As a food writer, I tend to get tunnel vision when it comes to big cities. It’s especially noticeable when planning a food crawl. In a town like San Francisco, or New York, or Chicago, you’re spoiled for choice. Cities like these, where you could literally eat at an awesome restaurant every day and never repeat for years, don’t pose much of a challenge to the curator of a food tour. That’s why I love the small towns, especially the up and coming ones with blossoming food scenes.
Sometimes this is the result of big city chefs looking for an alternative to the old path of grinding through the hottest restaurants in town for years before getting their own gig. In a small town, they have the chance to strike out on their own early, when their minds are still fresh and foolish. Other times it can be chalked up to a young demographic. College towns like Burlington are full of a new generation of young adult, who are excited to support the new, the creative and even the strange. This has had a marked effect on the town’s food choices, and has brought some genuinely impressive restaurants to the shores of Lake Champlain.
So that’s why I decided, after sniffing around Burlington for over a decade now, that it was time to plan a proper food crawl. There have always been great places to eat in Burlington like Leunig’s, A Single Pebble, Bove’s and more. But those are familiar faces, you know what you’re in for before you step inside and I wanted to be surprised, to sample the new hotness, the young guns, the freshman.
We start our journey with a dark horse discovered by chance during a walk down Church Street. I’ve strolled down this beautiful walking street hundreds of times, so I notice when a new face appears. In this case it was cozy underground Italian spot, formerly known as Three Tomatoes Trattoria. I can’t recall many lasting memories from the latter, but the former made a strong impression with just two dishes.
I chose Pascolo partly out of curiosity, and partly because I like to patronize new restaurants at least once to support the business. It also didn’t hurt that they proudly tout their house made pasta. One thing that always makes me nervous though, is when the menu gives the diner the choice of sauce with a certain noodle. Other aspects of the menu put that worry at ease though, like the list of locally sourced charcuterie and produce from nearby farms. I went with a pair of house made pasta dishes, the tagliatelle bolognese and pappardelle funghi. I could tell at first bite that the noodles were home-made as advertised. Both sauces were well composed with a depth of flavor I haven’t found elsewhere in Burlington. For me, Pascolo is a welcome addition to Church Street.
Our second stop, Hen of the Wood, has been on my list for a few years now and has been a stalwart of food lovers in Waterbury, VT for even longer. Unfortunately, Waterbury is about a 30 min drive from Burlington. Happily for me, they’ve opened a second location right in downtown under the Hotel Vermont. Hen of the Wood, like many restaurants in and around Burlington, pride themselves on sourcing as much of their ingredients as possible from local farmers and growers. I noticed they look to the same growers as The Kitchen Table Bistro, which can only bode well.
HotW has one of those menus where you have to make some hard decisions, especially on a food crawl. Appropriately, we chose the Hen of the Wood mushroom toast topped with house bacon and a poached farm egg. I can hardly think of a more perfect winter time dish. Here’s a pro tip, when you see beef tartare on a menu, order it. At HotW it comes with lemon, capers, farm egg yolk and some sunchoke chips for texture. Even a salad of baby gem lettuce gets its due attention with shaved goat cheese, walnut, Hakurei turnip and mint.
If you walk out Hen of the Wood, turn left, walk about 20 yards and enter the Hotel Vermont lobby, you’ll find Juniper. In my experience, hotel lobbies aren’t typically known for their fantastic restaurants. Usually you’ll find a dimly lit bar with tired businessmen downing your typical pub fare. Juniper is a wholly different thing. Braised rabbit with duck fat turnips, tamari and quince glazed wild salmon with kimchi and black risotto, cider glazed pulled pork shoulder with bacon, apple and duck egg, are only a small sampling of the creative dishes Juniper is capable of.
In an attempt to keep things light on our second to last stop, a roasted beet soup and autumn salad were requested. The former came with a sweet and tangy goat’s milk ricotta, violet gastrique and local Castleton crackers. I couldn’t detect much flavor from the violet gastrique, but the goat cheese was a perfect match for the earthy sweetness from the beets. As for the salad, I can honestly say it was an eye opener in a category that usually fails to stand out. Cranberries in two forms woke up the mixed greens. The deep, sweet, concentrated flavor from dried cranberries worked together with a cranberry vinaigrette that brought a sour component.
Now Eat a Duck food crawl regulations stipulate a limit of three dishes or less at each stop. As co-founder and head of this particular food crawl, I made an executive decision to ignore this rule after I tasted Juniper’s amazing celeriac gnocchi. I try not to throw the word amazing around too much, but these little dumplings deserve the praise. Nearly everything in this dish comes from the underground. That’s not an attempt to be hip, three of the main ingredients literally grow underground, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes and black truffle. The binding agent in this case comes courtesy of luxurious raclette from Spring Brook Farms in Reading. The key to any impressive dish is balance. A dish with raclette at its base could easily stray into the sickeningly rich spectrum. The chef deftly offsets this with the sliced Jerusalem artichokes that bring an acidic, almost pickled flavor that keeps each bite fresh. It was so addictive we ordered a second dish for dessert.
Juniper was such a hit we returned the next day for lunch. While my wife wasn’t looking, I quickly ordered a North Hollow Farm hot dog with tomato bacon jam, and the cider glazed pulled pork shoulder with bacon, frisée, apple and duck egg. I made quick work of the dog which was the perfect snack on a cold day. The tangy jam had enough sweetness to highlight the dog and a pronounced tang that hit you right in the jaw. The pork sandwich on the other hand was a beast that I sorely underestimated. It was slightly overloaded with ingredients and I wished the flavor of the pork was more front and center, maybe mixed with a maple based BBQ sauce or something. While delicious, it’s hard to follow that gnocchi!
Last stop on our tour of Burlington is a little joint that I’ve seen countless times on my way to town, Bluebird Tavern. They’ve since moved from their original location to make way for Bluebird BBQ (which is on the list for next time), and have settled right in the heart of downtown, just on the other side of the block from Pascolo. At this point my female crawlers were losing steam and running low on stomach space. It was up to me to finish on a high note. I started off with a trio of Cuban spoons, basically the deconstructed ingredients of a Cuban sandwich, minus the bread, on a spoon. There was only a small cube of each component, but the flavor was unmistakable. Next was a small pile of bay scallops in a parsnip purée with grapes and ham. The grapes sounded strange but they found their place in the dish, lending subtle sweetness to the creamy parsnip. They also had a similar texture to the scallops as they had been quickly tossed in the pan to firm them up a bit. To finish, fried sweetbreads, another item I always have to try when the opportunity presents itself.
After years of eating my way through Burlington, it was satisfying to finally put together a string of restaurants worthy of a crawl. I can confidently recommend Burlington to any traveling food lover, as the scene there is truly maturing with dishes and culinary ideas that showcase the town’s unique personality. Here’s hoping the trend continues and so we can hold round 2 of the Burlington food crawl. In the meantime, get out there and try these places, support the new guard and show them that we we’re hungry for more!