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- Daria Bishop
- Crab cake appetizer
As if his remark had been scripted for me, a patron at Pauline's Café on a recent Thursday night paused on his way out to tell chef-owner David Hoene, "I always get the crab cake when I come here, but tonight it was the best of all."
My husband and I had just finished our meal at the almost 50-year-old South Burlington restaurant. We had ordered a chorus line of Pauline's classics to determine which would earn "One Dish" acclaim, including the crab cake appetizer ($15), French onion soup ($10), pork schnitzel ($24) and bananas Foster ($12).
This month, the Seven Days food team is revisiting enduring local restaurants — our "forever faves" — one dish at a time. As we dine on Brie-and-bacon-topped chicken, eggs Benedict, and crab cakes, we're sharing what keeps these community staples ticking, whether for 15 years or 60-plus.
At Pauline's, the delicately puffed crab cake with its luxurious pesto beurre blanc sauce beat out the crisp-coated, lemony schnitzel, which the crab cake-loving patron and his companion had also selected. (Be forewarned if you sit near me at a restaurant: I am eavesdropping on your order.)
It turned out that the crab cake also bested the schnitzel in its longevity at the restaurant — by decades. That jived with my memories of long-ago meals at Pauline's, which often concluded with bananas Foster set aflame tableside.
The crab cake predated Hoene's 2001 arrival at the already well-established spot, which was then owned by local restaurateur Robert Fuller. He sold it to Hoene six years later. Fuller told me by text that he bought the business in 1982 from Pauline Hershenson, who opened her eponymous eatery in 1976 or 1977.
Hoene appreciates the many longtime Pauline's customers, he said, but he's working with his team to bring in new patrons, too. That involves constantly reevaluating the menu so that it works for diners, for the bottom line and for staff, who may weary of cooking the same dishes or decide they are not comfortable with lighting desserts on fire. Tastes change, too, which might mean trading out what Hoene called a "historic" dish such as the creamy, cheesy Shelburne Farms chicken for the popular gluten-free chicken schnitzel ($24).
But the crab cake is sacrosanct.
Fuller recalled that the source of the crab-forward, bread crumb-light recipe was a Pauline's cook originally from Maine. Hoene has tweaked the recipe over the years so that the cakes soufflé a little more, but they're still very similar to the originals, including their rich sauce made with cream, butter and pesto (housemade in the summer), balanced with white wine, white wine vinegar and a little orange juice.
"We tried different sauces, but the customers kept asking for the beurre blanc," Hoene said.
The crab cake is currently on the menu only in a singleton version with a side of seasonal vegetables, an unexpectedly compelling braise of humble cabbage and carrots when we dined. Regulars know they can order a pair as an entrée, which will cost a little more than double the appetizer.
I'd happily eat two, but the appetizer size plus the fresh popover bread basket and one of the bar's new-school cocktails leaves room for my favorite Pauline's dessert, even without the fiery tableside drama.
"One Dish" is a series that samples a single menu item — new, classic or fleeting — at a Vermont restaurant or other food venue. Know of a great plate we should feature? Drop us a line: [email protected].