Homer Simpson said, “You don’t win friends with salad.” Clearly, he has never tasted the arugula salad at the Common Man in Warren. It doesn’t sound like much, but this nest of olive-oil-and-salt-dressed rocket and shaved fennel conceals treasure: densely creamy ricotta salata; roasted-almond chunks — not slivers; ribbons of fresh basil; and juicy, uniformly ruby-red strawberries from Warren’s Kingsbury Market Garden. A tangy smear of balsamic on the side unifies the plate’s contents into a jewel of a dish, simple but perfectly delectable.
Since 1972, the 1850s barn has housed a restaurant called the Common Man, always associated with high-end dining. The chandelier-bedecked atmosphere competes with Waterbury’s Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill; both combine modern elegance and old-school Vermont charm. But while the Common Man’s kitchen was long known for rustic, locavore takes on French classics such as cassoulet, a new regime has stepped in. Armed with impressive, big-city experience, the new owners have brought an international flavor and modern techniques to the menu.
Longtime couple Lorien Wroten and Adam Longworth, and their business partners — Mike and Desiree Trahan, owners of Burlington-based iSystems and PayData Payroll Services — purchased the Common Man from its previous owners, Keith and Julia Paxman, on December 6, 2011. Wroten and Longworth had worked through the Thanksgiving rush in New York City in their jobs as general manager of Barbuto and chef de cuisine of Gotham Bar and Grill, respectively. Two days after the sale, they reopened the Common Man.
What made these two thirtysomethings, who’d been working closely with renowned chefs such as Jonathan Waxman and Alfred Portale, pick up and leave? Northfield native Longworth has a simple answer. “The main reason is, we wanted to mountain bike,” he says, straight faced.
Perhaps there was more to it, but in any case, Longworth and Wroten had been trying to find themselves a Vermont restaurant since 2010. “We were looking almost exclusively in Burlington,” remembers Longworth. “We were really ignorant. We thought we could get a small restaurant on our own, and we fell flat on our face.”
While spending a summer working with longtime friend Charlie Menard at the Inn at Round Barn Farm, the couple made the Trahans’ acquaintance. That fall, Longworth and Wroten returned to New York to regroup — and to gather more knowledge from their high-profile mentors about running their own business.
On a visit to New York, the Trahans stopped by Gotham Bar and Grill and tasted Longworth’s food for the first time. Mike Trahan told them, “‘If you want a restaurant, we’re in,’” recalls Longworth. “I didn’t even know him that well. I thought he was bullshitting.”
But Trahan was serious. He and his wife purchased the land on which the Common Man sits and have a small stake in the restaurant. “They are really passionate about keeping the [Mad River] Valley alive,” says Wroten. “I always go back to [Mike Trahan’s] quote: ‘We’d hate to see Vermont lose you because there was no opportunity for talented people.’”
Since December, the two have amply proved their talent, but it wasn’t easy. Making the transition from the specific roles of general manager and chef de cuisine to the multiple demands of running a restaurant — such as purchasing and cleaning grease traps — presented challenges early on. So did an old-fashioned kitchen. During a monthlong closure in April, Longworth and Wroten took the kitchen down to studs and replaced almost all of the appliances.
The out-of-date equipment caused the chef a crisis of confidence when he began work at the Common Man. “I tell everyone I have never been so humbled in my life, ever,” Longworth says. “[I went] from a really, really busy New York City restaurant that has every piece of equipment and as many hands as you need to make it good. I started to think, maybe every bit of success I had was [due to] having equipment so easily and readily available.” Now he calls the learning process humbling but fun.
Less fun were the constraints Longworth placed on his menu. In their early days at the Common Man, he and Wroten slowly added new items, taking care not to get too adventurous.
Longworth loves seafood, but several people advised the couple that his crudos and ceviches wouldn’t go down well in Warren. Yet when he started introducing them to the menu, “That’s when the restaurant really started to go,” says Longworth, who credits Ethan Wood of Wood Mountain Fish for the beautiful black bass in his ceviche.
Longworth says the fish is as high in quality as anything he got in New York, but he deserves the praise for its tangy citrus cure. The thin slices of bass, topped with sliced red onion, radish and chunks of orange, swim in a bright-orange chipotle broth dotted with blobs of puréed avocado. The ideally acidic dish leaves a pleasant smoked-jalapeño burn on the palate long after it’s devoured.
Twice-weekly visits from Wood also supply Longworth with the raw materials for his delectable roast halibut. The tender fish is flaky inside and crisp on top, thanks to a thick, dark-brown sear. It perches on a single tender baby carrot placed delicately on buttery jasmine rice beside a smooth, gingery carrot purée. After presenting the dish, Wroten pours coconut-lemon emulsion over the whole plate. It’s as if she shot it with a flavor laser. A glowing combination of sweet, creamy coconut and sharp citrus makes every bite an exciting discovery. By the time the experience is over, you’re eager for it to begin again.
Perhaps that’s why Longworth is fond of preparing tasting dinners. He says it’s not out of the ordinary for him to serve meals of between seven and 10 courses for diners looking for something special. And his hits keep coming. Chilled Jerusalem artichoke soup arrives between the ceviche and the halibut, tasting like vegetable milk until you mix in a shower of couscous, sweet spring peas, zippy preserved lemon and a dollop of bright-red harissa oil. After the seared fish comes fresh, slippery pappardelle drowned in an intense, peppery ragout of braised beef short rib and pork shoulder.
Slices of seared pork chop are the focus of another dish, one that perhaps best encapsulates Longworth’s combination of cosmopolitan techniques and Vermont aesthetic. In a natural jus, the moist pig meat leans on a pile of peas, fava beans, horn-shaped ramps and sharp-cheddar polenta. A half-moon of sweet Vidalia onion custard could easily pass for dessert. It pairs well with a petite pile of mild but citrusy mostarda.
Many of the aforementioned ingredients are local, but not all. The pork, for example, comes from high-end Bay Area distributor Niman Ranch. Wroten says the decision to use excellent ingredients, regardless of their provenance, originates partly in the size of her restaurant. With 100 seats, the Common Man can easily serve 150 on a busy night. As a result, many local providers simply can’t supply the restaurant with food of the desired quality in the necessary bulk. Wroten says the couple will get to know more local farmers, and she hopes one day to persuade one to raise meat specifically for Common Man.
But basics come first; despite the kitchen overhaul, not everything is in place yet. Wroten introduces Longworth’s intense maple ice cream as “a labor of love.” That’s because, without an ice cream maker, he hand-churned it.
Wroten’s wine program also has a personal touch. Though she relies on some bottles left over from the Common Man’s previous owners, she has carefully selected the rest, often with the help of Joan Wilson of the Waitsfield Wine Shoppe. Wroten used to assemble wine lists in her native Maryland, she says, but it’s a new experience to start again after working for years with professional sommeliers in New York.
But, Wroten adds, attention to detail was one of the major lessons Waxman of Barbuto instilled in her before she left his storied restaurant for Vermont. The “Top Chef Masters” fourth-place finisher never missed a service when he was in town, she says. Following his example, Wroten is sure to check in with every table, never taking for granted that everything will be perfect without her close watch.
Longworth’s philosophy is the same. Uncharacteristically amiable and laid-back for a chef of his stature, he makes conversation with nearly every diner. Of course, it’s not just friendliness; it’s also market research. Wroten says they’ve learned much about the Common Man’s history from longtime locals who have been visiting the barn since it was Orsini’s in the 1960s. They’ve also discovered what does and doesn’t play well in Waitsfield.
They hope the kinks will be ironed out by the time Alfred Portale visits. “He’s been a father to me,” says Longworth of the contemporary American cuisine legend, who made him chef de cuisine at Gotham Bar and Grill when he was just 24. Longworth hopes to convince Portale to take an oven-making class at Yestermorrow Design/Build School. “He would have a really, really good time up here,” he says.
If it’s good enough for one of America’s greatest chefs, the Common Man could be on track to win over Vermont.
The Common Man, 3209 German Flats Road, Warren, 583-2800. commonmanrestaurant.com
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