Each year I head over to Europe just before the tourist high season kicks in. For me it is a great time to visit winemakers and the most agreeable time weather-wise before the heat becomes a factor.
This time when I returned from Italy/Ireland/Spain in early June, Pata Negra had been running on fumes. My head waiter Gaspar had been ill from exhaustion, and the search for capable server staff had proven futile. This was a blessing in disguise of course, as I was able to take the reins for nearly two months straight. There is something to be said for getting back in the woodshop, as it were, and I enjoyed a fruitful, albeit swarthy reintroduction to my customers. By the time the humidity cooled off in August I was gasping for some fresh air, peace and quiet. The North Fork looked good on paper, but this late in the season, there were slim rental pickings. I finally settled on Vermont, a haven I am familiar with from past ski trips, and an unexplored territory for summer jaunts.
I did my research through VRBO and HomeAway. I found both sites full of options to my criteria. About four hours drive, secluded, but near a Lake, State Park, and half hour drives to towns and points of interest. Got a hit on HomeAway for a chalet in Ludlow, surrounded by trees and Okemo mountain range.
So with a rental car at Hertz, GPS, and old school maps, we (girlfriend Michelle and I) were Vermont bound. We took Routes 684 to 84 to 91. Save for two traffic construction delays we hit Putney in four hours. Why Putney? For Curtis BBQ of course. Right off Exit 4 juxtaposed to the Mobil gas station is Curtis BBQ, two school buses painted blue and reconfigured to serve as kitchens. Park the car, step up and order. Then head over to the man-made BBQ pit and watch Curtis work his magic alongside his guardian pig C.J. You can get ribs or chicken, slathered with Curtis’ special sauce. When you chat with pit masters like Curtis I often get the sense that they have something figured out in this life, that time spent barbecuing is time spent thinking wisely. Curtis is a master and an evolved soul. When the grub is ready, you pick a park bench with the least amount of flies and critters and chow down. Falling off the bone chicken with perfect degree of smoke, tender rubs slathered in that special finger lickin’ sauce. Plenty of good sides like baked potato with all the trimmings, corn on the cob, or potato salad, all washed down with beer you bring or Vermont style root beer and sasparilla sodas. Satisfaction Guaranteed.
The house was better than advertised with a huge porch and backyard facing Okemo. During the day, the trees communicate by shaking in the wind. At night it’s just you and the stars.
Now I had been to Ludlow before and knew of some staples, such as Singleton’s in Proctorsville where you can get all the meat you need for the grill. The Hatchery is also a go to place for standard Vermont breakfast. Goodman’s American Pie is still cranking out the best wood fired pizza pies. The Wine and cheese shop still offer a great selection of both. Got some cheese from Jasper Hill. The wine selection was also varied and well chosen. I even found some Poiré from Eric Bordelet.
We had a really nice lunch at Heritage Deli, perfect Reuben sandwich and feathery French toast, but we found ourselves returning to the Country Girls Diner in Chester, taken over last summer by you guessed who (country women), offering fabulous blueberry pancakes and pies to boot. It’s the kind of place run by the ladies that you could see yourself going every day for breakfast or lunch. I didn’t have the courage to try their monster (two grilled sandwiches between a burger or eggs), but enjoyed the regular sized food very much.
We dined at the Inn at Weathersfield, one of the quintessential farm to table restos Vermont is known for, and had a very balanced meal. A half bottle of Bauer Gruner Veltliner and Begali Ripasso paired well with the New American cuisine of Chef Jason Tostrup . The trout was clean, crespelle plate cleaned out and short ribs succulent. Chef Jason is still on his game.
At Manchester, after an afternoon of outlet shopping, there is a new Mediterranean themed menu anchored by pizzas named Depot 62. Sit down on the furniture (everything is for sale), order a glass of wine and browse, the pieces offered are artisanal and eclectic, albeit pricey. The hummus is good, the tagines earthy, and the pizza tasty. Depending on how much wine consumed, you might leave with a piece to put in the trunk.
Even found a legit place for lobster rolls at Bob’s Antique shop, another dual business model where you can peruse through a large house of great antique pieces and nosh on a meaty and well-seasoned lobster roll. One night we ordered a couple of three pounders, took them home for a steam with some corn, and delighted in some succulent lobster meat with drawn butter. Paired great with young Muscadet.
By far the most cherished discovery is The Downtown Grocery, across from the wine and cheese shop. The team at this humble eatery is top-notch, from Chef Rogan Lechthaler to Matthew on cocktails, to Abby working the front of the house. We were in Vermont a week and visited three times. Had they been open Tuesdays or Wednesdays, make that five. What is the formula for their success? Real cooking, great hospitality and sincerity. The menus changes slightly, nightly. One night a porchetta, the next magret. Start off with steamed pork buns, or a luxurious corn soup, or spicy mussels with a curry aioli. Specials included Plew Farms chicken crostini and Long Island blowfish tails. Finish with buttermilk bacon ice cream or ginger lemongrass sorbet. There’s a value mind-blowing $25. Prixe-fixe. Outstanding. I don’t know how they do it.
One night at the bar, Matthew poured us some of his fishhouse summer punch, a great expression of his techniques and bartending skill. We tried most of the cocktails on the menu. They would stack up to any mixologist in New York. Like I said, sad only in that they closed two days before we departed back for NYC.
Perseid painted the night sky dreamy for us one starry evening, trailing trains of wishes on those bright tails. We sipped Croft Vintage port and wondered at the heavens, how small we all are in the grand scheme of things.
A week later, on our way back to the grind and the city of hustle, we stopped of at Curtis again for take out, along with the obligatory maple syrup and jams, so Vermont could linger just a bit longer with us when we got home.