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Where There's Smokejacks: The cuisine scene heats up in northwestern Vermont 

You can work up quite an appetite these days reporting restaurant news in Vermont. Tired of waiting for a table at Sarducci’s? There are two more places to eat in Montpelier. Yet another French chef has selected Vergennes — the food mecca of Addison County — to set up shop. And in the past week, four new eating establishments got cooking in the Queen City, with three more prepping for summer openings. Anecdotal evidence suggests there are Vermonters who will fork it over for fine food. The question is: will enough of us come and get it?

The most dramatic, and expensive, of the new eateries is O — appropriately titled, as it turns out; everything about the place, from the menu to the décor, inspires exclamation. Building on the success of her Starry Night Café in Ferris-burgh, restaurateur Fleury Mahoney has demonstrated she can do upscale urban as well as rural Route 7 romantic.

“I love designing restaurants,” Mahoney confessed at the “o”pening last Thursday — and it shows. She has transformed the space formerly occupied by Isabel’s on the Waterfront into a cool, funky, futuristic eating gallery with slate blue walls, poured concrete floors and stainless steel door frames. The tables, too, are brushed metal, handcrafted by her sister, Heidi, and woodworker boyfriend Eben Markowski. The couple is busy this week stabilizing the restaurant’s 80 three-legged chairs, which, although visually pleasing, have turned out to be quite precarious.

“We’ve just been warning people not to lean too much,” Mahoney explains, noting the risk increases after a few glasses of wine. “The form and function thing doesn’t quite work out until you’re in it.”

The food thing seems to have worked out remarkably well, though. Chef Bill Allen has put together a one-page menu — presented in a large sheet of clear plexiglass — with a strong focus on seafood. No matter that you’d never snag anything resembling “coriander crusted ahi,” “rosemary crusted swordfish” or “pan seared sea scallops” in Lake Champlain, the water connection is definitely there. The food is so tasty, you won’t mind repeatedly fishing your fork out of the big, square, slippery plates.

There are small, medium and large dishes at the second Single Pebble on Bank Street in Burlington. The Queen City’s newest Chinese restaurant is a chip off the old block in Barre. The menu is virtually identical. Of course, there was no reason to tweek a formula that for five years has drawn diners to the Granite City for mock eel, red oil dumplings and dry-fried green beans. The Pebble partners —chef Steve Bogart with Phil Gentile and Ed Federman —have freshened the Asian aesthetic at the old Saigon Cafe without gutting its homey New England charm. What if the name is a little misleading? So is No. 1 Chinese…

No obnoxious bells or whistles announced the late April opening of The Biltmore Grill in the space formerly occupied by Carbur’s on St. Paul Street in Burlington. The updated eatery just started serving up Jamaican jerk-seasoned fritters, Thai wraps and Hoisin-glazed tofu at reasonable prices. Downsized considerably from its epic predecessor, the three-page menu offers global fare alongside standard American chicken wings, turkey meat loaf, burgers and three selections of steak, including Philly cheese.

Owner Tim O’Neill may be modeling the place after his Middlebury restaurant: Mr. Up’s. Chef Grey Bailey, a N.E.C.I. grad who returned to Vermont via Hawaii, “brings an Asian influence to a lot of the food,” says manager Mark Batten. “He’s a genius with sauces and spices.” Think enlightened comfort food, washed down with one of 18 beers on tap.

It’s all meat, all the time, at Souza’s “Churrascaria” Brasilian Barbecue on Main Street in Burlington. For 30 bucks, you can eat grilled chicken, pork and beef until the cows come home. That is, if the place is open. Souza’s serves dinner Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and brunch on Sunday. It’s a dim sum approach to eating, with waiters strolling among tables offering slabs of meat, as well as rice, beans, vegetables and various South American side dishes. Chef Kelly Dietrich ran the Kids Culinary Academy of Vermont in the same space for eight years before teaming up with his Brazilian wife Edna to open Vermont’s first “rodizio.”

Prefer “radicchio?” After four years of heading up the kitchen at Leunig’s, Dan Rogers is going solo. Uh, make that duo. He and his wife Susan are launching a family-style Italian restaurant in the soon-to-be-refurbished Ethan Allen Shopping Center in Burlington’s New North End. Opening in mid-June, Cannon’s aims to be “a cross between Junior’s and Trattoria Delia,” according to Rogers. Although he firmly believes in serving farm-fresh ingredients to a suburban clientele that is more “sophisticated” than it used to be, Rogers has no intention of making his menu too snooty: “I’m going to give the people what they want: good value, unpretentious food and timely service.” The 68-seat restaurant expects to do a brisk “to-go” business. Andiamo.

Staying put is more the point of The Restaurant — an intimate eatery opening this summer across from Burlington City Hall. The no-frills moniker is a reaction to “the daze of everyone trying to outdo themselves with a name,” says owner Jack O’Brien, who is also the proprietor of Red Square next door. A sample menu offers everything from “oysters wrapped in pancetta in a balsamic black pepper mignonette” to “magret of duck with julienne ham, grilled peaches, a bene-crusted hominy cake and a bourbon shallot glaze.” Not exactly bar food. Describing it as a “small, personalized place… that is different from what most people have done,” O’Brien says there will be tables outside, in the wine cellar and in the kitchen. Chef Lenny William also plans to offer four-, six- and eight-course meals. Says O’Brien, “I don’t think anyone else in Burlington is doing that.”

Or are they? Rumor has it that yet another group of local restaurateurs is scouting locations in Burlington for a high-end California-style eating establishment along the lines of the French Laundry. Multiple-course tasting menus are a regular occurrence at the exclusive restaurant run by Chef Thomas Keller. Although the anonymous partners are still looking for financing, they have designs on a 4000-square-foot space that used to be Cherry Street Billiards. Monthly rent is about double that in dollars. That’s a lot of fois gras.

Full yet? There’s more. When he cut loose from Starry Night Cafe in Ferrisburgh, chef Michel Maheu was making tracks for the Swift House in Middlebury. The deal fell through, but 37-year-old Maheu found another equally enticing food op at the Main Street Bistro in Vergennes, which he has renamed the Black Sheep Bistro.

“I’m going to be priced along the same lines as a Bob-cat Café,” Maheu says “— the kind of place you go when you don’t want to eat in a diner and you don’t want to spend 130 bucks.” There will be a major potato presence at the “avant-garde bistro.” Every table is going to get a bowl of garlic mashed potatoes and a basket of fries with Belgian sauces. Translation? Maheu describes it as “Starry Night without the frou-frou.”

Maybe it’s all those lawmakers squandering their daily meal allowances eating out. But Montpelier has more restaurants per capitol, er capita, than any other town in Vermont. These days everyone is trying to get into Conoscenti, a new Italian place on State Street next to Julio’s, serving timballa, fresh soft-shell crab and other Sicilian specialties. Chef-owner Dale Conoscenti is showcasing classical dishes from his childhood in a “’50s Italian club” atmosphere. A wall of tightly packed deuces looks very New York, but in cosy Central Vermont makes for easy eavesdropping.

Take-out sushi from Rhapsody solves that problem. Or you can choose from 40 seats in the new self-serve restaurant associated with the non-profit Center for Natural Living. “We’ve got hot food, cold food, salads, desserts, salads — all of it by the pound,” says Sjon Welters, who used to run the deli at the back of the State Street Market. Better yet, you can eat your seitan stir fry next door in the comfort of the Savoy Theater. Sounds like Stone Soup South. . .

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Paula Routly

Paula Routly

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Paula Routly is the cofounder, publisher and coeditor of Seven Days.

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