Published January 7, 2009 at 6:00 a.m.
Over the last two years, the east side of Burlington’s Old North End has experienced a delicious renaissance. These days, North Winooski Avenue boasts a colorful smattering of eateries, from a Vietnamese restaurant that serves up superior pho, to a hip vegan café with a killer (or not) veggie burger, to a kid-friendly coffee shop.
Closer to the lake, though, the options thin considerably. When bakery/café Scrumptious closed in 2005, and Ray’s Seafood stopped dishing up the day’s catch — fried and slathered in tartar sauce — locals were left with a few mini-mart deli counters and a Chinese takeout joint. There was no place to sit and drink a café au lait, let alone hunker down with friends and dip into a bowl of steaming soup or share a decadent dessert.
Hence the neighborhood’s eager anticipation of the sunny breakfast and lunch spot called Nunyuns, which has taken over the Scrumptious location without (yet) replacing the old café’s teapot-shaped sign. Since owners Kristine Harbour and Paul Bonelli signed a lease last June, hungry locals have been hankering after a taste of their promised simple, hearty fare and baked goods.
Harbour and Bonelli finally opened their doors at the end of November, four months later than planned. The delay was due to mucho drama with an irresponsible contractor and a handful of permitting quandaries.
Now the couple is dishing up solid versions of various egg dishes, hot and cold sandwiches on freshly made bread, and lots of colorful — and, um, scrumptious — cookies and bars. The reasonably priced menu is posted on a series of hanging chalkboards, and customers order at the counter. After paying by cash or check — no plastic — they can choose to watch the action from the main dining space or relax in the slightly more secluded back room.
On my first visit, I missed breakfast — they stop serving it at 11 a.m. — but was excited to order a bowl of curried potato soup ($3.50) and a pair of hot sandwiches: pastrami with Swiss ($5.95) and barbecued beef ($6.25). The soup featured hearty chunks of potato and carrot in a nicely spicy but otherwise subtle broth. A couple of hunks of marbled bread came on the side. It was soft, yeasty, fresh and sweet, perfect for sopping up the remnants of the soup.
Both sandwiches came on homemade slices of white or wheat, too, and the meat was amply portioned. The excellent pastrami version had just the right measure of mustard to complement the pile of lean meat. (I’m in the minority who prefer my pastrami fatty, but have resigned myself to the rarity of this option.) The barbecued beef sandwich — which they’ll also make with seitan — was augmented with peppers and caramelized onions and slathered in a sweet ’n’ spicy sauce. I prefer mine a touch tangier, but the hot and hearty lunch still hit the spot.
Both ’wiches come with fluorescent green pickle spears and potato chips. The health conscious may prefer a side salad to fried spuds, but the menu offered no salads on either of my visits.
On my second trip, I made it to Nunyuns in time for breakfast and was moved to order a plate of “Skeggs” ($5.75), which taste more appetizing than they sound. The unusual breakfast consists of crispy golden potato skins — there’s plenty of potato left in the scooped-out shells — filled with scrambled eggs and topped with cheese and sour cream. I got mine with a side of sausage mixed in, and a bit of salsa to increase the flavor quotient. Although Nunyuns’ name was inspired by Harbour’s distaste for allium bulbs (“no onions”), the finely chopped condiment was redolent with them.
Carb loaders may want to go for the lightly spiced French toast ($5.50), made with heavily battered pieces of Nunyuns’ bread and served with a carafe of maple syrup and some pats of butter. To hoist the consumer’s glycemic index even further, the dish has a side of homefries. Unlike the big hunks of potato featured in the soup on my last visit, the fries were fairly small and nicely cooked, though they would have benefited from some additional seasoning.
In fact, needing a bit more oomph was sort of a theme: While everything tasted fresh and homemade, several times I found myself craving just a little more flavor. Generous sprinkles of salt spruced up the salsa, the Skeggs and the soup.
But the savory and delicious sausage and the fake bacon were just right. The mock meat consisted of flavored tempeh strips that were smoky and saline enough to please those who eschew the piggy version. (For their part, carnivores used to crisp, fatty pork belly may be taken aback by this facsimile’s grainy texture.)
While we ate, we examined the display of local art. The current artist, Kimberlee Forney, combines heavy brush strokes, swirly skies and cyprus-like trees evocative of Van Gogh with portraits of frolicking Holsteins that suggest a more whimsical Woody Jackson. I was amused by one poor bovine who was eternally slipping off the edge of the canvas.
Even if you come to Nunyuns for savory fare, it’s practically a crime to leave without sampling a few of the café’s baked goods. Both the peanut butter and molasses sandwich cookies are flavorful and fun, with crisp cookies enclosing creamy fillings. Coconut nuts will savor the sweet “Super-Magic Cookie Bar,” a crumb-cookie base topped with the tropical fruit, chocolate chips and toasted almonds — but they’ll go cuckoo for the plain and chocolate-dipped macaroons. Unlike some versions of the chewy cookie that are basically dense meringue with coconut stirred in, these are coconut bombs.
I enjoyed a shatteringly crisp pecan crescent coated with powdered sugar, but my favorite was a very similar buttery nut cookie with a raspberry jam center.
Seasoning issues aside, Nunyuns is just what the lake side of the Old North End needs: a cozy space where the hearty homemade fare won’t eat too much of your paycheck. In recession times, that sounds tasty.
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