When the bread is the most delicious part of a meal that can generally mean one of two things – it was a terrible meal or it was awesome bread. Fortunately, in the case of Hen of the Wood in Waterbury, Vermont, it was the latter.
The bread was indeed incredible, served at the perfect time in its life. The crust was crusty, the crumb was pillowy and the flavor was everything one could desire. Oh, the butter wasn’t too shabby either. The bread came from nearby Red Hen Bakery. I felt like I was in Europe. Interestingly, I have had bread from this baker elsewhere. It was good, but not this good.
Lauding the bread by no means is meant to take away from the rest of the meal. Hen of the Wood has become the most respected restaurant in all of Vermont for a reason and that reason is that they take prime (mostly) local ingredients¹ and use vision and excellent French technique to craft wonderful dishes. If one is craving the latest trends in cooking, go elsewhere. The food at Hen of the Wood is classically oriented and timeless.
Driving up to the restaurant and parking (we were 15 minutes late due to a traffic jam in rural Vermont of all places), I was happy to have seen a sign for the restaurant out front. Housed in a building carrying a label for the Waterbury Feed Company, the magic starts inside and faces away from the entrance. To get to the restaurant one descends a stairway and arrives in a very dark dining room². Luckily, I had asked for a “well-lit” table when I made my reservation and we were given the one with the best light since it was summer and it was still early. Dubbed “the pit” it was in the far corner of the restaurant. We sat on bar stools on a ledge looking out over the deck and the raging river beyond.³ It was perfect!
We started with cocktails. I ordered a House Gimlet with Hendrick’s Gin, Kaffir lime leaves and lime cordial. While I saw and tasted no sign of the Kaffir lime leaves (there was lime rind as a garnish), the cocktail was well made, well balanced and totally refreshing. I was not displeased.
I asked our waitress, who did a fine job throughout the meal, to ask the bar to create a mocktail for my son. She did and they obliged with a very tasty one based upon strawberry sorbet and fresh, local, last-of-season strawberries⁴. He was happy.
There is no tasting option listed on the menu, so we created our own by ordering an option from the “Bites” section of the menu and three appetizers to share. We also ordered one main course each. The “bite” was a plate of tasty cucumber sliced into thin rounds and served with pickled onions. This was the only dish of the evening whose value to price at $7, I question. It was nice, but not special.
What was special were the fried oysters. I generally prefer my oysters raw with a squeeze of lemon, but I would take these perfectly fried specimens any time, especially with the creamy aioli and super touch of a fried lemon on top. This dish, as much as any, explains why people seem to love this restaurant as much as they do. They took flawless technique and a small twist to make this their own and to make it totally marvelous.
Chanterelle toast with house bacon, sweet peas and poached egg was good, but lacked pizzazz. Nicely presented and tasty, it somehow failed to live up to the promise of its description, but that may say more about my expectations than the actual dish.
The pendulum swung back with the lobster appetizer. Served as a hot casserole, a generous portion of lobster meat was paired with a bechamel of pickled rhubarb, crispy ham and spring-dug parsnip. I am not usually a fan of sweet savory courses, but this one worked, perhaps because of a balancing touch of sour by the rhubarb.
Both mains were very strong. My son had the beef short ribs that were a special that was not on the written menu⁵. These came with gnocchi-like goat cheese dumplings and fresh peas. It was rich and delicious.
I ordered the rabbit. A hind quarter and a large loin were served with dandelion greens, parsnip puree and sour cherries. This was again a triumph of technique, product and conception. The cherries were a wonderful, seasonal touch adding both sweetness and sourness to work alongside the bitterness of the dandelion greens and the parsnips sweetness. This was a winner.
A side of roasted, smashed fingerling potatoes with herbs and cubes of Boucher Blue Cheese was good, but ultimately unnecessary.
I had a glass of house labeled Pinot Noir to accompany my main course. It was from Oregon made by Anne Amie. The Cuvée “A” was 2011 and possessed good fruit and nice balance, one of the better house wines I’ve had.
As one might expect given its classic French inclination, Hen of the Wood showcases cheese with a selection from Vermont and New Hampshire, most of which I have had and enjoyed elsewhere. There were, however, a few that were new to me. “Sterling”, a Valencay style soft goat cheese from Sage Farm in Stowe, Vermont was one such cheese. It was served with maple crackers, rhubarb compote and fennel jelly. This was a good goat cheese and the accompaniments worked with it well.
For dessert, we both opted to go the strawberry route. My son had a Strawberry Shortcake with strawberry/buttermilk sorbet and strawberries that had been macerated in maple sugar. This was a superb dessert that had sufficient sweetness without going over the top as well as satisfying textural components.
My strawberry dessert was not as satisfying, but it was still good. Fresh strawberries were served with crumbled pecan cookies, strawberry sorbet and just a little mascarpone. I would have liked a bit more of the cheese with the flavorful strawberries.
Hen of the Wood is a wonderful restaurant that epitomizes what the Farm to Table food movement is all about, taking quality, local ingredients from specific farms and other sources and treating them simply so their best qualities are highlighted. It is not a restaurant that, at this point at least, can be considered innovative, but then, not every restaurant needs to nor should be innovative. Sometimes quality product, well prepared is enough.
¹Their seafood is obviously not from the immediate environs, but it comes from near shores, which the restaurant considers “local.” In addition their wine and cocktail lists span the globe, though they do serve locally made wines in addition to local brews and other beverages.
²I can’t understand why fine dining restaurants insist on being so dark. Chefs go to a lot of trouble to make their food look as beautiful as it tastes. Why not allow the guests to fully appreciate that? The room as a whole need not be bright. Well placed spots work wonders.
³In a former life, the building was a grist mill.
⁴It was a short strawberry season due to all the rain, but they still managed to come up wonderful berries.
⁵I’m not sure why a restaurant such as this that prides itself on its daily market cuisine, would not have everything on offer that day on the written menu, which is dated.