Will the newfound, old-found food philosophy espoused by Michael Pollan and Alice Waters ever really catch on in McDonald’s-eating America? I found hope last night in Fresh — a documentary about America’s agricultural-industrial complex and some God-fearing, hog-raising, soybean-planting Midwestern farmers who have rejected it. The pig farmer nearly died from an antibiotic-resistant infection he contracted from one of his swine. He’s since gone back to farming the way his father did and no longer has any sick animals.

All the characters in Fresh are compelling, from the son of a sharecropper who gave up professional basketball for urban agriculture in Milwaukee, to an equally articulate Virginian who practices a unique form of crop rotation. Even the coconspirators in an industrial chicken farm — a sad-looking couple who never once looked at each other — acquire dimension as the movie goes on. Turns out Big Ag has them in a tight spot, just like their fowl.

Boy, did I feel guilty eating that popcorn.

Fresh plays three more times this week at the Roxy: Wednesday at 1 p.m. and Thursday at 8 and 9:30 p.m.

— Paula Routly

Rediscovering Mary’s

I had forgotten what an easy drive it is to Mary’s Restaurant at The Inn at Baldwin Creek in Bristol. Since I live in Hinesburg, it’s a straight shot down Route 116. Before I knew it, we were seated in the “summer kitchen” with its exposed beams, stone fireplace and two full walls of windows.

I thought I knew exactly what I’d order, as I’d pored over the fixed-price menu a few times before I made my reservation. But when I arrived, I discovered another entrée had been added to the list of options: Chef-owner Doug Mack was offering his version of veal scallopini using local meat from the Crawford Family Farm in Whiting.

I started my meal with his signature cream of garlic soup. As always, it was the perfect consistency and combination of garlic and cream. You can get it by the quart — to go — for future garlic fixes. Had I called it quits after round one, I would have been completely satisfied, but I happily went on to savor the veal scallopini, lightly pounded and sautéed with mushrooms and artichoke hearts. It was very tender and had just the right amount of flavor to make it the perfect spring dish.

I closed my dining adventure with a warm, flourless chocolate cake with crème anglaise. The Callebaut chocolate had my endorphins doing a jig, and it left me wondering when my next dance at Mary’s might be. All it took was a little nudge to get me to rediscover one of my favorite Vermont restaurants.

— Judy Beaulac

Shelburne Soirée

After whiling away a lazy Saturday afternoon, I arrived at Café Shelburne for the first time, joined by my friend Danielle, a good 10 minutes before our 7:45 p.m. reservation. Our table was ready and waiting, and we settled into a cozy booth in the back of the French restaurant, greeted by a yellow daffodil on the table. Patterned curtains on every window and tables flickering in candlelight made me feel more like I was tucked away in a rustic country house.

I started off with the soupe de tomate. It doesn’t sound glamorous, but the spicy warmth of the creamy purée stole the show. My bowl arrived sans soup, with tiny little garlic croutons sprinkled around a generous dollop of Vermont goat cheese. Our server poured in the hot red liquid from a white tureen. Each spoonful had a delicate crouton crunch, and the melting goat cheese spread all over the bowl.

The homemade potato gnocchi followed, shapely soft and fluffy nuggets served with wilted spinach, asparagus, peas, carrots and broccoli, with a light tomato coulis. We were stuffed halfway through our plates — Danielle was working on the tender confit de canard, following a delicate goat-cheese ravioli appetizer — but we had to forge on to dessert. For her, it was “les trois petits pots” — melt-in-your-mouth vanilla, espresso and chocolate crème brûlée — while I finished with the “fondant aux trois chocolats,” three kinds of light mousse served over a frothy, citrusy crème anglaise.

We left full and happy, refreshed from an evening of girl talk and wine, with entrée leftovers stowed in cute tinfoil baskets. After all, a little cold gnocchi for breakfast never hurt anyone.

— Carolyn Fox

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