- 11 Center Street, Brandon, VT, 05733
(Published in 7 Nights 2005-06)
Before last July, Brandon was best known for its downtown truck traffic problem. Now the little burg between Middlebury and Rutland is on the map for its moules marinières.
Chef Robert Barral took a huge risk when he opened Café Provence, an unabashedly French restaurant, in a working-class town of 4000. Indeed, the former executive chef at New England Culinary Institute has learned a thing or two about catering to Vermonters. Along with entrées such as braised veal osso buco and medallions of venison, the menu lists four pizzas. You can take one home for $9.95.
Better to stay, though — especially if you've driven a hundred miles round-trip for breakfast, as one retired Burlington couple does weekly. With big windows on three sides, the brand-new 105-seat eatery is airy and inviting. An outdoor patio overlooking Brandon's Main Street expands the bistro's summer seating capacity to 145.
But diners don't go the distance for décor. They come for the first-rate food, which is prepared with professional flair in the restaurant's well-lit, open kitchen. Armed with a clipboard, Barral stands out in his tall, white toque amongst a staff of sous-chefs in Café Provence baseball caps. One minute he's arranging an "epigram" of lamb. The next he's sifting powdered sugar on a chocolate bombe dessert. The effect is NECI-esque.
But Café Provence is strictly a mère-and-père operation. Barral makes table-side appearances. His hand-picked wine list features only family-owned French vineyards. And the café's well-trained but unpretentious waitstaff freely express themselves.
Cassoulet? The server makes a compelling case for tomato-based ProvenÃ§al stew with duck confit, rabbit and venison sausage. Later, she talks up the leftovers. "It's even better the next day," she advises, "reheated, in front of the TV."