Star chef Aaron Josinsky puts a Topnotch on his belt
Courtesy of Jessica Anderson
Following the Vermont restaurant scene can be like watching a high-speed game of contact musical chairs. Right now, the game has landed chef Aaron Josinsky at the Topnotch Resort and Spa in Stowe, and we wanted to see what he’d do there.
First, some background. Late last March, when Mark Timms, then Topnotch’s executive chef, assembled a group of elite local colleagues to cook a dinner at the James Beard House in New York, Josinsky was among them. The two men have very different styles — Timms was known for his avant-garde experiments and elegant spa cuisine, while Josinsky made his name with rustic food at Burlington’s Bluebird Tavern. But Josinsky, a Beard Award nominee, had the chops Timms needed for what he called “Team Vermont.”
What a difference a year makes. Timms left Topnotch in August and is now executive chef at the venerable Jockey Club in Washington, D.C. In November, Seven Days broke the news that Josinsky had left Bluebird. When he was replaced by Michael Clauss, previously of the Daily Planet, fans of Josinsky’s farm-to-table fare wondered where he would land next.
Turns out, he has taken Timms’ place at Topnotch — but as a temporary consultant. Earlier this winter, with the title “seasonal chef,” Josinsky began putting his mark on the menus at Norma’s Restaurant and the casual Buttertub Bistro, joined by his wife and former Bluebird manager, Laura Wade. The pair will leave the resort for their next, yet-to-be-named project in April, leaving longtime chef de cuisine Cortney Quinn at the helm.
It seemed only appropriate that we have a taste of the new Topnotch. Would Josinsky’s hearty, Italian-inflected Vermont tastes play just down the hall from a spa? Would his style even be recognizable in the fancier food? The answer is yes on both counts.
At 8 p.m. last Wednesday night, the high-ceilinged dining room of Norma’s Restaurant was more than half full of families and couples, both young and old. Wade was dividing her time between the hostess stand and the well-equipped bar.
She prepared us an apple cider martini with local cider and cane-sugar alcohol. The cocktail was strong but went down with smooth warmth.
The current drink menu predates Wade and Josinsky’s arrival, but Wade says she’ll soon conceive her own cocktails for Norma’s. Judging by her popular signature cocktails at the Bluebird, they’ll appeal both visually and otherwise. One look at the flower-filled hot toddy featured on Wade’s blog, boozeblock.com, would drive anyone to drink.
A server by the name of Kevin greeted us with joie de vivre and described the specials, which included a pasta starter and the night’s market fish, served with “horseradish-spiked cauliflower silk” and arugula citrus salad.
As they’ve always been, Norma’s entrées were divided into “on the land” and “by the sea” categories. One difference — two of Josinsky’s four fish dishes included pork. One, the Chatham line-caught cod, contained chunks of smoked ham hock along with braised cannellini beans and kale. Kevin admitted that many conservative diners elect to try the dish sans pig.
But, since fondness for hogs is part of what sets Josinsky’s cuisine apart, we ordered the PT Farm braised pork shank. Another braise — Boyden Farm short ribs with housemade spaetzle, red cabbage and sage-walnut butter — was sold out.
Though butter and herb-roasted Misty Knoll chicken with chorizo and cornbread pudding piqued our interest, the steak frites won out. The unconventional take on the classic bistro dish included one of Josinsky’s signatures: roasted bone marrow. Clearly, this was a must-try.
Ordering the special pasta carbonara appetizer was also a no-brainer. Josinsky’s gnudi and hand-rolled garganelli were standouts at the Bluebird.
Though he’d left his stamp on the menu, the “seasonal chef” himself wasn’t working in the open kitchen that night. Quinn floated between the upstairs open kitchen and the downstairs prep kitchen, while evening supervisor Matt Lunde appeared to have charge of the à la minute prep of dishes.
Under his watchful eye, our refined carbonara dish arrived with surprising speed, even before we could finish our bread. The latter was delivered in a metal cone, the individual pieces wrapped in a cloth napkin. Half were sharp-tasting little cheese biscuits; the rest, slices of ficelle were fun to dip in the three-sectioned glass receptacle that offered a choice of sweet, whipped butter, rich olive oil, and hummus lightly kissed with horseradish.
We finished most of the bread quickly and dug into the strands of fettuccine. The pasta was the Platonic essence of al dente, and the carbonara was quite unlike the classic thick, eggy sauce. The perfect noodles were bathed in lightly creamy citrus and speckled with fresh chives. These bright notes were balanced by ample shavings of aged Parmesan and plenty of deeply smoky chunks of crisp bacon. At $19, it wasn’t a cheap way to start a meal, but it could not have been more rewarding.
While the appetizer was on the expensive side, prices at Norma’s have dropped overall. Many entrées on last fall’s menu were in the low-to-mid-thirties. Now the most expensive is the $29 filet mignon, with most dishes ringing up in the mid-twenties.
The $24 pork shank was among them. The cross-section of pig was cut osso bucco style and braised accordingly in a rich brown sauce. Like the pasta, the pork was cooked just until it no longer needed the touch of one of the mighty, Gurkha-style knives brought to the table right before the entrées were, but it remained beautifully moist.
Raffishly strewn over and beside the meat were cippolini onions caramelized into utter agrodolce submission. The sweet and sour flavors blended with the simple braising jus and crispy citrus gremolata rather than overpowering it. Another light touch was an artistic smudge of silky parsnip puree. The presentation was attractive, but the dish might have benefited from a little more of the mash.
The plate of steak frites was even more elegant. A towering marrowbone loomed like a nuclear reactor over the sirloin and pile of fried fingerlings. It seemed the intention was that bone should overshadow meat.
Certainly, it was the first thing on the plate I tried. After giving it a sprinkling of rough Maldon salt from a small bowl — also on the plate — I tore into the soft, pink marrow.
Like a savory pudding, the bone’s contents were creamy and comforting. Having fought off a pair of overeager non-Anglophone bussers to keep the remains of my bread, I was glad to spread the marrow on some ficelle. Though the chunky little fingerlings were almost meltingly soft from their duck-fat frying, they, too, benefited from a slathering of salt and marrow.
The steak itself had a thick knot of gristle running along one end. This was easily carved away, but it left an even smaller portion. Cooked just over my requested medium rare, the meat was still juicy and got a delightful shot of bright flavor from the parsley, thyme and lemon butter. Overall, though, I found the meat a bit dry and would have preferred it with more sauce than grew naturally in the cow’s bone.
Dessert more than made up for the lack of liquid. I never turn down an opportunity to order chocolate-covered profiteroles — here, a trio of miniature pastries filled with three different housemade ice creams.
Kevin informed us that the night’s scoops were vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, which left me confused at finding raisins in one of the profiteroles. Another had chocolate chips but didn’t appear to be chocolate ice cream. The pastries themselves were more crisp than airy.
Of course, none of this mattered once I poured the fudgy chocolate sauce over the plate. Norma’s should bottle the stuff. It should be in every American home. So thick, so smooth, so dark, the sauce didn’t seem to belong on the same planet as Hershey’s Syrup.
A warm pecan tart was another lovely way to end a meal. Tasting fresh from the oven, the toothsome dessert sat in a pool of not-too-sweet caramel sauce, topped by the same cinnamon-flavored, raisin-speckled ice cream that appeared in one profiterole.
By meal’s end, it was amply clear that Josinsky had worked some of his magic on the menu, adapting his rustic Bluebird style to the upscale resort.
The Bluebird’s signature fried-herb frites accompany Norma’s burger, and Josinsky’s flavors here are similar to those at the Bluebird, but at Norma’s they’re a bit cleaner and more mature, not greasy. Timms’ snazzy plates and cutlery remain, presenting an elegant palette for the refined dishes on offer.
Those in search of Josinsky’s more tavern-style fare will find it in the cozy Buttertub Bistro, which has begun serving housemade charcuterie alongside its traditional burgers and fondue.
Timms’ fare and Josinsky’s are no easier to compare than apples and oranges, but diners win either way. Before long, Quinn will once again be on her own, and her track record suggests she’ll excel. The New England Culinary Institute grad impressed celebrity chef Todd English, for whom she worked in Boston before returning to her native Vermont.
And, of course, we’ll be watching Josinsky and Wade’s next move.