Fine Food in a Fine Valley
FINE FOOD IN A FINE VALLEY
Guest Blogger Anita Rafael
December 15, 2015
I feel lucky that I live in the Deerfield Valley region in Southern Vermont because during the past decade, many new restaurants have opened within a short drive from my home. A few perennial favorites have undergone a kind of renaissance towards more enticing menus. Make room Napa Valley—this eastern U.S. valley knows how to eat well.
Since 1791, the year Vermont became a state, there has never never a time that Vermonters didn't know all there is to know about fantastic food. Even the earliest settlers, thousands of farmers and breeders, coaxed the land into producing the best quality crops and livestock. Pure and wholesome food for their own tables, as well as for export to New England's populous cities.
Thinking about "Fine Dining" though—what makes it fine? Worldwide, all chefs in the fine dining category know that they must make a huge commitment of time and expense to meet a great number of standards of excellence. It's time to stop picking restaurants by stars. I've found that a quick phone call and a chat with a restaurant that labels itself "fine dining" can be much more useful when I want a meal that's absolutely memorable.
At Cask & Kiln Kitchen at 4 North Main Street, on the corner at the crossroads in Wilmington village, I asked about attire: Would I need to dress for dinner after shopping in town? Kathleen Matos, general manager, said, "Our feeling is that proper attire is admired, but not required. We know people come to Southern Vermont for the outdoor experience, so we know that they have kicked off their high heels and are not wearing suits. Still, we strive to elevate their experience here to meet high expectations." The venue opened last May of 2015, and its debut year has been, as Matos puts it, "a huge undertaking," and a great success, thanks to a brilliant menu that Chef Mitchell-Patrick changes frequently.
Vermont, with its inbred mantra of eschewing pretention, may be redefining what fine dining means. Matos said that Cask & Kiln Kitchen is "modern fine dining" and the moment guests walk through the door, they know what she means. The highly polished bare wooden tables, gleaming silverware, and large, white napkins, folded with precision, give the first floor dining room the look of an elegant bistro, the kind I'd seen in Brussels or Bonn, as well as old in Quebec City and even in New Orleans.
Cask &Kiln Kitchen's seasonal menu created by Chef Mitchell-Patrick is a blend of the familiar—Hearth Roasted Chicken (for two), a bird that has been brined in smoked maple and kiln roasted—and the exceptional—Venison Osso Buco. The Chef said, "This is an 8-ounce venison shank, braised for three to four hours in stout and finished with a veal glaze. The stout adds a sweetness to the braise." The menu notes that there are wild cherries and juniper in the cooking liquid, too. It is plated with pickled cucumber, cauliflower gratin and Brussels sprouts.
Would something like this qualify as fine?— it's just a few simple Vermont-procured ingredients, re-imagined into something splendid—a perfectly tree-ripened apple plucked from a local orchard, filled with Vermont-made Blue Cheese and bourbon-braised farm-bred pork. The dish, prepared by Chef Elizabeth Sisk, is one of the appetizers from the autumn menu at the Deerhill Inn on 14 Valley View Road in West Dover. The tender apple comes to the table bathed in spiced pecan butter.
Meredith Morin, speaking for the Hermitage Club in Wilmington told me, "We have recently re-branded the restaurant at 7 Crosstown Road in West Dover at the Inn at Sawmill Farm as Ristorante Piacenza. Chef Terrance Brennan carefully crafted a menu of northern Italian cuisine. At the Hermitage Inn at 25 Handle Road, he his team created a French-American menu, complete with charcuterie and fromage, a smoked salmon rillette, and a 7-hour lamb shank, served with goat cheese polenta, ratatouille and parsley pistou." I had to reference my old translation of Larousse to look up "pistou"— a cold sauce typical of Provençal kitchens, made by blending garlic cloves, fresh herbs, and olive oil. If you need a pronunciation guide to ask Siri, say "restaurant pea-ah-chen'-zah."
In the end, it's not about you and the waiters wearing twin tuxes, and it's not about multi-layered table linens or the number of forks and spoons lined up to the left and right of the plate. In as few words as possible, fine dining is simply an unwavering attention to detail—beginning with the selection of the most perfect ingredients in the kitchen to the choice of colors for the flowers decorating the table. There are many more restaurants the fine dining category in the Wilmington-Dover area than most people realize. To name a few, Harriman's Farm to Table at Mount Snow with Chef Mike Giorgio in the kitchen at the Grand Summit Resort, Folly on Main Street in Wilmington, Two Tannery Road on 2 Tannery Road in West Dover (they call it "fine country dining"), and several others.
The wrap: here's a good tip for visitors and locals—if you want to browse a portfolio of sample menus of nearly all the area's restaurants, stop by the warm and cheerful Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley Chamber of Commerce welcome center at 21 West Main Street in Wilmington. You can also sign up for the Chamber's newsletter (at the bottom of this webpage) for the latest info about food and wine events as well as special dining deals at the region's very popular restaurants.
You get homework with this blog post. Before you spend more than a hundred bucks on dinner again, go to the library (the one in Dover and the one in Wilmington, and other libraries nearby, welcome visitors, seasonal renters and second homeowners), and check out or download the following book by M.F.K. Fisher (1908–1992): The Art of Eating, pub.1954, which is a compilation of earlier works. Fisher wrote many books and articles about cuisine, culture and dining, frequently for The New Yorker Magazine and Gourmet. From one of her chapters, I learned a magical way to scramble eggs (basically, pay attention). In the example of the humble, ordinary egg, she made me understand the true worth of fine dining, and I saw the reason why it has a lot to do with love.
Anita Rafael is a writer living and working in Wardsboro, Vermont. She posts and maintains a website about her town at www.wardsborovermont.com.