Taste Test: Tourterelle
3629 Ethan Allen Highway, New Haven, 453-6309. Dinner Wednesday through Saturday beginning at 5:30 p.m. Sunday brunch 10 a.m. - 2 p.m.
When a successful metropolitan chef moves to Vermont to open an eatery, foodies who visit may find themselves setting the bar a wee bit higher than usual. I had great expectations when checking out Tourterelle, a new French restaurant located in New Haven on a stretch of Route 7 between Vergennes and Middlebury. Chef Bill Snell and his wife, Christine, operated two restaurants in Brooklyn that garnered plenty of online praise. Perusing the Brooklyn Paper’s website, I drooled over a description of Snell’s duck liver with raisin-brioche bread pudding and port-glazed leeks. I also read of black cod over lobster mashed potatoes with asparagus and a merlot demi-glace.
Three visits later, Tourterelle has settled squarely into my “It’s good” category, but this isn’t a restaurant that will lure me back time after time. Everything I ate tasted pleasant, and Snell’s kitchen technique seems solid: Vegetables and meats tended to be cooked properly, and I wasn’t pouring on the salt. Nonetheless, nothing transported me, although the rich, seafood-packed bouillabaisse came close.
A couple of glitches are forgivable in a newly opened place: A vodka martini, ordered dirty, arrived squeaky clean. One of my dining companions received a salad garnished with a medium-sized grasshopper. After the whole table agreed that such a thing could happen in any restaurant serving fresh, pesticide-free greens, the remaining salad was polished off in due course.
At Sunday brunch, one of our two orders was entered incorrectly. Instead of a duck-confit crêpe accompanied by a side salad, we received a duck-confit omelette with a side of home fries. When we pointed out the error, but noted that we didn’t want to waste food by requesting a fresh entrée, the server comped my husband’s cup of coffee (which he’d privately denounced as too weak). A free side salad or dessert would have felt like more generous compensation.
The confit itself was a bit dry, and the zucchini in the omelette didn’t add much to the mix. Happily, our second brunch dish — also an omelette, with a second portion of perfectly crisped, paprika-dyed home fries — was lovely. The fluffy eggs swaddled chunks of sweet lobster meat with fromage blanc and chives. The other a.m. highlight was an admirably mixed Bloody Mary. The balance of pepper, horseradish, tomato juice and vodka was so perfect that I would have drunk three if I weren’t such a Goody Two-shoes.
Snell’s use of classic French ingredients and dishes — “with a twist,” says Christine — does set him apart from the crowd. It’s unusual to see escargots in Vermont, and Tourterelle’s appetizer ($10), made with the fattest, blackest snails I’ve seen, is a zesty change from the typical butter-drenched version. The gastropods lay tumbled with wedges of garlicky sausage atop dense bread that appeared to have been warmed in a panini grill.
The bouillabaisse, which adds Thai curry to the typical tomato-kissed broth, was filled with pieces of tender fish, scallops, shrimp and mussels and laced with saffron aioli. I’d ordered an appetizer portion ($9), but after downing a few warming, moderately spiced bites, I wished I’d opted for the larger size ($18).
My entrée of moules frites ($16) — a bowl of saucy mussels with a generous serving of golden-brown fries on the side — didn’t assuage my regret. Although the mussels weren’t bad, their thin sauce tasted too strongly of wine and was studded with chunks of fresh tomato that qualified as gastronomic wallflowers — they were drab and unappealing. Sweetly concentrated roasted tomatoes, such as those found on Tourterelle’s lamb burger, would have increased the flavor quotient. While one dish on the “frites” segment of the menu came with an unannounced — but welcome — side salad, for whatever reason, the mussels did not.
Two fancier entrées proved more exciting than the moules, but not perfect. The venison meatloaf ($19) was a tad arid despite a topping of thick-cut Vermont Smoke and Cure bacon and a cherry glaze. Fortunately, the crispy potatoes on the side lived up to their name. I preferred the duck breast and Armagnac-laced duck sausage ($22), which came with mild sage spaetzle and tangy braised cabbage. The duck was slightly less pink than I prefer, and the cabbage could have used a hint of sweetness to balance the raspberry vinegar, but the ensemble was otherwise enjoyable.
Better still was the hamburger, made with Boyden Farm beef and topped with caramelized onions, bacon and Morbier cheese ($12). With a lightly dressed mesclun salad and fries on the plate, it made a satisfying meal.
Where there are frites there are condiments, and I was curious to see which this French restaurant would supply. But, oddly enough, no dipping sauces arrived with our plates. Perhaps when I requested a side of mayonnaise, my server concluded nothing else was required. Too late, I realized that the house-made aioli would have been more enticing.
Besides the salads, the menu listed four vegetarian items: two appetizers, one crêpe and one entrée. The tender roasted asparagus slathered with truffled Manchego and paired with a balsamic drizzle ($7) was worthwhile, particularly because the vinegar was above average. Despite its quality, the acidity overpowered the flavor of truffle in the cheese.
A wild mushroom Napoleon, layered with perfectly round cakes of polenta instead of the traditional flaky pastry, was more nuanced. The mushrooms were meaty and slick. The cornmeal patties had a deep grainy flavor.
The vegetarian entrée was fine but not thrilling. Called a Tartiflette ($16), the layered casserole of potatoes, vegetables and slightly bitter reblochon cheese came partnered with an endive-topped salad. It didn’t inspire gastronomic lust, but was both nutritious and a little bit decadent.
Tourterelle means “turtle dove” — the pairing-prone bird that has served as an emblem of love for centuries. While the inn’s website plays up its potential as a romantic destination, the décor isn’t frilly or feminine. The walls are painted solid colors, the menu is printed on creamy paper, and the floral arrangements are pretty without being gaudy.
But not everything fit the bill. On the first visit, my husband and I were seated near the front entrance in a narrow alcove with a glorious Green Mountain view. On our second and third trips, we sat in the main dining room, where we noticed an unusual and penetrating noise every few minutes. The first time, during brunch, I thought a particularly noisy child was the culprit. My husband assured me it was a squeaky hinge, probably located on one of the swinging kitchen doors.
Once I’d noticed the high-pitched sound, it was difficult to ignore, as such small irritants can be, and we continued to hear it at dinner the following week. While we laughed it off, couples in search of the perfect intimate date might not. Perhaps some WD-40 is in order?
One question that lingers after a trio of visits to Tourterelle is whether the chef is tempering his creativity as he feels his way into the Vermont market. The dishes on the menu are straightforward, reasonably priced and, save for the escargots, fairly safe: Few local diners are likely to turn up their noses at pan-roasted Misty Knoll
chicken (which I didn’t try) or steak frites.
If Snell is, indeed, holding back on his experimentation, I hope good receipts make him comfortable enough to add a few wilder dishes to the menu, or to spice up the more traditional fare. For now, I’ll stop at Tourterelle for a burger and a Bloody Mary or an appetizer and more of the delicious fish stew, but not for a special occasion. But diners who prefer well-made, classic French dishes to wild culinary adventures will probably like Tourterelle just fine.