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August 13, 2012

Grazing: Whip It Good

ShrimpThe northward migration of a chef from Austin, Texas, to the Green Mountains is a rare but wonderful thing. When such a person moves between two wildly different places, they can bring a mashup of styles, ideas and dishes that is nothing but good news for the diners around them.

Chef Cody Vasek grew up on a farm in Bellville, Texas, and developed his culinary chops at hotels in Austin and Houston, where his farm-centric early life gave him a natural affiinity for field-to-fork cuisine. Like many a chef hungry for new experiences, Vasek eventually drifted north and worked his way through several of Jean Georges Vongerichten's kitchens (JoJo, Vong, Mercer Kitche, Spice Market and Jean Georges among them) before he pushed even further north, to the 45th parallel to become the executive chef at Stowe Mountain Lodge. (If there is an invisible hotel kithen circuit, Stowe Mountain must be a major yet frenetic node — as far as I can tell, it's a magnet for talented chefs who don't stay long.)

That was June 2011. By this spring, Vasek had become head of food and beverage at the Whip Bar & Grill, the clubby restaurant on the ground floor of Stowe's Green Mountain Inn. For the blip in time that I lived in Stowe, I knew the Whip as a place with a relaxing patio and dependable but somewhat run-of-the-mill food.

Since I've moved on, it took me a while to make it back to the Whip to try Vasek's food. The menu is a fun read, sprinkled with subtle Southern touches  — crab fritters instead of crab cakes, for instance, or a baby green salad smothered in peaches. Here's a remoulade, there's a salsify puree, and everywhere are playful twists on comfort food such as a lobster knuckle sandwich, cauliflower risotto, and the parsnip-and-vanilla milkshake that comes alongside the burger.

Chick_thighThat salad was a no-brainer, with wedges of ripe, juicy peaches draped over greens kissed by a honey vinaigrette. Crumbles of Bonneview Farm feta grounded and smoothed the flavors.

Another starter — a pile of plump, sauteéd shrimp — drew on a different octave of natural sugars: They came tangled with charred sweet corn, glistening, sweet pear tomatoes, and wilted basil. It was like summer distilled on a plate.

Choosing a main course here entails sacrifice: You can't possibly eat a grilled, smoked pork chop covered in cherry mustard and roasted onions, a slow-roasted hunk of salmon in heirloom tomato broth, and a grilled Black Angus steak smothered in a roasted salsify root pureé all in one sitting. Since I have a crush on chicken thighs and rarely see them on a menu, I was game to try them wrapped in house-cured pancetta. Apparently everyone else was, too, because by the time I ordered, they were gone — until Vasek magically produced another portion. They looked as though they had been pounded flat and then re-rolled, roulade style, with ribbons of salty, slighly gamey pancetta. Served atop a pile of buttery mashed potatoes and wilted greens, they hit that primal note that only meat-on-meat dishes can.

I couldn't eat another thing. OK, maybe one bite of ricotta cheesecake. Maybe another bite... soon, the delicate, citrusy dessert was gone, and I was scraping up every bit of a succulent compote of baby blueberries. The whole thing was so light, it was almost be a palate cleanser — for a second dinner?


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