Negative experiences at restaurants bum me out.
Granted, some places are dives and everyone working has a weird vibe, but the food you get at the counter is silly tasty. Judgement and hurt feelings are easy to suspend for a solid burrito joint or a lovely slice of pizza. But some places convey themselves as a full service, fine dining affair with prices reflecting. At a spot like that, I expect a transcendent experience. I shouldn’t have to figure out on my own which of these temples is actually a money sucking, time wasting lair of boredom and rude runners. I shouldn’t have to sift through reviews on Yelp or worse, learn the hard way by actually getting ensnared by one of these facades. They should just all be awesome. But they’re not. So I role the dice to some degree each time I try a new place.
Few things in life bring as great a cavernous disappointment in my heart, a more humiliating feeling that I’ve been chumped, bamboozled, swindled out of my hard earned money, than the feeling I get that I’ve been played. I get that feeling upon falling asleep; after the stiff and scrutiny suspending apertifs and cordials have worn off, after the magic sparkle I allowed to carpet bag me has let go of my senses, after my coffers have been drained.
But last night, after I got home, I drifted into the land of dreams with deep peace. Hen of The Wood, a most classy restaurant in downtown Burlington, is a beautiful place.
I got a surprise catering gig a couple weeks back that brought in a few extra dollars just in time for my wife’s 30th Birthday. I really wanted to make a great evening for her, and hoped for us to have a bang up fine food session in Burlington. It was easy to settle on Hen of the Wood because we loved our time at the flagship Waterbury location on New Year’s Eve two years ago.
And I’d heard that the new digs in The Hotel Vermont were què rico. The other things that drew me in from afar were their pricing and the straightforward yet exciting, seasonal, and modern Italian appeal to the dish descriptions. It’s not incredibly expensive, but expensive enough to create an expectation of something that could be great. And with items like their signature Hen of the Wood mushroom toast, (my wife ordered that) octopus that looked amazing in the picture on their website (I ordered that) I felt like we were going to be in good hands.
The space is dim and sexy. Seasoned wood to be used in the brick oven and grill is stacked cleverly into the walls. The bar is vast and elegant. The place is warm in the way a farmhouse living room is warm when the fireplace is cranking. It feels good in that place. It feels well put together. And thought through completely. Each table has little stone tablets that flatware rests its head on between bites.
The service is freaking great there. The right person appears at just the right moment time and time again throughout the meal. They are smiley, unobtrusive, unadorned, unaffected, generous, they keep our table tidy the whole time, we never wait a second too long for our food and we are never rushed through a course. Natanya leaves the table to freshen up between Small and Large plates, and here swoops our server, perfectly balanced between formal and fun, to pick up and re-fold her napkin from the chair. Pete Wells would be proud.
And dude, the food is exceptional. At least everything we ordered was spot on. Natanya’s mushroom toast was grilled with a tender crisp that gave way to a tender whole grain chew. The mushrooms were a bit smokey from having been softened in the wood oven. A fat strip of bacon draped over the mushrooms with a perfect medium rare poached egg on top. Sure, we could get picky and say that the mushrooms were just a tad salty, but honestly who cares? If a mere technicality does little to detract from the awesomeness of the dish, why get lost in the minutae?
And just because Burlington is landlocked does not mean these guys don’t know how to properly dish up some octopus. So tender. Scrumptious with that sunchoke earthiness under it. It was topped with a zing of scallion and minced ginger that took this octopus right where it needed to go. There was a lovely black streak of salty ink that complemented the briny tasting octopus but would’ve been super wonderful if the black color was actually of a balsamico, tangy, sweet, and tart. The dish sort of lacked any satisfying acidity yet sharpness of the ginger and scallion almost subbed in for it. Almost. Pretty much.
Our oysters were briny, soft and sweet. Yum. Eschew the cocktail and mignonette I say and just go for the flavor of that banging oystah. And order one of their whisky sours with a half dozen. Sure they may be a tad cloying, but their cold and frothy and they make you feel nice.
My pork shoulder was a hunky rise over the plate. It sat on this rye spaetzle that was crispy and wonderful as it slowly mixed with pork juice and a pickled apple jus. Celery root in puree form was a happy reminder of winter, though just a tad watery. I would’ve wanted it to be bolder in flavor perhaps, or maybe just thicker and roasty tasting; not like the delicate swish of celery cream it presented as. But as I’ve said…the food was still amazeballs overall.
Natanya’s hanger steak was so tender that she saw past her usual wariness of rare beef. If it was cooked more, it would’ve lost that melty quality. I love how they presented the beets boiled whole with skin still on. They were so soft they could be cut through with the edge of a fork. The bechamel was creamy yet non-descript. But then there was a vinaigrette that seaped the essence of rosemary over everything. Just lovely. Laying over everything was a single leaf of grilled treviso. It certainly looked pretty, purple with streaks of white, but it’s bitterness dominated. Just a tiny bite of it would rule over the greatness of this plate.
Their proprietary pinot noir by the way was a bold and smooth harmony of berries and tertiaries sitting right on a base of refined leather and earth. Perfect with our food.
The dessert was silly good too. I’m not much of a dessert guy…they’re too sweet and showy. I don’t like all the straight angles and precise shapes of desserts these days. But I’ll go for a creme brulee sometimes. Just a plain ‘ol vanilla bean creme brulee done right can be the most gratifying dessert with a hot little cup of espresso. Their bruleè was just awesome. The crack of the top was umm…very crackly. The custard inside was impossible to critique. So smooth and absolutely flawlessly thickened to a perfect silky texture. Natanya’s brown butter cake with apple granita just totally killed it. It appeared as precisely plated but it looked disorderly enough to make you feel welcomed to devour. And devour it we did, despite being totally stuffed.
Hen of The Wood was just perfect. It is to me the quintessential modern Vermont restaurant. We left pacified and pleased. I felt taken care of and respected for the amount of loot we dropped. Thanks so much guys. We’ll be back for another write-up in the spring.