Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Tasty Travels: I Heart VT

Although I’ve lived in Chicago for the past four years, I’m a New Englander at heart. I grew up in New Hampshire, I’m a die hard Red Sox fan, and in the fall I often find myself missing the little things that make that part of the country special: the vibrant colors of the changing leaves, apple picking, the hills, the fresh, wood-stove scent in the air.

Or perhaps it’s just that I miss the simplicity of that part of the country. Don’t get me wrong—I love the hustle and bustle of the city, the endless options for food / drink / entertainment, the energy, the sensory overload. But there are times when I miss the calm that comes with sitting on the back porch reading the paper or taking my dog for a walk in the woods… or enjoying a wholesome meal made with local produce.

So it was to New England that I traveled this past weekend, flying into NH’s Manchester airport, then driving up to Burlington, Vermont to see my little sister Susie in her college a cappella show at UVM. In Burlington, we ate at two restaurants that helped me rediscover some of that wholesome simplicity and in food and thought that makes New England so special.

Saturday morning, we waited 45 minutes to get into a cozy little nook called Penny Cluse Café. The place was all natural light and warm wood – chairs, tables, and floor – and the walls were decorated with pleasant paintings by a local artist. It was bustling with students and families, and fuzzy-cheeked waiters and busboys. (It may be cliché to say that Vermont is full of hippies… but it really is. The unkempt facial hair tells all.)

While the menu offers several delectable-sounding lunch dishes, I got the feeling that the place is best known for their breakfast food—and especially their Tex-Mex inspired egg plates. Accordingly, I ordered the breakfast burrito—scrambled eggs and cheddar wrapped in a soft flour tortilla and served with a dollop of sour cream, salsa, spring onions, and black beans. I’d never mixed Mexican and eggs before, but I was very pleased with the outcome! My brother got gingerbread pancakes, which were kind of a disappointment, as they were about the size and thickness of a coaster and overcooked. My sister got the winning dish of the table—pumpkin French toast—which was sticky and sweet and DELICIOUS, so we were all sticking our forks in her food. Dad got a yummy and smartly flavored roasted turkey sandwich made with real, thick cut roasted turkey (not deli turkey), garlic mayonnaise, Vermont cheddar cheese, grilled red onions, and marinated cooked spinach, all on toasted sourdough bread. I was dubious about the spinach, but it really made the sandwich, holding all the flavors together.

Overall, the food was good but I’m not sure I would wait 45 minutes for a table again—the service was VERY slow and unattentive… the portions were small… and the waitress forgot my soup! Regardless, the place is a favorite of Burlington residents, and I was glad I was able to give the place a try.

We spent the rest of the afternoon putzing around in Burlington… I did a spot of shopping with my sister then joined my brother Tommy and my Dad to watch THE GAME at my Uncle Mark’s bar – Akes’ Place – yeah my family has a bar. While there I had a pint of one of Vermont’s plethora of craft brews called Single Chair Ale – a lovely light white ale that I would definitely enjoy after a day on the ski slopes.

After the game it was time for dinner, and at Mark’s suggestion we headed over to American Flatbread – a wood-oven pizzeria and craft brewery. This place was AWESOME in SO many ways.


First, it’s a restaurant on a social and environmental mission—all of their ingredients are organic, fresh, and preservative-free, and they source as much of it as they can from local producers. That means it not only tastes good, but you feel good eating it! Sourcing is something you don’t necessarily think about because it happens “behind the scenes” in businesses—but it’s a simple choice that makes a huge impact. Supporting local producers strengthens communities economically and generally, and perhaps more broadly, choosing to support ethically and environmentally sound producers makes a strong statement and a big difference. American Flatbread does it, Middlebury College (in Vermont) does it for their dining halls, and Whole Foods does it on a more national level. Just think about what would happen if Wal-Mart decided it would only support suppliers who followed ethically and environmentally sound policies in production and labor: every company who sells stuff in that store would need to change. The world would change. I just find it pretty incredible to think about. Ok, stepping down from soapbox and back into the restaurant…

We had to wait a while for this place too, but my dad and I enjoyed a craft brew while we were at it. I tried the “Over the Hill Pale Ale” and it was nice and hoppy, with a pleasant but not overpowering sweetness. We were seated at a table right next to the open wood oven, and the equally open kitchen: we could see everything being prepared and cooked right in front of us—pretty uncommon for a restaurant, but certainly in accordance with the mission of the place.

We ordered two pizzas: one Roasted Red Tomato Salsa, and one Pepperoni & Peppers, which we watched the oven boy shovel in and out of the blazing wood furnace with a long-handled wooden pizza shoveler. Listen to the ingredients list for the P&P (my fave): “All natural nitrate-free pepperoni baked with organic green peppers, red onions, Vermont mozzarella, and our homemade organic tomato sauce.” It was … certainly one of the BEST pizzas I’ve EVER had. The fresh ingredients just tasted so good, and the pepperoni was big and crispy and super-thin—just the way I like it.

We left the restaurant bellies full, warmed by the fire and good feelings, and moved into the cold dark Vermont night to see Susie’s a cappella show… which was just the perfect kick-ass end to a really great New England day.

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