Alice Levitt's Best New Restaurant Dishes of 2011
Two years ago, it was the year of the burger. Last year, chicken and Italian dishes seemed to dominate. With a few days of retrospection, I declare 2011 the year of the sandwich. The first three menu items listed all fall into the category, but there were plenty of other foodstuffs to love last year, from sushi to gelato.
Below is a list of 10 dishes from new restaurants that captured my fancy in 2011 above all others. Click on the names of the restaurants to learn more and you might become as obsessed as I am with these dazzling dishes...
I rang in 2011 by trying the carnitas torta at Mad Taco in Waitsfield, and did the same in 2012. The sandwich, pictured at right, is worthy of an annual tradition.
Chef Joey Nagy and his team start with a fluffy, homemade roll, lightly toast it and fill it with a divine combination of melting pork belly and chunks of smoky carnitas. Cilantro and tangy, crisp slaw add zing, while avocado bolsters the fattiness of the pork.
If you like pig, this sandwich is impossible not to love.
Dinner at Pistou in Burlington is swell, but for my money, lunch is the place to be at the month-old restaurant. It was hard to choose just one sandwich for this list, as the menu changes each day, offering exciting new options.
Ultimately, I had to give it to the bacon, chicken-liver mousse, lemon and parsley combo. The first time I tried Pistou for lunch, I devoured the sandwich on a Red Hen Baking Co. baguette. The salty, thick-cut bacon and earthy liver, enlivened by lemon and parsley, was too special not to garner mention. The sunchoke-and-apple soup on the side made it a meal to remember.
Juniper's Fare, on the border of Moretown and Waterbury, is more a restaurant reborn than a new restaurant. It was more than a year old when Tropical Storm Irene gutted it. Less than a month later, the Church of the Crucified One's café was remodeled, and is better than ever.
Three cheers to that, and to the "famous" chicken club. The name is honestly earned with juicy, citrus-marinated chicken, gloriously crisp bacon, fresh veggies and pungent garlic mayonnaise.
The crusty Kaiser roll that holds the whole thing is noteworthy on its own; so are the onion rings, which are some of the best and sweetest I've ever had.
How do I love thee, tah chin? Let me count the ways. You've eclipsed even the addictive boneless chicken kebab to make this list. The crisp edges of your saffron rice did it. Or perhaps it was the creamy, tangy filling of chicken, yogurt and egg. The fried barberries on top dress you up like tiny cranberry jewels.
You may only be on the specials menu at Farah's Place in Burlington, but you always seem to be on the Thursday buffet. Knowing that, we have a standing date.
San Sai on Lake Street in Burlington is another regular haunt, so populated with my favorites that it was nearly impossible to choose just one. The summer menu's soba salad with sesame dressing left me salivating long after I finished my meal. Another contender was the glimmeringly bright ume-shiso roll, filled with fresh, Japanese mint leaves and pickled plums.
In the end, I had to go for the volcano roll, depicted at right in a photo by Matthew Thorsen.
While most dishes at San Sai are purposely austere, just a fresh fish with a hint of yuzu or carrot sauce, the volcano roll is unabashedly decadent.
The soft rice, always the perfect texture, houses tuna garbed in spicy mayonnaise. The rolls are piled into a pyramid, then showered with ikura, tobiko and fried strands of sweet potato, which contribute a symphony of textures and flavors.
Combine it with the ume-shiso roll, and you've got my favorite workday lunch.
When most of us think of Lebanese cuisine, Montréal fast food comes to mind. Paul Sarkis has been trying to change that at his restaurant, which replaced landmark Warner's Gallery in Wells River last winter.
The difference is particularly vivid in the shish taouk. Far from dry meat carved from a gyro-style spit, Sarkis marinates boneless chicken breasts in garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and pepper for three days. The result melts in an aromatic pile of chicken-y goodness easily worth the trip.
It's no easy task to be named my best bun. While most Vietnamese food fans flock to pho, I can't resist the vermicelli salad.
Bamboo Hut, a hole in the wall on North Avenue in Burlington, earns the highest possible marks for its ultra-fresh version. Each time I've had the dish, the lettuce, sprouts and cukes therein have been spotlessly pretty. Pickled carrots, daikon, fresh cilantro and basil provide laser-focused flavors along with the generous helping of vinegary nuóc cham sauce.
I choose the pork, which is lemongrass marinated and nearly fork tender. To top it all off, the dish comes with one of the restaurant's stellar egg rolls, unconventionally flavored with ginger and cilantro.
With the Bluebird Tavern's charcuterie now available only à la carte, what's a girl to do when she wants a meaty surprise? Hightail it to Stowe.
Though the Rusty Nail has long been a local favorite, it got some new blood with the 2011 addition of chef Michael Werneke. His butcher block is ever changing, but reliably showcases some of the best fleshy treats in Vermont.
Be on the lookout for the smoky, Southern-inflected headcheese and creamy, salty rillettes, studded with tender chunks of meat.
And for my dessert selection, how could I neglect the strawberry panna cotta I tried last summer at Cloudland Farm in North Pomfret?
Chef Nick Mahood started in the world of pastry, and that training was apparent in the dessert that bloomed with the taste of fresh, sun-baked strawberries mixed with cream. Streusel and more berries, baked in balsamic vinegar, added texture, as did a teeny scoop of spiky buttermilk ice cream. This was all delightful, but the dots of basil coulis on the plate earned this dish a place on my list.
Even the name is dramatic — Donatella. The creamy but somehow light gelato at Al Portico in Montpelier deserves a hint of theatricality. Even more so when it's flavored with hazelnut and deep, rich chocolate.
Go ahead and get two scoops. One will only leave you wanting more.
OF COURSE, established restaurants presented some dishes that wowed me this year, too. Here are some of the best:
Just before the end of the year, I tried the cassoulet at the remodeled Tavern at the Essex. With housemade bacon, sausage and duck confit to flavor the rich, flavorful bean stew, a day hasn't passed since that I have not craved it.
2012, you've got hard acts to follow.