Counting Down the Best Foodie Road Trips! (No. 2)

1224787035From the number of miles Chowder has put on the old Chowdermobile as of late, you’d think gasoline grew on New England trees. But neither rain nor sleet nor $5-a-gallon pump charge shall hinder our mad gastronomic dash to uncover the top day-trip-worthy restaurant destinations around the region.

After weeks of counting up the best, we’ve reached No. 2:

No. 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

1. ??

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)

**** FRIDAY…NO. 1! ****

Image from by Anna Day Photography.