Burlington's Old North End finally has a market to serve its growing population of Africans. "It's becoming big: Sudanese, Somali," proprietor François Nsibienakou says of the Queen City's changing demographics. A fellow Congolese in the brand-new Africa Market adds more countries to the list: "Guinea, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali." Essentially, Nsibienakou is catering to an entire continent in the oddly shaped storefront at the corner of North Street and North Winooski Avenue, where portable metal shelves offer everything from dried beans, hot sauce and tins of Nido-brand powdered milk to cosmetics and a large selection of music and movies. Here there is not one but two copies of a film about deposed Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko -- in French. After living three years in Vermont, Nsibienakou realizes the market is more than a source of cassava root and varieties of palm oil. "It will be a place like community," he says. "When they come here, they see, 'Oh, you're here, too.'" . . .
The 28-year-old Middlebury Natural Food Co-op predates almost every other groovy grocery in the Champlain Valley. Last month it finally got a facelift. Now, with double the space, the formerly funky food store looks like... Burlington's City Market. The concrete floors, exposed ductwork, hanging lights -- and, alas, the congested parking lot -- suggest it could be the work of the same architect. It's not. But here you can design your own flatbread sandwiches, and the eating areas are nicer, too, both inside and out. . . .
Up the road in Vergennes, Fat Hen has come to roost. Heidi Markowski's small but cheerful natural-foods market offers fresh local produce, bulk goods and an impressive array of cut-to-order meat and fish. Where else in Vergennes can you find sushi-grade tuna and steamers? With Christophe's, Black Sheep Bistro, Eat Good Food -- and now Fat Hen -- it appears the smallest city in America has one big appetite for good food . . .
Within free range of Burlington, choosy shoppers choose the Shelburne Supermarket. For years, the locally owned grocery has struck a perfect balance between gourmet and generic foods. Former co-owner Kevin Clayton used to buy the wine for the market -- the extensive selection is the first thing you see when you walk in. But now he's opening his own place nearby: a coffee shop and wine store complete with baked goods, cheese and wireless Internet access. He's trying to create a gathering spot in a town that too many people just drive through.
give a hooters? Vermont may have held out against Hooters longer than Communist China did, but the Wal-Mart of "sports bars" has finally scored one in South Burlington. Zoning Administrator Ray Belair confirmed that the chain restaurant known for its scantily clad waitresses will open "around February" in the Williston Road space formerly occupied by the Mongolian Grill. There was no regulatory dispute: Hooters earns 73 percent of its revenue selling food -- one specialty is a "tailgate" bucket of wings -- which qualifies it as a "restaurant." The Massachusetts-based owners easily obtained a liquor license to serve wine and beer. "The only permit they got from me was to do interior renovations, to the tune of $200,000," says Belair, who says he's not aware of any organized local opposition to the place. Funny, considering South Burlington went ballistic over Shaun Cliche's strip joint, Club Fantasy. Cliche has since taken his business to Plattsburgh, where there is, coincidentally, also a Hooters.
better butter Word is spreading about the butter made on Animal Farm in Orwell. Three years ago, Diane St. Clair started supplying Thomas Keller's famous French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. This year he opened a place in New York -- Per Se -- and at Keller's urging, St. Clair bought another cow to meet the increased demand. Every week she ships 20 pounds of butter to the French Laundry and 30 pounds to Per Se. That leaves a small amount for a "very expensive" hunting lodge in Colorado and a few pounds for the co-op in Middlebury. Now the Museum of Modern Art wants a piece of the fat action for an exclusive new restaurant opening there in January. But St. Clair is "maxed out" with seven cows and one bucket. Hey, maybe Vermont dairy isn't done for.
publishing entrees "We know, or think we know, where our food comes from. Food comes from farms. But what does this really mean to people? What should it mean? And why should we care?" A new Vermont-made book, Harvest, raises and strives to answer those questions by describing life on a small organic farm in Royalton. Formerly a journalist at the Valley News, Nicola Smith writes compellingly about the gore of animal husbandry, meteorological miseries and the relationship dynamic between young, educated Jennifer Megyesi and Kyle Jones as they try to live off the land. It's an engaging, ag-savvy read that offers flatlander-friendly insight into the harsh realities of farming. Even the gorgeous photos, by Smith's husband Geoff Hansen, confirm it's no picnic. Smith points out the irony: "People in cities... are enormously knowledgeable about their food... able to speak authoritatively on the virtues of artisanal cheeses from Vermont or Wisconsin or the South of France, heirloom fruits and vegetables grown in Napa and Sonoma, truffles or prosciutto flown in from Italy... and yet almost totally ignorant of what is required to grow that food." To discover what was required to write, illustrate and publish Harvest, check out book signings with Hansen and Smith on Thursday at the South Royalton Market, Saturday at the Norwich Bookstore or Saturday, November 27, at the Dartmouth Bookstore . . .
Got your organic pot roast, lamb shank or "end-of-summer green beans" in hand? Give braise. Molly Stevens' new cookbook makes a fresh case for an old method of cooking. "At its most basic, braising refers to tucking a few ingredients into a heavy pot with a bit of liquid, covering the pot tightly, and letting everything simmer peacefully until tender and intensely flavored," she explains in the opening section of All About Braising. It's a bit more complicated, of course -- there's a whole page on buying and cleaning squid -- but this cookbook never abandons you. A former instructor at the New England Culinary Institute, Williston-based Stevens is a great teacher. Sprinkled throughout are helpful hints about locating and preparing ingredients and "working ahead." Line drawings help with the how-to. But the four-color photographs illustrating each section of recipes are downright pornographic. Vegetarians will be cheered to find the first 60 pages devoted to mostly meatless dishes. Fennel braised with thyme and black olives? It could one of the dishes featured at a promotional dinner for the book on December 9 at Smokejacks in Burlington. In an article last week in the Boston Globe, Stevens explained how she fed a construction crew during the recipe-testing phase of the book. Three out of four of the guys were vegetarians. "Only in Vermont," she quipped.
triple shot In Montpelier, Capitol Grounds is coffee central. But something new's abrew in the city's cafe culture: In three short weeks, the "cooperatively owned" Langdon Street Cafe has become a happening place for hangers-out of all ages. Situated below a lefty bookstore, its woodsy charm and mismatched furniture are reminiscent of Muddy Waters. And like Burlington's funkiest latte locale, the beer and wine also flow here. In fact, evenings appear to be the thing. Langdon Street's late-night hours and occasional live concerts are signs of real nightlife in a town notorious for shutting down at sunset. "The only place you could go was Charlie O's or McGillicuddy's," Langdon's Wes Hamilton says of the two bars that dominate after-dark Montpelier. "Or an expensive restaurant. I think we're proving how big the thirst was." Local teens are also eating up the cookies, scones and grilled-cheese sandwiches. The only downside: Currently, the "cafe doesn't open until 11 a.m. . . .
The new Howard Bean doesn't get cranking much earlier than that. By 10, the coffee machine is rocking at Riverwalk Records on State Street. Patrick Mullikin decided to start selling self-serve coffee "as another way to bring people into" his all-vinyl enterprise. In the back of the store, he's got a couple of small tables and four brewed Green Mountain blends. He must have been buzzed when he chose the name Howard Bean from 262 more apolitical suggestions generated by a contest -- including Bean Here Now, Sounds and Grounds and Long Strange Drip . . .
"We want a nice mix of red, white and blue" at the Black Door Bistro, Phil Gentile says of the crowd he envisions at his hip new eatery opening in the next few weeks on Montpelier's Main Street. But he describes the aesthetic in the two-story bistro-cafe as "retro Russian tearoom." Workmen are busily installing wood floors, one-of-a-kind lighting fixtures and other unique details in the walk-up space occupied by the original Julio's. Gentile was actually a proprietor of the place when it was Montpelier's Mexican-food Mecca. He also owned a piece of A Single Pebble before he sold his share to Chef Steve Bogart. Now the veteran Vermont restaurateur is partnering with Montpelier landlord Jeff Jacobs to create something the capital city has quite possibly never had: a club-like bistro-bar with an upstairs lounge. It's all exposed brick archways and horizontal mirrors and interesting art. Gentile hired Black Sheep Bistro Chef Michel Mahe to design a menu comparable to the one at his successful restaurant in Vergennes. Nothing costs more than $16 -- not even the pan-seared duck breast with pomegranate walnut sauce. Gentile predicts a couple will be able to wine and dine for less than $50. We predict the green-marble bar will attract late-night lawmakers accustomed to being chased out of Montpelier restaurants at 9. . . .
If, come morning, the Statehouse cafeteria coffee doesn't deliver the required jolt, there's yet another java joint coming to Montpelier. "I've heard espresso bar slash gallery," Langdon Street's Hamilton says of the coffee business slated for a Victorian home near the roundabout.
college cuisine Matthew Biette recalls the mystery-meat era of college cooking. "It could have been produced behind the wall or in some other country -- you never knew." As director of dining services at Middlebury College, his aim is to make institutional eating both appetizing and enlightened. Three years ago, Midd students started an organic garden to supply the college kitchens. A greenhouse heated by decomposing food waste -- the college composts everything -- grows veggies all winter. Twenty-six percent of what's for dinner comes from local farms. The wild salmon, on the other hand, is flown in from Alaska. "It's sustainable," Biette says of the far-flung fishery. "It's also better for you." The newest dining halls are more like distinct restaurants than cafeterias. The most popular one, at Ross Commons, has a Mongolian grill attended by stir-frying chefs. Also, slate floors and colorful china. An alumni magazine article described the overall impression as "a high-end food court designed by House Beautiful and catered by Wolfgang Puck." Coming soon: another state-of-the-art dining hall featuring a woodstone hearth oven. Biette says, "A lot of our students will apply to a Dartmouth or a Yale. What's going to make them come to Middlebury? If it's the food, that's fine by me."
hold the pastrami Water, water everywhere and not a bistro in sight. Food-wise, it's slim pickings on the Burlington Waterfront after Splash and Breakwater close for the season. Not for lack of interest on the part of local restaurateurs, however. Bill Shahady of Wine Works had designs on the Lake Street space formerly occupied by O. But landlord David Fassler, of child psychology fame, decided to take matters into his own hands. Actually, partner Rick Benson appears to be contributing the sweat equity on a new mystery eatery. Hungry minds want to know: "Will it be a high-end place or more family-friendly?" A little bit of both, according to tight-lipped Benson, who speaks for every first-time restaurant owner when he assures, "It's going to be a lot of things to a lot of people." . . .
A taller order could be finding the right restaurant for the massive waterfront development project at "Lake and College." Co-owner Melinda Moulton is looking for a "Muddy Waters type of place" that can serve the community and also the adjacent performing arts theater and cinema. That means long hours. "It was going to be a Jewish deli," she says, but the pastrami promoters changed their minds. "I would love to have a great deli where people could come in and sit," Moulton says, noting the third-floor space comes with some solarium seating. "It's a lovely space for someone with the right vision."
leftovers What makes some restaurants rise to the occasion while others fail in short order? In Vermont, eateries have to satisfy a price-sensitive, city-savvy population that even in Burlington is sparse. Despite the challenges, American Flatbread Burlington Hearth has been serving about 400 dinners on weekend nights since it opened in late May. "I think there was a family-friendly opportunity in downtown Burlington," says co-owner Rob Downey, noting most kid-proof places are on Shelburne or Williston roads. "And I think the market was ready for an organic pizza maker -- a place that felt both casual and elegant, where the owners really care about the food." . . .
It may be harder on the high end. Just up the street from Flatbread, it appears the elegant Iron Wolf restaurant is on the market. According to an online classified, the owners are asking $285,000 for the place, including furniture, fixtures, equipment and use of the name. Since it moved from its former Lawson Lane space -- now occupied by Opaline -- the upscale eatery feels more downtown Montreal than upper St. Paul. Co-owner Danny Sukelis denies the restaurant is for sale and claims the ad was a "mistake." . . .
If fine dining is tough going in Burlington, it can't be easy in Brandon. But Addison County foodies are drooling over Chef Robert Barral's 75-seat Cafe Provence. Formerly the executive chef at New England Culinary Institute, French-born Barral has carved a niche in an area more likely to embrace Freedom Fries. "Earlier today there was a gentleman who came to see me," Barral explains. "He said, 'We were starving for a restaurant like yours.'" One couple drives weekly from New Hampshire to patronize the place. A big-city food critic also paid Barral a visit -- look for the write-up in Wednesday's Boston Globe. . . .
Meanwhile, in Barre, the hot spot is Sean and Nora's -- an unpretentious, immigrant-inspired eatery that earned Vermont Magazine's "best new restaurant" accolade. There's a reason for the eclectic menu, which includes "N'Awlins Blackened Ribeye Steak," "Little Italy Lasagna" and "San Antonio-smoked Chicken Quesadilla." Proprietor John Mayfield named the place after his Irish grandparents. But it was Nora -- "the greatest cook I've ever known" -- who introduced him to dishes from all over the world. She learned from her neighbors in 1950s New York. . . .
Robert Fuller sure lives up to his name. It seems the chef-turned-entrepreneur has a hand -- or at least a finger -- in every edible endeavor in northwestern Vermont. He owns the business and the building at Leunig's. Also Bristol's Bobcat Cafe and Pauline's in South Burlington. He's still a partner at Gillian's and Snap's, and recently sold his share in Cubber's. Then there are the places he "supports," such as Nienow's Backhome Kitchen in Middlebury -- a tiny, but ambitious, take-out place right next to the Redemption Center at the north end of town. Twenty-five years ago, Fuller and David Nienow cooked together at Mr. Up's. Then Nienow went into food processing. His new project is a perfect marriage of manufacturing and retail. You can get a simple, self-styled sub to go for lunch. But it's worth waiting for a grilled creation, such as prosciutto di parma with artichoke hearts, sweet red peppers and provolone on sourdough. For dinner, Nienow goes all out with barbecue ribs, four-cheese lasagna and family-style fried chicken. Then there are pizzas. "The guy's got more equipment in there than I've ever seen in such a small space," Fuller notes. Fuller will need that kind of resourcefulness when he takes on his own next big project in 2006: joining the Peace Corps.