It used to be that the journey was half the fun and something to be looked forward to as much as actually arriving at a destination. In today’s fast-paced, security obsessed, bottom-line oriented world, that has become less and less common. In most cases, the journey, because of events like my experience with Aero Mexico, as well as more tragic and nefarious episodes such as have dominated recent news headlines since 9/11, has become something to dread. Between security issues, airline financial woes and other problems, the actual act of traveling is rarely enjoyable in its own right, anymore. Every once in a while, though, the act of traveling turns out to have been great fun.
One such enjoyable experience occurred recently through a weekend spent in nearby Burlington, Vermont. Of course, this did not involve an airline, but between traffic issues, the price of gas and other problems, automobile trips have their own displeasures too. Not so this one. Our drive up to Burlington, through summer-lush Vermont farmland was beautiful and uneventful. An important element of any car trip, traffic, was a welcome exclusion, as we made good time getting to our initial destination.
That destination was a private dinner held prepared for my wife, our son and I, by the very talented young chef, Max Mackinnon at the site of his former (and future?) restaurant Pistou in downtown Burlington. My son and I had enjoyed a dinner at the restaurant last year in Mackinnon’s absence. I had hoped to put together a team dinner (we were in Burlington for a soccer tournament) at Pistou, but with the restaurant closed, the owners of the space were understandably reluctant to allow a group function. That dinner did not come off, but Mackinnon invited my family to dine on a more personal level. The result was a truly outstanding evening of great food and hospitality. Mackinnon, who attended The French Culinary Institute after graduating from nearby Middlebury College, (where coincidentally to our weekend’s purpose, he played Varsity Soccer), also worked with James Kent during his preparations for the Bocuse d’Or.
Starting with his home-made bread and cultured butter, the culinary elements of the evening shone brightly. It is difficult to believe that Mackinnon has only been baking bread for six months. The quality of both the bread and the butter suggested a lifetime at the craft. For health reasons, I don’t eat a lot of bread anymore and prefer to limit my carbs to those times when they are truly worth the consequences. In this case, they most definitely were, as I enjoyed two large slices, crusty on the exterior and pillowy soft and warm inside, fully laden with his perfectly tempered butter abetted by a touch of fleur de sel. This was world class bread.
The rest of the meal did not disappoint either, as Mackinnon showed a deft hand with ingredients, flavors and textures, all from a small kitchen. He prepared and served with the capable assistance of his father, a tremendous eight course meal along with paired wines. While our previous meal at Pistou was more straightforward, but excellent bistro fare, at this meal Mackinnon showed a greater creative bent, successfully highlighting unusual combinations with a lovely plating aesthetic. The food was downright delicious with a sense of whimsy and a respect for the bounty and quality of Vermont product. Much of the produce that he used came from the nearby, Half Pint Farm, and with good reason – the quality of their product was stellar.
Everything was superb, but two dishes stood out as being particularly excellent. The first, Mussels with roasted carrots and curry was as delicious as it was beautiful. Well crafted, creative and colorful, this was pure gustatory pleasure.
The second, a dessert, was an homage to Jeremy Fox, from Fox’s days at Ubuntu. It was a savory based dessert featuring peas and white chocolate. Fox’s is considered to be one of his signatures and uses macadamias for textural contrast and flavor enhancement. Mackinnon gave it his own plating design and substituted pine nuts for the macadamias. The result showed why the dish is considered a Fox classic, but I liked the way that Mackinnon adapted it, while giving full credit to his inspiration. It was delicious! (See my Flick’r Photoset for all the dishes)
The next day saw plenty of soccer, as well as a between-games visit to the Burlington Farmers Market, a well stocked and photogenic site with plenty of great and varied product including such delights as Whistle Pig Rye Whiskey, Barr Hill Gins, papalo and plenty of other herbs, farmstead cheeses, meats, a cornucopia of quality vegetables. After our meal the previous evening, we stopped at the Half Pint stand and loaded up on things such as haricots, padrón peppers, lettuces and more. We also enjoyed a few nibbles from various stands for lunch. A visit on a summer Saturday is well worth it if in the environs.
That evening, we reconnected with Mackinnon for dinner at the new Hen of the Wood restaurant at the Hotel Vermont in Burlington. Last year, my son and I had an enjoyable meal at the original, but somehow, this one, was even better. Despite the lack of an adjacent stream like at the Waterbury site, the ambiance was warm, rustic and just as inviting. It was very comfortable and even had adequate spot lighting for photos despite the generally dark setting. With Mackinnon as our guest, we shared a bunch of small plates, had individual mains and enjoyed cocktails, wine and great company. Highlights included the mushroom toast, grilled octopus, house-cured ham and tasso, bluefish and rabbit. (See my Flick’r Photoset for all the dishes).
Thanks to a forfeit by our intended opponents, Sunday morning was free. Unfortunately it was raining in Burlington and the weather forecast was unfavorable for the day. We decided to stop for breakfast before heading back home. We returned to the Hotel Vermont to try the Sunday breakfast at another restaurant located within the hotel. Juniper is a lobby based cocktail bar and restaurant. Smartly appointed and airy, it was a pleasant spot to weather a rainy summer Sunday. I thoroughly enjoyed their roasted mushroom tartine with poached eggs and Tarentaise cheese. being called a “tartine” I expected a pastry shell, but that was not the case. The mushrooms, eggs and cheese were piled on hearty toast. It was an umami fest punctuated by yolks of a brilliant, European orange. I would happily eat that again and not just for breakfastWe hit the road to head home after breakfast, but this was when we enjoyed some pleasant surprises. Though it continued to threaten, the weather remained at bay for most of the day and at times the sun even peaked through the clouds. We took our time heading back making multiple stops. The first, even though we had just had breakfast was at The Vergennes Laundry, a bakery south of Burlington on our way home. Their baked goods looked incredible and we bought a few croissants, pain au chocolat and some other items to take with us. It is too bad that we hadn’t eaten them at the shop, though, as the croissants were amongst the best I’ve ever had. These, too, were absolutely worth the carb load and I would greedily have had more, but they were gone.
Another stop at a farm stand was fruitful and a visit to Middlebury College was enlightening with its surprisingly large and beautiful campus. We also took an extended stop at the site of the old French and British forts at Crown Point, NY, after having crossed the beautiful, geometric new bridge from Vermont back into NY. Despite its relative proximity, we had never been to Crown Point. It is well worth a stop if in the area and don’t forget to see the Rodin sculpture of Samuel de Champlain that was a gift from France on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Champlain finding the lake at this site that subsequently came to bear his name.
The wonderfully relaxing drive home was topped off shortly after Crown Point when we passed an osprey nest atop an electric pole at the side of the road.
I expected our meals on this trip to be excellent and they exceeded my expectations, but it was the trip itself, especially our ride home, that proved to be the most welcome and true surprise. Sometimes, the actual journey can still be wonderful as well!