Foodie Road Trip Redux

By Jolyon Helterman | Boston Magazine |

It’s just about this time that once a year, every year, the brilliant-hued notion dawns on local foodies to take a gastronomic day trip to some farflung restaurant. Noble plan—if only the target weren’t the same tried-and-true restaurants every time.

To demonstrate that there are journey-worthy culinary destinations beyond the excellent Fore Street in Portland, ME, and Simon Pearce in Queechee, VT, we put the pedal to the metal to come up with new and exciting (and appetizing) alternatives that probably aren’t on your radar yet, but should be.

After two months of driving and eating our way around New England, we’ve come up with a list of our favorites. Here are the six places you really need to hit before Boston’s annual hibernation season kicks in—ranked according to yumminess.

Click the links below for the results.


The List

1. Still River Café (Eastford, CT)
2. Hen of the Wood (Waterbury, VT)
3. 555 (Portland, ME)
4. Dressing Room (Westport, CT)
5. The Green Monkey (Portsmouth, NH)
6. Rubi’s Sandwiches (Great Barrington, MA)

 

1: Still River Café (Eastford, CT)

Situated in a centuries-old barn on a 27-acre farm in northeastern Connecticut, Still River Café has an airy, minimalist feel, with white modern furniture against weathered planks. All the better to spotlight the upscale seasonal food, much of which is grown on the premises in a carefully tended garden, which serves as the culinary muse for chef Kara Brooks’ breathtaking American cuisine.

Menu descriptions go on forever, as the pedigree of every morsel is proudly—obsessively—catalogued. But from the first bite of the "grilled Wolfe’s Neck Farm hanger steak with roasted North Ashford Farm fingerlings, [and] Ioka Farm’s braised short ribs on North Ashford Farm roasted root vegetables with Brigadoon Farm’s Kobe beef sliders," it’ll be clear the diligence paid off.

The French-style gnocchi is a study in contrasts of power and restraint, shape and airiness. Light as clouds, the pillowy boules surrender their delicate structure to a single touch of the tongue. Porcini mushroom asserts its musky notes, as crème fraîche gently muffles the aggressive earthiness, contributing richness and supple body. Not too shabby for what essentially becomes a gussied-up dippin’ sauce for the accompanying nuggets of polenta-encrusted veal sweetbreads. Parts is parts, indeed.

About an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Boston, the clientele seemed to be part local, part food-savvy Manhattanite, but not one car parked the Friday night we dined sported a Massachusetts plate. (We’ll chalk that up to "undiscovered"—until now, of course.) Speaking of Friday night, you’ve got your choice of that evening and Saturday to get your fix of Brooks’s exquisite grub; the café serves two dinners a week, plus a Sunday brunch.

The setting is also an ideal place to take all the rabid leaf-oglers in your life. Face them toward the picture window, a perch from which they can sit in wonder at the the vegetable garden below—and the decidedly deciduous Bigelow Hollow State Park beyond—before all becomes buried in snow. —Jolyon Helterman

BEST BETS:
Brigadoon Farm Kobe Beef Carpaccio, Housemade Gnocchi with Sweetbreads, Trio of New England Pastured Raised Beef

DRIVE TIME FROM BOSTON:
1 hour and 23 minutes

INFORMATION: Still River Café, 134 Union Rd., Eastford, CT, 860-974-9988, stillrivercafe.com.

2: Hen of the Wood (Waterbury, Vt.)

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the three-hour road to Waterbury, Vermont, is paved with terrific culinary invention. The cozy ski resort mecca boasts some of the best cooking currently happening in New England. And Hen of the Wood, just off the road that runs between Waterbury and neighboring Stowe, is at the top of its game.

Located in the former Grist Mill, flanked by sign advertising the now-defunct "Waterbury Feed Company," Hen of the Wood’s dining room is tucked away amid blasted rock walls, wooden beams, leather chairs and banquettes, with floors the original mill concrete. A guitar trio plays bluegrass-tinged background music from the corner, next to French doors that open out onto a patio set into the mountain, a waterfall cascading down its breathtaking slope.

But it’s the food overseen by Chef Eric Warnstedt—who, along with O Ya’s Tim Cushman, was named one of the 10 Best Chefs this year by Food & Wine magazine—that truly takes your breath away: simple, honest, expertly conceived.

The menu uses the word "local" so many times, Chowder half-expected to find out the last name of the farmhand who picked the cotton for the white, meticulously ironed tablecloths. Provenance aside, the best dish may be the upscale take on Rhode Island-style calamari, coated lightly in mustard bread crumbs, with lemon, garlic, and a big hit of basil—and squid so tender it practically melts in the mouth.

Crisp quail, lightly smoked and generously salty, is accompanied ingeniously by crushed raspberries macerated in sherry vinegar. The bracing fruit and the smoky gamebird are perfect opposites, and harmonious fork-mates.

Perhaps the most fascinating facet of Hen of the Wood is the service. Not the fold-your-napkin-into-a-swan-while-you-hit-the-restroom kind of service, but a front of the house where every last waiter and waitress knows and respects the product.

As Chowder’s waitress waxed poetic on the virtues of the half-dozen cheeses (yes, local…) on our platter, it became eminently clear that her expert tour-guiding was born not of memorizing hastily written blurbs provided by the maitre d’, but a genuine passion that rote memory can never approximate.

We were in good hands.

BEST BETS: Rhode Island Calamari, Smoked Quail With Macerated Raspberries, Brined Rabbit With Soft Polenta, Local cheese plate

DRIVE TIME FROM BOSTON: 3 hours and 10 minutes

INFORMATION: Hen of the Wood, 92 Stowe Street, Waterbury, Vermont, 04101, 802-244-7300

 

3. Five Fifty-Five (Portland, Maine)

By Carmen Noble

If a food psychologist were free-associating with you, and he said, "Portland, Maine!" your immediate response most likely would be "Fore Street!" Sure. You and everyone else. That’s why it’s tough to secure even a bar seat at Sam Hayward’s award-winning eatery these days without waiting a really, really long time.

"It’s like trying to get a table at Olives back when Olives was Olives," said a disgruntled foodie friend of ours, who recently opted to find solace and a seat off the waterfront at 555. Chowder decided to follow her lead, and found a terrific meal.

555 (pronounced "
FIVE FIFF-tee FIVE") is proof-positive that location isn’t everything. It sits on a desolate, not-quite-gentrified block of Congress Street near Congress Square; if you ask for a seat by the window you’ll get a nice view of Dunkin’ Donuts and an occasional downtrodden passerby. (The exception is the first Friday of each month, when Portland’s downtown art galleries stay open from 5-8 p.m. for a self-guided art walk, and the block bustles.)

But the restaurant is gorgeous, with exposed brick, copper accents (including cool napkin rings made of copper plumbing pipes), and a balcony that overlooks the open kitchen, helmed by Steve Corry—who won national acclaim last year when he was chosen by Food & Wine magazine as one of the 10 best new chefs in the country. The service is flawless without being obsequious, and the vibe is friendly; they aim to please without assuming they please.

With the exception of a slightly chewy hanger steak, the food is just terrific. And, like at Fore Street, there is a focus on local ingredients. Salad greens come from Fishbowl Farms (organic, natch) in Bowdoinham; the mussels (fantastic) come from Bangs Island, up the coast; the cheese selection included a cheddar from Smiling Hill farm in Westbrook.

We forgot to ask where the seared pepper-crusted diver scallops are from because we were too busy loving them. Cooked perfectly, they sat in a yummy, slightly butterscotchy emulsion of baby carrots and vanilla, alongside a potato fennel puree. Fennel shows up a lot on the menu, which changes seasonally; the butterscotch cheesecake on the dessert list even comes with "sweet candied fennel." Also on the dessert list: a cloth to-go bag of hand-rolled chocolate truffles—something for diners "from away" to enjoy on the long ride home.

BEST BETS:
Seared pepper-crusted diver scallops, Bangs Island mussels, "Take Home Some Chocolates"

DRIVE TIME FROM BOSTON: 2 hours

INFORMATION:
555 Congress St., Portland, ME, 207-761-0555, fivefifty-five.com

 

4. Dressing Room (Westport, Connecticut)

R.I.P., Cool Hand Luke.

Paul Newman—salad dressing magnate, lemonade-industry tycoon, storied actor—died September 27. Chowder coincidentally scored reservations two days later at the restaurant he had recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, where his widow, Joanne Woodward, serves as artistic director. As expected, the vibe was somber, but that didn’t stop the top-notch kitchen (under the watchful eye of Chef Michel Nischan) from putting out a truly incredible feast.

Under a soaring ceiling with exposed beams in a dining room with a fieldstone fireplace and wood everywhere, Chowder tucked into Dry Rubbed Baby Back Ribs, fork-tender (well, theoretically….Chowder used fingers: "thumb-tender"?) and served with a bracing apple-cabbage slaw that played brightly against the smoky, fatty pork.

A chopped salad, a well-balanced amalgam of hard-boiled pullet eggs, chickpeas, frisee, blue cheese, blood orange, cucumber, and other treats, boasted such a panoply of flavors the menu suggests using a spoon to ensure that the palate hits all the notes at once.

Upscale chicken and dumplings. Gold-standard onion-gravy-slathered meatloaf. A pan-seared New England striped bass that may be the best Chowder’s ever encountered. This is comfort food through and through, but using persnickety local ingredients in the best of all possible ways.

A glass of rosé, the last of the summer, to toast the great man—not to mention the craveworthy gastronomic legacy he’s left behind.

BEST BETS:
Dry-rubbed baby back ribs, chopped salad, New England striped bass, meatloaf

DRIVE TIME FROM BOSTON: 2 hours, 50 minutes

INFORMATION: 25 Powers Ct., Westport, CT, 203-226-1114, dressingroomhomegrown.com

5. The Green Monkey (Portsmouth, New Hampshire)

Portland, Maine, gets plenty of glory for how well it plays the charming-waterfront-town-with-cute-little-shops-and-bistros game. Meanwhile, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, provides almost as much charm, yet enjoys none of the acclaim.

For Chowder, naturally, food = charm, and Portsmouth’s Green Monkey is among the charming-est around. Not technically new (it’s a few years old), the Asian-fusion/New American comfort food restaurant has maintained a low profile on a quiet side street near town center.

The cool, quirky interior—decked out in reds, golds, and funky chandeliers—is fine, but the monkeys stenciled onto the white tablecloths are the very reason we seek out charming destination restaurants in the first place.

The food is really good. Chowder went ape (sorry…) for the excellent fried oysters: plump and briny, then dusted with lemon-ized salt and served with a cooling aioli. That’s when it became apparent that every one of the three parties seated at the bar (all regulars) had a plate of the Fuji apple and pork wontons.

Not wanting to feel left out, Chowder ordered a batch, which arrived as crispy fried wonton shells filled with piping-hot batting of seasoned pork and crunchy apple, served with a sweet-and-sour sambal sauce. Think Asian-inflected samosas, and the pinnacle of comfort food.

Entrees were all solid (Chowder shared the grilled rack of lamb, the heaping plate of pad thai, and the pomegranate-marinated duck breast), and the wine list was reasonably priced—both times Chowder consulted it that evening.

BEST BETS:
Fried oysters with lemon salt and aioli, Fuji apple and pork wontons, pomegranate-marinated duck breast, porcini mushroom sachette

DRIVE TIME FROM BOSTON:
1 hour, 10 minutes

INFORMATION:
86 Pleasant St., Portsmouth, NH, 603-427-1010, thegreenmonkey.net


6. Rubi’s Sandwiches (Great Barrington, Massachusetts)

Who in their right mind would drive two hours and 21 minutes west for a sandwich shop? Anyone who’s sampled the lemony grilled halloumi toast. Seriously.

Chowder’s still fantasizing about this unbelievably tasty concoction. A huge, salty swath of halloumi cheese (for those unfamiliar, it’s a softer, fattier, more nutty-tasting take on feta) is grilled open-face on a buttered baguette, with pieces of Spanish preserved lemon (salty lemon pickles…) hidden beneath the melted cheese, then drizzled with bracing, floral Sicilian lemon oil for good measure. Pure heaven.

The quirky sandwich shop also does a mean Sunday brunch, with delightfully creamy soft-boiled eggs, French toast, and a "Daily Chocolate Sandwich" that, on Chowder’s visit, was rich enough to require two espressos (each boasting a perfect crema) to get down. A very Manhattanite crowd, patrons sat at communal tables reading the New York Times, several enjoying a weekend-morning glass of wine (also offered by the bottle).

Next door, Rubiner’s Cheese
mongers is a gourmet store reminiscent of South End Formaggio, with local cheeses, cured meats, an interesting wine selection, and an assortment of other posh victuals for the journey home.

BEST BETS:
Halloumi cheese toast, comte grilled cheese sandwich, "Daily Chocolate Sandwich"

DRIVE TIME FROM BOSTON: 2 hours, 21 minutes

INFORMATION: 264 Main St., Great Barrington, MA, 413-528-0488

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2008/10/foodie-roadtrips/