We started our adventure Northeast for some time to enjoy the season. In addition to seeing the leaves change, my single ambition was to experience the culinary hype of the Vermont local food movement and to eat as much wonderful cuisine as I could over a one week period.
Sunday, Heading North, but not without a stop in NYC
We started with a drive up to New York, where we stayed in no place, of course, other than the Hotel Elysee. This hotel remains the most charmingly perfect NYC experience I have found. In addition, once you become one of their preferred customers, they always make sure you get the room you request (mine is a corner room on a high floor away from the elevator). I love this time of year in New York. Everyone’s outside, and the streets are full of fall colors, crazy fashionistas, and a mix of ethnic diversity that rivals no other place on earth. It is heavenly. I’m worried for New York given today’s looming hurricane, but I know it is a strong city with vitality.
On our recent visit we had only two items on our NYC agenda–dinner at the Momofuku Noodle Bar and a trip to Maribelle Chocolates. The rest of our time was spent walking and people watching with some intermittent shopping and downtime.
I must contend with Frank Bruni on Momofuku. I’ve been dining there for the last 8 years, and I have found no other restaurant in the city that I like more–for its down-to-earth welcoming appeal and the delicacies that French Culinary Institute chef David Chang has created. Since they do not take reservations, it always means an early dinner, but it’s well worth it. I am in love with their pork buns–heavenly perfectly cooked pork belly, sandwiched in steamed buns with hoisin sauce, and just the right smattering of sliced cucumber and scallion. I have yet to find a pork bun that can compete, and believe me, I’ve tried. The menu changes daily with only the buns and noodle bowls as staples that remain unchanged. On this visit we started with an appetizer of striped bass in a charred apple puree, with hazelnut and masago. We then had orders of the pork buns and shrimp buns. The shrimp buns were particularly unique with the shrimp infused in a kind of patty and the bun included spicy mayo, pickled shallot, and a hit of iceberg lettuce. It almost had a po’boy flavor. Overall, I’d say it was worth the try, but nothing compares to the pork bun. I pour my heart out to the pork bun, and it might honestly be one of the sole truths behind my lingering desires to travel to NYC. This one delicacy lingers in the back of my mind.
After the buns, we shared a dinner of cauliflower blended with harissa, freekeh (a nutty, fall grain), and mint, and then I went for the Ginger Scallion Noodles served with pickled shitake mushrooms (where the ginger taste derives), cucumber and cabbage. My other all-time favorite is the Momofuku Raman, but it is very pork heavy. After the puns, I find it overkill. Since pregnancy has started, the best I can do with pairings, unfortatnely does not include wine or sake (Momofuku has a signature sake, which is tremendous). I can just smell these, so my pairing included a Ginger beer, which I must say did complement the array of tastes nicely. I’ve found that I survive usually by ordering sparking water.
A Maribelle Monday
Monday lunch found us at Maribelle chocolates, where the main focus was not on food, but on the spicy aztec hot chocolate (60% dark), alfajor, and yummy treats we came to pick up–Maribelle truffles. We had these as the wedding favors we served earlier this year–in saffron and pistachio. We obtained a box in all our favorite flavors, including saffron, pistachio, cardamom, espresso, and ginger. It is the Jaques Torres chocolate and freshness of the ganache that makes the truffles.
Later in the afternoon, we began our five hour journey through the Catskills and upstate New York into Vermont, where we drove through a series of small roads and enjoyed fall foliage until the sun set and we arrived at our destination, the Yellow Farmhouse Inn in Waitsfield, Vermont. Waitsfield is a small town in what is known as the Mad River Valley. It falls between Montpelier (the smallest capital in the nation with a population of 7500) and Burlington, VT. Waitsfield is also equidistance to three very popular ski ranges in winter, making it a pretty popular tourist destination and pitstop. Most townships in Vermont have passed bills ruling out corporate enterprise, so you will not find too many chain grocery stores or chain anything in the state. I did not encounter, for instance, a single Starbucks or Walmart in this rural haven all week. The local food movement is especially strong, and it is the most liberal place I have visited in America. It was heavenly. Vermont is full of small farms, local artisans, and people who like being outdoors. People also enjoy eating, and eating well. One of our central reasons for the journey was to explore the local food movement, the co-ops, and of course, the restaurants–which almost all serve new American cuisine with foods all locally sourced. We were told at one restaurant where we dined, that now more than 3/4ths of the state’s restaurants source only local products.
Tuesday–Cabot Creamery, Lake Champlain Chocolates, Salt, and a Presidential Debate.
We awoke to downright cold (35 degrees) temperatures and ventured out into the foliage. It was the perfect snuggly, sweater-and-boots kind of weather I long for in Fall. We started off with a drive and then ventured to Stowe, VT, at the peak of the mountains. There we walked around, visited local artsy shops, and enjoyed the outdoors.
We visited the cabot creamery , which makes a wide array of cheeses, some very nice high-end ones (and some of these you find at your local Whole Foods). It is a tasters delight where you get to taste everything. I especially like some of their cheddar reserves–very reminiscent of those you find around York, England. The landscape and climate are also somewhat similar, so I imagine that is one reason for similarities in taste. Oh, and in addition to Cabot, there is Lake Champlain Chocolates, a local Vermont Chocolatier, which makes decent chocolates. They are good, but nothing to really write home about. I did enjoy their local varieties with chocolate with Vermont Maple. Many of their standard chocolates are also available at Whole Foods.
We later ventured to the State’s capitol, Montpelier. It is not a remarkable town. It is simple and has one main street, smaller than that of my own hometown in Columbus, IN. Residents work to keep the town alive and going, but it’s not a beautiful place to visit. We had an unremarkable lunch at the local city Diner, which everyone hypes about in reviews–mostly vegan but not too exciting.
Dinner, however, offered a better flare. I had made reservations (yes, even in this town of 7500 I had to make reservations) at a restaurant called Salt. The chef, a UVA political science grad shifted course, and decided to join the local food Vermont movement with her first restaurant, Salt. It was a full house on the night we went. Their menu changes every three weeks and is themed with what’s available from the local farms, though they do source foods from other parts of New England. The restaurant is BYOB, and there are plenty of local wine shops that do have varieties of excellent global wines (which I did appreciate from afar). Salt, in the Patricia Wells and Alice Waters tradition, seeks to serve homey New American cuisine, and succeeds. The night opens with a variety of three salts (Hawaiian Black, French Provence-Style salt, and a simple white rock salt. This is paired with unsalted butter and bread.
The menu, written on a large chalk board overlooking the small dining area and open kitchen, is available for browsing. We started the evening with seared scallops, served over a bed of shredded Brussels Sprouts in a shallot-blood orange vinaigrette topped with crispy bacon. For our main courses, I had a seared duck breast and duck confit in a mustard-marsala glaze and served with mushroom risotto. The duck confit was well prepared and slow cooked over four hours earlier that day. Chidu had a free form lasagna with mushroom ragout and chesnut bechamel. Both were dishes were served with chard. They were excellent, but they were dishes I believe I could have prepared at home. What I most appreciated was the effort, the attentiveness of the chef, and the high quality and local flare of the ingredients. The planning of all the menu options to pair with the season and local ingredients available was clearly evident in the menu. For desert we had a chestnut cake baked with pear and topped with a cider reduction. It was a good way to bring in the Fall season.
After dinner we headed over to the Waitsfield local theater, which was hosting a community viewing of the debate. The event, entitled “Obama Debate and Dance Night.” Started up with a live band, an open bar and a lot of dancing to folksy music. As you might imagine it was an ultra liberal crowd fired up for Obama. I like Vermonters. They are very down-to-earth and they have a particular sense of outdoors style about them that makes long underwear fashionable. Dressing up is putting on a pair of Campers or Doc Martins and heading out for the night. People place higher value on comfort than fashion. I also saw very few overweight people in Vermont–Rather people were thin and healthy–perhaps something to do with enjoying the outdoors.
Wednesday–More Foliage, the thriving metropolis of Burlington, and The Kitchen Table Bistro
Wednesday entailed more time outdoors where we took some scenic drives, one particularly beautiful through an area called the Lincoln Gap, one part of the Appalachian mountains. We drove past Middlebury and around to the Southern tip of the state’s Western most side where we then headed north to Burlington. The state is very small and can be crossed in a matter of a few hours, so hopping from town to town is easy.
On our way into Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, we stopped at the Magic Hat brewery, which offers a free self-guided tour through its factory. Magic hat is a quirky independent beer that is quite popular along the East Coast, particularly here in DC. It was fun to see, smell and experience the factory and gift shop as well as to interact with the local workers. It was a beer education for me as I learned about all of the different hops and inputs that go into making the beer. The afternoon sunny and beautiful along Lake Champlain, the small body of water that divides Vermont from New York and provides a waterfront for Burlington. Burlington has the feel of a small New England college town. We dined at another local restaurant, Magnolia, which was quaint but again, not terribly exciting for lunch.
There is a row of shops along the Main Street in downtown Burlington, which is lively and fun and has been closed off to traffic. Here a large group of local artisans, bakers and vendors of other sorts can be found. Benches line the walkways and it seems to be the place where everyone congregates. I was most taken with the Saratoga Olive Oil shop, which imports a huge variety of olive oils, and like many places in Europe, bottles them for you based on your selection (another taster’s paradise). I ended up with a highly aromatic Portuguese olive oil, which has a slightly spicy after taste like many of the Spanish varieties, but is less heavy than most Spanish oils. I also picked up a beautiful white truffle infused olive oil which is as orgasmic as it sounds. The shop also carries a variety of imported salts and some local products, which one can appreciate.
Beyond Burlington, our evening included another dinner reservation in a small town called Richmond, Vermont at The Kitchen Table Bistro. We were again amazed to find a house full of diners, in what seemed to be an otherwise remote downtown. Not far from Burlington, this restaurant seems to attract a large crowd in the evenings. Unlike Salt, from the previous evening, the Kitchen Table Bistro prides itself on cooking local Vermont fare (not all in the New American variety). The restaurant is small, in the back of an old farmhouse, and divides into a few rooms for diners. The wait staff were attentive and friendly bringing the small town feel into what was otherwise a very uptown meal. Contrary to the regular progression of foods, we started our evening with a recommended cheese plate starter–all Vermont cheeses, which included a cabot cheddar reserve, a grana, and a soft cow’s milk cheese in the form of a camembert. This was accompanied with freshly baked bread, apple butter and candied pecans, which just felt like autumn. For our mains, I had ricotta-stuffed gnocchi served with roasted squash, apple-braised kale, and topped with a few slivers of parmesan. The texture of the dish really made it stand out, particularly the way in which the chef had incorporated the ricotta into the gnocchi. It was light and soft, with some nice crunchiness from the roasted squash.
Chidu ordered Cavendish quail with garlic and herbs. The quail was served with cabbage (which appeared to be cooked along with bacon) and fried fall roots, which were heavenly. This meal was one of the best I’ve had in a very long time outside of a michilen-star environment. I also noticed the wine list offered a variety of suitable pairings. The evening ended with an open-faced chocolate-coffee sundae topped with candied almonds and a nice food coma that lent itself to the vacation mood.
Thursday, A final day and farewell to Vermont
Thursday we started our journey South after a leisurely morning in Waitsfield. Along the way we made a necessary stop at the Ben and Jerry’s factory, where we had a tour and tasting that followed. it was mostly tourist hype, but one has to appreciate the mission of Ben and Jerry’s to locally source it’s products and maintain a sustainable business environment where workers and producers get an equal share of the profits.
For lunch we stopped at a small town, the name I do not remember, just to pick up a quick bite. In typical Vermont style, there was an excellent bakery-deli and country store attached to a local gas station. We had sandwiches at the local park and then bid farewell to Vermont.
The trip was leisurely returning home, and has been more-or-less since. Last week I resumed work, and now of course, we are sitting in the middle of a hurricane, which for me so far means another leisurely day. I’ve been cooking and baking a great deal. Last week was a sinful venture into an almond-apricot petit four cake with chocolate ganache icing.
I’ve been experimenting with some different breads–my favorite involves using raagi, an Indian grain which produces a kind of dense pumperknickel-style bread without the bitterness. We grow raagi on our farm in Bangalore (we have 12 acres just north of the city) and bring it home after our visits. However, the local Indian store also sells it (less fresh).
Yesterday evening I developed a new pizza–the typical Alice Waters dough–I topped the pizza with broccoli pesto (consisting of broccoli, garlic, red chilies, caramelized onion, and a touch of heavy cream blended together into a pesto consistency), crushed walnuts, a touch of parmesan, and fresh mozzarella. It is one of my fav pizza creations to date.
I guess, in addition to food (which really has been at the forefront of my mind in my 6th month of pregnancy–am due on Feb 14), I maintain my yoga routine 6 days a week. I am very proud that I still do backbends and headstands at 6 months of pregnancy. I also have been somewhat crafty in my free-time–sewing clothes for my forthcoming daughter and crocheting a baby blanket. Pregnancy is miraculous. My daughter is growing daily and moving around more and more by the day. I am so eager for her arrival.
It’s been a good snuggly fall so far…..
Photography by Chidu Rajghatta