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January 28, 2014

Alice Eats: A Busy Winter Weekend

In Good Taste, St. Albans

It used to be that January was the Vermont dining nadir. Everyone was light on both product and motivation to do much besides try to lose weight gained over the holidays.

Clearly, times have changed. I spent the weekend going to a different culinary event each night. If you missed out, keep these breaks from the winter doldrums in mind when they next appear.

Friday: In Good Taste, St. Albans

I could never have anticipated the crowd that clogged the St. Albans City Hall on Friday night. Clearly, Franklin County was starving for a good food event. The evening began at 5 p.m. By the time I got there after 6:30, 20 tasting tickets for $10 had been discounted to $5. According to the folks selling tickets, so many vendors had already sold out that it was only fair.

IMG_7151But there was still lots to learn.

I started with a sip of cucumber-flavored TreTap. The supplemented water is made from the byproducts of maple sugaring at Branon's West View Maples. Basically, it's SmartWater with a Vermont edge. It didn't taste like cucumber, but the ultra-pure liquid was a nice palate cleanser before feasting.

Nearby, students from Northwest Technical Center's culinary arts program were preparing a piquant steak tartare using meat donated by Highgate Center's Choiniere Family Farm.

I ended the evening with a flight of five different ice ciders from from Hall Home Place of Isle La Motte.

Surprisingly for this nondrinker, my favorite was the Sweet Six, which its makers describe as having a "brandy-like finish." What I liked more than the burn was the ideal blend of sweet and tart. The acid of some apples cut through the sticky sweetness of others. Too bad the six apples change each season. I may never taste a blend quite like that one again.

Saturday: Ramen Cook-Off, Shelburne

The following evening, my buddy Jack Thurston and I judged the first of three annual cooking contests held at Chef Contos Kitchen & Store, owned by another pal, Courtney Contos.

RamenSince the store is small, entries were capped at seven. To keep things fair, we tasted each bowl anonymously labeled with a number. Three were Thai curry soups, not ramens, so, while tasty, they simply couldn't win.

One soup stood out clearly from the pack. It had the lip-glossing slick of collagen I was looking for in a well-salted broth. Just as the truck drivers in Tampopo insist, the balance of broth, noodles and meat was spot-on, too. And it turned out the winner had a familiar face.

Suzanne Podhaizer of Salt in Montpelier, former Seven Days food editor, turned out to be the ramen's creator. I hadn't realized at first taste that the soup was made not from pork but from goose, including braised meat and cracklings from the animals she helped raise (and slaughter) herself at a farm called Gozzard City in Cabot.

Podhaizer made the noodles by hand that morning, as well as the nori. It was actually fried kale flavored to approximate seaweed, a cool trick that kept the dish, complete with local eggs and squash, utterly locavore.

IMG_7166Sunday: Souper Bowl, Waitsfield

A week before the big game, the Inn at the Round Barn Farm in Waitsfield hosted its liquid equivalent. This was my first time at the Souper Bowl, an event created by Round Barn chef Charlie Menard.

I arrived on the late side (hey, I had to get to the gym before I binged!), so I missed the stellar butternut squash soup that I'd tried at the Common Man Restaurant the week before. Obviously, people were as blown away by the kaffir lime marshmallow melting with green-curry croutons and reduced coconut milk as I was.

But I was still able to try most of the eight remaining soups — after a slice of fennel-and-bacon pie from American Flatbread, of course.

Kale soup from the Hyde Away Inn & Restaurant

There were too many highlights to give full attention to all, but my partner and I agreed on our top two — we even got second bowls of each as the chefs cleaned up to leave.

Bacon-andouille corn chowder from Localfolk Smokehouse was an inspired combination of rich, creamy soup sweetened by corn and rocked by spicy, smoky sausage whose flavors permeated the whole potage.

Sausage, this time homemade using pork from nearby Gaylord Farm, was also the centerpiece of the entry from the Hyde Away Inn & Restaurant. The lightly spiced meat imparted a sense of mischief to what looked like a simple, healthy kale soup filled with orzo.

Those second helpings left my ribs sore from overstuffing, but, hey, there's only one Souper Bowl a year.

Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to [email protected].

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