A Star Is Born

by Amy Ephron
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It isn’t just tulips that bloom in May, it’s also asparagus season.  And it turns out fiddlehead ferns grow there, too, (as well as in Maine, Brenda.)  And apparently it’s artichoke season.  And there’s a dedicated movement in Vermont at even the most modest establishments to shop locally and only use fresh ingredients, it’s ingrained in them.  

foodstand.jpg It was raining on the drive up (let’s face it, it rained all week, it rained on us in three different states one day), but right off the highway we had the good fortune to encounter Harlow’s Organic Produce Farm and Café (an indoor café and market) which is somewhere around Bellow’s Falls and which harkens back to the Alice Waters theory that it’s all about the ingredients and we had the best veggie wrap we’d ever had (either of us) in our entire lives just because the cucumbers were right out of the field and so were the carrots and the sprouts and the Vermont cheddar cheese and it didn’t have any mayonnaise on it and, I think, even the weird pita wrap thing was fresh-baked.

And then, that first night, it was raining -- but we’d been in the car way too long so we grabbed umbrellas and walked across the Village Green in Woodstock, Vermont to a little establishment, a restaurant and small hotel, called The Lauren.  The concierge at our hotel, the Woodstock Country Inn, said she couldn’t recommend it as the hotel had just reopened and she’d heard a new chef had started a few days before but the menu looked interesting and it was across the street...

dining1.jpg There were a lot of things about it that were incongruous and out of place with the white tablecloths and elegant sconces.  For one thing, the chef kept popping out of the kitchen to check on the diners of which there were only 6.  And Debbie, our waitress, looked like she was fresh out of central casting for a diner or else she’d worked there for a long time and hadn’t quite caught up to the fact that the place had had a face-lift, but boy, did she know her wine, and she was ebullient about the food that we were about to eat.

It started with the olive oil.  I’m not a big fan of olive oil.  But this was the olive oil that made me understand (not necessarily what we were doing in Vermont) but what olive oil is really about, I don’t know what herbs the chef had added to it but it was served with very thin slices of bread, sour dough and whole wheat, so you didn’t feel incredibly guilty that you couldn’t stop dipping it in the most amazing olive oil you’d ever had.

Three types of salmon, home-cured (sort of like graavlax) that was skewered with a caper berry and a dollop, a rather large dollop, of crème fraiche; a thick salmon fillet with a teriyaki sauce but it was way better than that, and a salmon tartare with a fresh wonton rolled around it like an eggroll. And maybe a little bit of miso, I can’t remember.  But it was amazing.  Simply amazing.  And I’ve had a lot of salmon in my life.

laurensalad.jpg Anna, meanwhile, was losing her mind over her salad.  “Mom, what is this?”  And she held up a tiny delicate sliver of a yellow thing that was the tiniest baby summer squash you’d ever seen and so sweet and barely delicately cooked that it was hard to fathom it was only one of about 13 ingredients nestled on the ridiculously fresh organic greens.  “Mom, it has lima beans in it.”  And they were, also, fresh, fresh lima beans, and also barely cooked, somewhat al dente and a different color than the frozen kind.  And baby peas.  And a salad dressing so light and sparkly that it almost danced and reminded one that there are, in fact, alternatives to balsamic vinegar. 

One of the things that was so startling about the meal was how delicate the whole thing was, how the flavors stood out from one another and nothing was overpowering.  And there wasn’t a hint of garlic or onions anywhere, at least not anywhere noticeable.

laurenshrimp.jpgAnd then there was the halibut which we shared and which was served on a bed (or rather an underlying sauce) of artichoke hearts, (fresh, yes, of course, they were fresh) with shrimp and white wine.

At which point, I did something I’ve never done before, because I’m not really a foodie, I’m just a person who likes food and even though I have a food web-site, we don’t generally review star chefs but...I asked for the Chef’s name. 

And Debbie said, “You know, I don’t really know his name, I better go check I’ve only worked with him for two days.  I mean he just got here.  I suppose I should know his name,” she said, “but I don’t.”

His name is Dennis Vieira.  And he most recently cooked at a restaurant in Killington, Vermont.   

Like I said, there was something oddly incongruous about it, almost as if we’d hit a magical night and if you sent someone back there, who knows what you’d get.     

menu.jpgWe studied the dessert menu which featured Lemon Scented Crème Brûlée, Dark Chocolate Mouse with Filo Crisps (yes, that's the way it was spelled), but Anna’s not eating sugar, so after we talked to him for awhile about the meal we’d just had and how amazing it was, I asked if he would make us a cheese plate and he did, and now, of course, I’m going to tell you it was the most amazing cheese plate I’ve ever had ever. 

All local.  All Vermont cheeses, a blue cheese, a smoked gouda, a cheddar but that doesn’t do them justice, I don’t even like blue cheese unless it’s creamy and this wasn’t creamy and I couldn’t stop eating it. 

lauren01.jpg And then I did something else I’ve never done, I asked to see the kitchen.  And there was something really strange about the kitchen.  Dennis was the only person in it.  And I can’t figure out how he made all those things…but he did.

Dennis says he trained in Paris and I believe him.  And he says he’s planning to stick around at the Lauren (unless somebody offers him something on the Ile-Ste-Louis).  So, if anybody gets up that way, would you let me know how it is…and if you’re anywhere within shouting distance (four or five hours away) it might just be worth the drive.  But call ahead because we had dinner there on a Sunday and Dennis said the next time he was planning to open was Wednesday…so, who knows?

 

The Lauren Inn & Restaurant
3 Church Street
Woodstock, VT 05091
802.457.1925

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