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October 26, 2010

Alice Eats: The Tavern at the Essex

70 Essex Way, Essex, 802-764-1413

Since moving to Vermont 12 years ago, when I talked about heading to brunch I always followed up with the words "at the inn." The opulent buffet — complete with ice sculptures, charcuterie and made-to-order omelettes and waffles — reminded me of Sundays back in Greenwich, Connecticut.

When the New England Culinary Institute divorced from The Essex Culinary Resort & Spa last year, the buffet slowly dwindled to just a couple of tables, filled with fresh fruit and steam trays. Last month, my beloved Carbonara buffet went the way of the dodo in favor of an à la carte brunch menu. After giving myself some time to grieve, I gave the new regime a try last Sunday.

A single page of somewhat pricey brunch items was tucked inside the breakfast menu. The reasons for the higher than average charges were quickly obvious — $16 for a Benedict doesn't sound so bad when there’s lobster involved.

The first fun surprise was the "Wake-Up” drink of the day: A glass filled with fluorescent green honeydew-fennel juice. The sweet melon got a rich, earthy undertone from the fennel, but remained the delicious top note. The standard offerings of coffee and orange juice (literally) paled in comparison.

I don't usually associate pasta with brunch, but the "Deconstructed Carbonara" (right) made me rethink my position. The widest pappardelle I've ever seen was cooked to chewy perfection. It was swathed in sauce made from Twig Farm tomme, a darkly sharp raw milk goat cheese. Thick, crispy chunks of local bacon and slices of fresh scallion were scattered throughout. The yolks from a pair of poached eggs seeped into the sauce, "reconstructing" it as I broke into each one.

Waffle Better still was the chicken and waffles (right). I was expecting legs and wings on the bone, but was pleasantly surprised to find a single gigantic boneless breast. The meat was pounded to an even thickness, which allowed it to remain extraordinarily juicy and flavorful. The light breading had southern-style spicing that would make the Colonel proud.

The breast was covered in thick yellow gravy that turned out to be heavily flavored with mustard. The mini waffles on the side resembled the ones I'd enjoyed over the years at the Essex — lightly sweet, with an airy center and crispy crust. I had to ask for maple syrup to dress my waffles — mustardy gravy didn't cut it. I would not have objected to some fruit or a small salad on the plate to give it a little color... and nutritional value.

I certainly didn't get my vitamins from dessert. Not that I minded. The molten chocolate “s'more” used a chocolate lava cake as its base. Below the cake (and on the side of it) were pancake-y rounds of homemade graham cracker. A healthy-sized blob of marshmallow was stuck to one side of the cake, bruléed to perfection. The balance was not quite right for something advertised as a s'more, but it was a buttery, chocolaty delight.

Based on the length of the nap I needed after brunch, though, next time I may skip dessert.






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