Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Wild Roots, Vermont

Before I get into my review of Wild Roots, I need to give some backstory.

In 2012, I discovered a new reason to visit my family in New Hampshire.  That reason was Home Hill Inn, quite literally, the first restaurant I dined at near my hometown that made me excited to return.  It was a small, adorable place, actually a bed and breakfast, with a restaurant open to the public.  My first meal there was mindblowing  - complete with foie gras, scallops, and skate wing that remains one of the best seafood preparations I've ever had.

My second visit, that following summer, was an epic tasting menu in the private room, again, with an amazing seafood prep (this time, halibut).  On that same trip home, I also checked out the Tavern, a more casual pub environment, which, sadly, was not very good.  And I took my entire family, grandmother included, to brunch on the weekend, where they totally redeemed themselves, with creative options like savory breakfast popovers.  The next year, I went again, and it wasn't quite as good, but I was still eager to return on my next visit.

And then Home Hill Inn closed.

I was very disappointed to say the least.  I dined all over town, tried to find somewhere else that I'd like, but, I wasn't ever all that successful (full list is here, if you want to read a lot of reviews!).

Flash forward several years.  The chef left the area, and moved out to Napa.  He learned a lot from the chefs there, working closely with local products, really learning to elevate produce in particular.  He refined his techniques.  And then moved to Denver for a while, again, continuing to focus on working with what is fresh and seasonal.  And then ... after 4 years, he returned back to New England, to found a new restaurant in Vermont, as the Executive Chef, with two other young owners.

That restaurant, is Wild Roots.  It opened only a month or so before my most recent visit to see my family, and, the moment I found out about it.  I immediately made a reservation for myself and my mother, who I knew would appreciate the meal.

And we did.
Lovely Meal.
The cuisine is hyper local, either done in house, or nearby.  This extends far beyond just the produce (which of course does come from nearby farms).  Dairy is from the farm nearby, beer is produced in-state, cheeses are local, bread is baked in house, and even the cured meat and fish is done in house.

Dishes are creative spins on familiar dishes, catering to diners who are adventurous for the rural area, but not totally outside their comfort zones.  The cuisine, and the setting, are comfortable yet refined.

I saw elements and inspiration from Home Hill Inn throughout the experience, but it clearly is the evolution of everything that the chef was doing there, and has learned since, combined with the vision of the other owners.

We had a wonderful meal, and I'll gladly return.

The Experience

Service was good, the staff friendly and knowledgeable, all casually dressed, but not sloppy.
Historic Building.
Wild Roots is located inside what I think is a historic building, located along route 14.  The building was renovated, but retained the old feel.

The curb appeal is legit, a large well tended to brick building, mowed lawns, flowers growing alongside.

A sign out front marks the spot, with directions to park across the street, in a medium size lot.
Entryway.
The entryway is even more inviting, with a host stand inside the front foyer.  Everything is wood, from the floors, to the stairs, to the walls, to the stand itself.

From the stand, you will be lead into several different adjacent rooms for seating, or, if you prefer, outside on the back porch.  I believe there were 3 inside rooms, plus the outside area.  The kitchen is also off this main hallway.

I'm not sure what is upstairs (do people live there?), but the basement also seemed used by restaurant staff.
Bar Area in 2nd Side Room.
The largest room, to the right of the host stand, also includes a bar, with counter seating for 4, plus the actual bar and espresso station.  The rest of the room is filled with small tables, I think mostly for two.

The room is bright any sunny, full of warm tones like the wide blond wood planked floor, light blue walls, white orb lights, and white accent work.  It featured a lovely landscape paining on the walls, a fireplace with light colored birch log, and fresh flowers on the mantel and along the windowsills.

I loved the decor, as it felt so warm, welcoming, and really like stepping into someone's home, albeit one with lots of dining tables.
Small Side Room.
My mom and I were seated in the room across the hall.  This room was smaller, with only 5 tables, but these tables mostly for groups of 5.  There was only one other party seated in this room with us, which lead to a really intimate setting, perfect for catching up on my first night in town.

The decor in this room was similar, but with slightly more darker, bolder tones.  Thinner planked wood floors, dark green wainscoting and picture rail, larger, darker light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

We also had a non-functioning fireplace, mirrors, and artwork on the walls.
Back Patio.
Out back is a (yes, wooden) patio, overlooking the river, with metal tables and chairs, little lights, and red umbrellas to match the doorways.

Folks out here seemed mostly to be having drinks, but we were offered a place out here for our full meal, if we had wanted.
Table and Place Settings.
Our table was natural wood, complete with knots.

Tables were set with cloth napkins, water glasses, and each had a vase with fresh flowers (unique on each table).

Chairs were also wood, darker.  I thought they were fine, but my mom really wanted padding.
Bathroom.
I don't normally include photos or bathroom reviews, but I found even the bathroom charming, again, it felt like I was in someone's house, with a old style mirror, and real hand towels.
Bill.
The charm extended even to the bill, delivered on a wooden (yup, more wood!) clipboard, with a smile and message from our server.
Leftovers!
I'm pretty sure I've NEVER included a review of the leftovers before, but, I couldn't get over the fact that each of our boxes came labelled with the restaurant name, date, and contents.

Of course, for completeness, I'll say that the contents weren't actually packaged up very well, e.g. the pesto dipping sauce was just in the box right along with the veggies, rather than separated out into a little container, etc.  And I did transfer everything to proper storage as soon as we got home, so the labels were entirely unnecessary, but, I thought it was a nice touch.

Drinks

Water was house still or sparkling, both complimentary.  This is something I really appreciate at any restaurant, not just for the cost, but also, so much waste from plastic bottles!

No carafe was left on our table, and my water glass frequently ran out.  I rationed as best I could, but still went empty, and needed to ask for refills more than once.
Wine List.
The wine list is limited.

3 whites available by the glass (one on tap), and 3 by the bottle (two of which are the same as glass offerings).  One rose.  4 reds by the glass (again, one on tap), and 5 by the bottle.

There were strangely no years given on any of the listings.

I was pretty surprised by the list given that one of the owners is a Level II Sommelier, and is passionate about wine.  Perhaps this is just the offerings as they get started, and will expand when they are able?  Or maybe it is highly curated?
Beer, Cocktails, Mocktails.
The beer and cider list was similarly small (4 beer, all local) and two ciders.

The bar program was no slouch though, 6 house cocktails, all with fun names, and interesting ingredients (e.g. Beet Shrub in the "Beeting Heart", local honey in the "Mint to Bee", and more).

Most impressive though was the "Hold the Booze" section.  I'm always appreciative of having non-alcoholic offerings that aren't just Pepsi products.  Here they had "Sodas made with magic", housemade mocktails, iced tea, and some high end bottled sodas (maple soda, Maine root beer).
Montsable Chardonnay, Languedoc, France. $8.
The cocktails sounded fun, but, I wanted only one drink for the night, and opted to go for wine as I thought it would be better to sip alongside my meal.

I asked my server for more information about the white wines, wanting something not too dry, but also not too sweet (my mom wanted sweet though).

Our server wasn't really sure how to answer us, and sent over the Sommelier, who gave us a description, and then just offered to bring us tastes of each, one in each glass, which we shared.  once we picked our selections, she came to just fill those glasses, rather than bringing fresh ones, which I saw as sensible, but I'm sure others might not.

My mom went for the sweet option, from Argentina, and enjoyed it.  I opted for the Chardonnay.

Neither were very good, and I wouldn't want either again.

The Food

The reason we were there, of course, was the for food.  I couldn't wait to experience Chef Peter's food again!

The menu is seasonal, local, and constantly evolving, as you'd expect from a farm to table place.

The savory food menu is broken into 4 sections: Cheese + Meat (basically, a build-your-own charcuterie platter section), To Share (appetizers portioned such that they should be shared), Supper (regular dinner entrees), and Daily Requirements (extra sides of vegetables).

My mom and I agreed to just share everything, and knew we wanted dessert too, so we got just one appetizer (which we were warned was really quite big for only two diners), one main, and one side.  Portions were all quite generous, we were both more than full, and we went home with plenty of leftovers.

Our server asked if we'd like it coursed out as the To Share dish first, and the Daily Requirements with the Supper, which is what we did.  Pacing was good.
Menu.
For a starter, I was drawn in by a few items.  The smoked tomato salmorejo sounded unique, and I was interested to see how it compares to gazpacho.  The cheese and meat lineup was also quite temping, high quality locally produced cheeses, and, house cured meats?  Yes!  In particular, I was eyeing the duck liver pate, particularly once the table next to us got it.   My mom of course put in a vote for the roasted beets (her favorites, but, sorry, just not my thing), or the tuna poke (since she had her first poke with me {at Pine, on my last visit}).  But we opted for the signature dish (or, at least it seems signature to me!), the Farm Share.

Picking a side dish was a no brainer.  We had no need for the tender green salad or baby zucchini + roasted turnip salad, given our giant platter of veggies as a starter.  The heirloom tomatoes, from the local farm down the street, were appealing, except, we literally had plans to go pick strawberries in the morning from that very farm, and to stop at their farm stand after to buy heirloom tomatoes.  We'd be having those at home the next day.  Which left one item: fried garlic scapes.  Which sounded awesome anyway, even if they weren't the only real option for us.

Selecting a Supper was nearly as easy as picking the side, even though there were substantially more options, 7 total, one for each major category: two vegetarian items (one pasta, one bean based), two seafood (one shellfish, one fish), one beef, one chicken, one pork.  The protein options were all fairly classic, nothing too out there, although the creativity of the kitchen shined in the accompaniments and prep.  The beef sirloin doesn't just come with a side of mashed potatoes and uninspired daily veg, but, rather, kale + garlic scape salad, and horseradish aioli.  The fish is tuna steak, served grilled, with charred scallions and smoked chilis.  Oh, and the token veggie pasta dish?  That would be house made stinging nettle dumplings, with brown butter, sage blossoms, and ricotta.  Oh yes.  I nearly ordered that.  But how could I order pasta, no matter how interesting it sounded, when there are scallops on the menu?   Luckily for me, when I proposed this choice to my mom, she immediately said, "oh good, if you said anything else, I was going to say we were sharing".
House Sourdough & Butter.
Soon after we ordered, a bread presentation arrived.  I was going to say "bread basket", but it wasn't a basket.  A ... box?  A wooden tray, with cloth napkin, and warm, house made bread.

And ... it was sourdough.  Doh.  I just don't like sourdough, so I didn't try it.

My mother however loved it.  She wanted to devour the entire bread box on the spot, and I warned her she should save space for the great food that lay ahead.  She still opted for a second slice, and, loved it.  She said it had a great chew, great crust, amazing flavor.  All I could smell was sourdough, and even the smell I dislike.  I'm glad she enjoyed it though, and I give Wild Roots points for serving house made bread, and serving it warm.

The butter I did try, and it was fantastic.  Local whipped butter, perfectly soft and spreadable, and it melted nicely into the warm bread.  It was sprinkled with generous amounts of sea salt, which amped up the flavor.  Seriously quality butter, and, when my mom asked to have the final slice of bread boxed up, she also asked for the rest of the butter.  I don't blame her.
To Share: Farm Share. $14.
"Abundant vegetables, herb dip, bagna cauda."

We went for the Farm Share, mostly because I'd seen photos of it, and, because I was excited to celebrate local vegetables.  Yup, I ordered a giant plate of vegetables, not quite the decadence I normally opt for!

I think my mom was a bit skeptical about this order, as the menu didn't say much.  Our server did describe it, and some of the veggies that would be on it, and let us know that the herb dip of the day was basil salsa verde, and educated us about bagna cauda (I didn't bother cut her off, I'm familiar with it), but still, if you hadn't seen a photo, this might not make sense.

Our server also warned us that it was quite large, particularly for only two people.  "But, don't worry, we have togo boxes!", she chirped.  She also warned the party of 4 next to us that it was large, and it was then that I got concerned that maybe we were crazy for still ordering it as only two people.

When it arrived, we barely knew what to do.  We just had to take it in.  What on earth was in front of us, besides an overwhelmingly large platter of seemingly grilled veggies?  The server who brought it out just said, "here is your farm share", without describing anything, or, giving us a chance to ask.  I wanted to know what was on it!

And so we began our adventure in discovering this dish.  What exactly did we have?

Strawberries.  Zucchini.  Carrots.  Broccoli.  Cucumbers.  Those were all easily identifiable, and grouped together in little piles.

A little harder to spot was the basil, just because sprigs of grilled basil was a bit unexpected.  Pea pods were easy to pick out, once we found them.  Unlike other items that were grouped into sections, the whole pea pods seemed to be scattered about, underneath other things.

I finally saw the purple bell pepper our server had mentioned, there was only one chunk, but it was large.

Garlic scapes.  A green succulent, that I later confirmed was purslane.  All sorts of edible flowers, including editable chive flowers.

So many colors, sizes, and more.  Everything was grilled, except some of the flower petal garnish.  Everything was beautifully seasoned with large chunks of salt.  I loved the salt level.

I'll admit that I wasn't actually excited by most of the vegetables on this platter.  I don't really care for zucchini, carrots, broccoli, cucumbers, or bell peppers.  Doh.  They were all fine, nicely cooked, with beautiful char marks and grilled flavor, but, just not veggies I was hoping for.  I appreciated that the mini zucchini still had zucchini flowers attached.  I like strawberries, but they did seem a bit out of place on the platter, pickled green strawberries would make more sense perhaps?  They did add a nice pop of color though.

The garlic scapes were a good flavor, but a bit chewy, as expected, much like when my mom had them in her salad at Worthy Kitchen (review coming soon!).

What I ended up enjoying was the more random stuff, like the basil.  Just, simple, grilled basil.  Who knew it could be so tasty?  I really liked the grilled chive flowers.  They were super charred, and I just thought they were awesome and unique.

But the best element for me?  The purslane.  I couldn't get enough of it.  Juicy and crispy, and something I'd love to throw into more salads.  I wasn't quite sure what it was, and asked someone who came to check on us, and he said it was a succulent, but he didn't know what.  I said I thought it might be purslane, but he really didn't know.  I later confirmed that it was.

"You have to dig around a bit", said my mom, as she found a pea pod, "it's just like being in the garden!"  I think really summed this the dish up well.  It really connected you to the garden, to the farm, and to looking a bit deeper to find the goodies you wanted.

The veggies honestly didn't need the dips, as they were so well seasoned, but, I'm a sauces and dips girl, so of course I tried them, particularly as my mom couldn't stop talking about how much she loved the salsa verde.  I'll admit, it was quite flavorful, and I loved the garlic in it.  She didn't care for the bagna cauda, "that doesn't excite me at all", she said, going right back for the salsa verde.

Overall, this was a unique dish, and I'm glad we tried it.  It felt good to eat veggies, and not just a salad, and I'd love to see how this evolves as the seasons change.  We made what barely seemed like a dent in it, and thus went home with a big pile of grilled veggies, which my mom threw onto a bed of mixed greens for lunch the next day, mixing the leftover basil salsa verde with a bit of olive oil to make a vinaigrette that matched perfectly with it.  This meal just kept on giving!
Daily Requirements: Fried Garlic Scapes. $7.
"Lemon mayo, arugula." 

From lovely grilled veggies to fried ones, served with mayo sauce.  Now this was starting to look more like a Julie meal.

This was an incredibly fun dish.

First, lets just talk about the execution of the frying.  They were perfectly crispy.  But moreover, this was some of the best fried batter I've ever had.  It was expertly seasoned, incredibly flavorful, with a bit of kick.  It stuck to the scapes well.  I don't even like chicken, but this made me want fried chicken.  (Side note: honestly, this chef could open a fried chicken place and be crazy successful).  Seriously, amazing fried job.  I hope he keeps a seasonal fried side on the menu always.

I can safely say this is the first time I've ever had fried garlic scapes.  And, it totally worked.  The thin pieces reminded me of onion straws.  The bigger curled chunks were juicer, and more like an onion ring.  I liked them both, equally, and for different reasons.

But, I forgot to mention one thing.  This was more than just fried garlic scapes.  It was ... fried *pickled* garlic scapes.  Another dimension thrown in, transforming this not just into a play on fried onions, but also a play of fried pickles, which seem way more common around New Hampshire and Vermont than I'm accustomed (seriously, on menus everywhere, like Millstone at 74 Main, where I had them for perhaps the first time).

Now, for a bit of critique.  When I get a fried appetizer, it usually has a dipping sauce.  And this did come with lemon mayo, except that it was a thin layer in the bottom of the dish, not a sauce on the side.  I realize that this was a side dish and not an app, and that the fried scapes were actually so delicious that I didn't *need* to drench them in aioli, but, I found it a bit hard to get to the mayo and slide my scapes through it when I wanted to.  The mayo itself was fine, very lemon forward and herbaceous, more interesting than just plain mayo.  I think a garlic scape aioli would be more fun ...

And finally, the menu said the dish had arugula in it.  Ours had no visible arugula leaves, so I'm not sure where that was.  It did however have some lightly charred flowers.  Which I loved.  I wonder if those were arugula flowers?  They very well might have been.  Again, since our dish was presented without description, I wasn't able to find out.

Overall, this was quite fun, and quite successful.  A play on fried onion strings, onion rings, and pickles, all at once, made with seriously the best fried chicken batter I've ever had.  Hard to stop eating, but actually, my second favorite dish, because our entree, which arrived alongside, was even better ...
Supper: Cape Cod Sea Scallops. $29.
"Kohlrabi salad, smoked bluefish, mustard seeds."

 It had been far too long since I had a New England sea scallop (these were indeed from Cape Cod).

The serving was 5 seared scallops, plated over the kohlrabi salad (which turned out to have lots of cucumber in it), with more purslane (yes!), a light cream sauce with the promised mustard seed in it, and, two large chunks of house smoked bluefish hiding under the greens (not visible at all in this photo).

The scallops were very good.  Large size, clearly fresh, very flavorful.  I loved that they had a bit of a meaty character to them, if that makes sense, mixed with a subtle sweetness.  The sear, on only the top side, was a good hard sear.  They were properly seasoned.  Cooked through, but not rubbery.  Overall, obviously a good quality product, well prepared, although, I do prefer my scallops mid-rare.

The kohlrabi salad I didn't care for though.  I like kohlrabi, and was looking forward to the refreshing crunch, but, the cubes of kohlrabi just didn't do it for me.  They were soft rather than crunchy as I was hoping, and the salad was equal parts sliced cucumber, of which I'm not a huge fan.  Maybe I was just sick of veggies at this point?

But ... I again adored the purslane, so maybe not.  It was so fresh, so flavorful, so crispy.  With the very light sauce, which had a bit of kick to it, this was a fantastic mini salad on its own.  A bite of scallop, with some purslane dragged through the sauce, made me quite happy.

But this dish kept on giving.  Smokiness was brought in through the chunks of house smoked bluefish.  Lovely smoky flavor, mild fish.  Add a bit of that to the aforementioned bite, and then it was even more perfect.  I loved the smoky element.

Overall, a wonderful dish, even if I didn't personally want the cucumber and kohlrabi salad.
Dessert, Cheese, After Dinner Drinks Menu.
I was already quite satisfied with my meal, but, I don't ever skip dessert.  Ok, not quite true, but it is extremely rare.  While I appreciate my local seasonal veggies, and the quality seafood, I'm a sweet tooth at heart.

I asked to see the dessert menu in advance, when we ordered our mains, so I knew how much "space" to save, as if that is even really a question with me.

The dessert menu included coffee drinks (including pour over), tea, and some cheese selections, plus 5 sweet options.

Sweet options were house made ice cream in a few flavors (not really something I ever order at a restaurant, ice cream has its place, obviously, I eat it near daily, but restaurant dessert is not it for me), 3 types of cake, and a seasonal fruit crisp.

If you've read my blog much, you probably know which I went for.  I'm just not really a cake girl.  I don't eat chocolate (caffeine) at night, so the chocolate molten cake was out, although the table next to us loved theirs.  My mom likes olive oil cakes, but for me, that is about as boring as a dessert can be, and didn't ever register on my radar.  The final cake was a grilled pound cake, served with grilled strawberries and lemon cream.  This also didn't cross my radar, meh to pound cake in general, except the table next to us did get it, and I'll admit, it sounded fantastic.  Grilling pound cake, and serving it with sides like that, might just elevate it enough for me!

But, we went for the fruit crisp, strawberry rhubarb, even though my mom correctly noted, "uh, you don't really like rhubarb?"  She is right, but I tolerate it, particularly when mixed with strawberry, and, well, I love fruit crisp and ice cream!
Something Sweet: Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp. $8.
"Molten wheat crumble + brown butter ice cream." 

Our crisp was delivered piping hot, in a crock.  Yes.  Points for this.  Seriously, why bother serve a cold crisp?

The ice cream clearly was just added before serving, as it wasn't melted at all, a perfect little scoop.  It did quickly melt in, and, we wished we had a second scoop.   I didn't taste brown butter necessarily, but it was a smooth, creamy ice cream, not too sweet, and complimented the sweet crisp filling well.

The crisp filling was ... mostly rhubarb.  My mom commented on it immediately.  We had trouble finding much strawberry.  Mostly little chunks of rhubarb, clearly stewed in sweet syrup though, as it was very sweet overall, not much tartness.  It really needed the aforementioned ice cream to cut the sweetness.  A bite of the fruit filling on its own was pretty intense.

And finally, uh, my favorite part of a crisp: the topping!  It was described as "molten wheat crumble", which, I'll be honest, I don't know what that means.  Did it just mean ... molten, as in, hot?  If so, why was that modifier on the "wheat crumble" and not the "crisp", like the molten cake?  Or did it, more likely, refer to the type of wheat, and was a misspelling of "moulton wheat"?  I dunno.  Whatever it was, it was more whole wheaty, and just totally delicious, large chunks on top.

The only problem?  There wasn't much of it at all.  The surface area of the crisp wasn't huge, and, as you can see, the topping didn't extend to the edges.  My mom's comment, as she had a bite of the crisp topping, "Wow, that's really good crumble ... when you get it."  Both my mom and I loved the crumble, but only had about 2 bites each.

My mom appreciated the size of the dessert.  We shared it easily, and it left us both satisfied, but not too full.  She acknowledged that sharing probably wasn't necessary.  It is nice to have dessert portions that aren't monsters, since, often, no one else wants desserts but me, and restaurant desserts are usually too big for just one person.

Overall, this was a fine dessert.  We left satisfied, but, it wasn't a dessert I'll rave about.  A bit too sweet, not enough crumble, and a fruit I don't love.   Lots of promise here though.
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