Burlington, Vermont is one of the most popular travel destinations in the region. Home to Champlain College, Bennington College, and the University of Vermont, it is the quintessential college town, with all of the youth and vitality (and cafes and clubs) that you would expect with that population. It’s location on the shores of Lake Champlain make it easily accessible by boat or by car. Many of those boats arrive from nord de la frontière in Quebec, which accounts for the French you will hear from the folks strolling through the popular Church Street shopping district. Others arrive from the “Adirondack Coast” across the lake on the ferry from Essex, NY. We had driven from Schroon Lake across the Crowne Point bridge and driven the hour north to our weekend lodging at the Hotel Vermont on Cherry Street.
The hotel is centrally located and in easy walking distance to the Church Street Marketplace, the ECHO Aquarium and nearby waterfront festivities, and many of the restaurants that were on our list for the weekend. There is a cluster of hotels right at the waterfront, including the Marriot Courtyard and the Hilton.
The Hotel Vermont, appearing on many “Best of Vermont” lists in travel magazines, had been on our wishlist of weekend destinations for years. It also has the distinction of being next door to Hen of the Wood restaurant, which, if truth be told, was the real reason for our trip to Burlington. The hotel has a modern look and feel, but warmed with lots of wood and New England accents, including doorman dressed in hunter red check jackets. The room rates are most reasonable, especially when compared to New York or Montreal.
Rooms were $200 on Easter weekend. Rates edge up to $300 during the peak summer season, but that is still half of what you would expect to pay for a luxury hotel in the city. In addition to the adjacent Hen of the Wood, there are two additional restaurants – Bleu, which focuses on local seafood, and Juniper bar and restaurant. We did stop for lunch at Juniper when we arrived. Do try the Champlain perch, fresh from the lake and not something you will see on the menu when you get back home. The burger was also top notch, made with grass fed beef from Templeton Farm in Montpelier.
It’s a short walk from the hotel to the lakeshore, where you will find a waterfront park and the ECHO Aquarium, focusing on the marine life of Lake Champlain. There are lots of exhibits tailored for younger children, in a hands-on format that reminded me of the Wild Center in Tupper Lake. From there it’s only a ten-minute walk to the Church Street shopping district, featuring hundreds of shops and cafes. You’ll find all of the usual suspects – LL Bean and Patagonia and such, but more importantly a nice selection of local merchants and Vermont craftsman. You will also find lots of free entertainment with talented buskers on every corner.
On our first night, we stopped in at a beautiful bistro and lounge called The Gryphon for a cocktail, before heading out to dinner with a friend who had recently moved to Burlington from Schroon Lake. There are many nice places to stop for a drink in Burlington. The Vermont Pub & Brewery offers flights of their own local brews in a classic alehouse setting. You can find the transported bones of an authentic Irish bar, along with the requisite Guinness on draft at Rí Rá Irish Pub, which also offers more upscale cocktails in a more elegant setting at The Whiskey Room next door.
The Vin Bar at 126 College Street was a wonderful surprise, as the nondescript storefront did a great job of hiding the treats inside. We were enticed by a sidewalk sign that simply said: “Soup of the Day ~ Wine” My kind of place. Sitting right up on the back bar near the front window was a gorgeous meat slicer, with a prosciutto sitting in place just waiting for someone to call its name.
The wine and tapas bar is run by the husband-wife team of Kevin and Kathi Cleary, who will help you with some very nice wine choices, guide you through the local cheese selections, offer some charcuterie, and importantly put that meat slicer to good use. A very nice way to spend an hour on a Saturday afternoon.
Leunig’s Bistro and Café in the Church Street Marketplace is a bustling “Have a reservation?” or fuggedaboutit Burlington legend. Scoring seats at the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail was a reason for celebration, but my request for a quiet table was met with a “You’ve never been here before, have you?” look from the hostess. It is as much a French bistro as the Moulin Rouge is a ballet, but I’ll give them French-influenced, and whatever it is, it works (and the kitchen puts out a great steak tartare).
The real reason for our trip to Burlington was to have dinner at Eric Warnstedt’s temple of New England cookery, Hen of the Wood. Like its sister restaurant in Waterbury, the menu is an ode to Vermont farmers and New England fisherman. Securing a reservation here takes a little patience and a little luck. The restaurants are among the most popular in New England, and there is good reason for that. You can have dinner at a table in the dining room, for which you must make a reservation. You can have dinner at the bar, but reservations are not taken for those seats. There are popular seats at a counter overlooking the kitchen, but those seats are not reserved either. So, you can arrive really early, or really late, and take a chance on getting a seat at either bar, or you can try your luck and reserve a table.
We were waitlisted for reservations on either Friday or Saturday night, and on Thursday we received a call that a table was available at 7 PM – prime time – on Saturday night. When we arrived, I noticed two seats at the corner of the kitchen bar counter, and the hostess gladly accommodated my request to switch and sit there. I imagine she was very happy to have the table back.
From our seats there we had a birds’ eye view of the evening’s activity, and an advance look at the specials. The setup reminded me of the kitchen bar at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. The wood fired grills could be raised or lowered with a hand-cranked chain, allowing the chef to add coals as needed without disturbing the meats. If dining out has become theater, then we were about to see the best show in town right from the stage.
The local, sustainable ethic at Hen of the Wood is complemented by a talented kitchen whose mission is to let the quality ingredients speak for themselves. The preparations are elegantly simple. Take a farm fresh product – whether it be a hog or a bean – and prepare it in a fashion that showcases the hog or the bean, not the seasoning, not the sauces, and certainly not some crustacean foam ringing the plate. Add a little salt, a spritz of olive oil, add heat, perhaps a little smoke and serve. The hog is hanging in the walk-in, which you can peek at on your way to the restroom. Or not. Trust me, they know how to butcher a pig. They process the whole hog, nose to tail.
Our waiter, Graydon, told us about the evening special of roast cod. To be honest I was taken aback by this menu item, since local New England Gulf of Maine cod stocks are in steep decline and in need of protection. When we arrived home, I sent an email to the restaurant asking if serving cod was really in keeping with their “sustainable” ethic and reputation. What followed was a follow-up email from Hen of the Wood, then another from their fish supplier, Ethan Wood of Wood Mountain Fish in Boston, and then another follow up explaining exactly where and how the *Icelandic* cod was *line caught*, and only the head loins are shipped to the Hen of the Wood kitchens. Other fish may be sourced directly from Boston dayboats, but certainly never the cod. Thoroughly humbled and chastised am I. These guys are paying attention.
Another evening special was most appropriate for Easter weekend – roast rabbit. Grilled over the wood coals and then plated on a mound of pureed celery root and parsnip. It would be easy – and most enjoyable – to make a meal of small plates. We tried plates of fresh oysters, and grilled octopus, and a fantastic dish of eponymous sauteed hen of the woods mushrooms on grilled brioche topped with house cured bacon.
I think my favorite dish was the Tonno di Maiale, a riff on the Tuscan classic cured tuna loin, but here a house cured ham slowly braised in olive oil, and served with grilled country bread. I think I would drive over again to Burlington just for this dish. We decided to save our espresso and dessert for Bleu, the hotel restaurant next door, as our lunch waitress had told us about the jazz trio playing that night in the bar. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening to cap off a thoroughly enjoyable weekend. We will be back soon.