Sampling fine dining from the cheap seats
It’s an open secret among in-the-know urban diners: Many top restaurants offer a bar menu, in the same space or an adjacent one, that features lower-priced options prepared in the same kitchen. Often those dishes are every bit as creative, and even as decadent, as the ones on the $180 prix-fixe menu. At the Bazaar by José Andrés  Restaurant in Los Angeles, for example, the Bar Centro  menu includes cotton-candy duck liver for $5 a serving.
You won’t find quite those extremes at Vermont restaurants, but the trick still works at many of the state’s more upscale spots. Some offer bargains that even skinflints can enjoy. Others simply provide similar fare with a more casual atmosphere and service at a markdown.
The Seven Days food team crisscrossed the state to find some of the best — and most delicious — high-end bar-menu deals to share with our readers.
115 Church Street, Burlington, 863-3759, leunigsbistro.com 
The demand for steak frites and soupe au pistou can sometimes be hard to satisfy at Church Street’s Parisian-style bistro. To handle overflow from the buzzing dining room, the restaurant added an upstairs lounge in February.
The unmarked staircase behind Leunig’s  downstairs bar gives the new space a speakeasy vibe — no password required. Upstairs, the angular sconces from Conant Metal & Light  and Mark Evans’ paintings create an ultra-luxe, art-deco feel, remarkably similar to that of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts . This is one of Burlington’s toniest watering holes, but the food prices don’t reflect the haute ambiance.
Jonah crab claws with orange-tarragon aioli are $14, but everything else — from charcuterie plates to Bayley Hazen Blue cheese-and-bacon dip — ranges from $2 to $8. Drinks are as pricey as those downstairs, but it’s worth the small indulgence to sip the St. Germain cocktail, an effervescent tipple made with its namesake elderflower booze and sparkling wine.
Though the Upstairs Lounge was designed as a place for diners to wait for a downstairs table, it’s easy to make a balanced meal from the snacks on offer. I started with an $8 crudité plate. The extra-large, canoe-shaped dish nearly filled a petite, two-person table. Raw red peppers, carrots, cauliflower and zucchini surrounded two glasses containing dips. The hummus was filled with parsley and spicy chunks of raw garlic, while the tangy cashew-herb “cheese” dip (so designated on the menu) had the texture of a light, moist mousse.
Real cheese is abundant on the menu, and not just in the aforementioned bacon-and-blue dip ($6) and grilled Vermont Artisan Cheese Toast Points ($6). Plates featuring a single local cheese come with fresh, flavorful fruit, homemade jams and chutney, and sweet cheddar crackers ($7-8). The French Onion Bites ($6) are a brilliant iteration of French onion soup. Chef Donnell Collins takes an escargot plate and fills each indentation with a housemade crouton, caramelized onions and just a bit of rich beef broth, then thickly blankets it with gratinéed Gruyère and Asiago. The hearty bites may not be the most nutritious option on the menu, but they will make you feel strong — or, at the very least, full.
The bites are certainly better for you than the decadent duck kettle chips ($7). Anyone who’s tasted the rendered duck fat surrounding a pan of cooking confits knows exactly what those potatoes taste like. Forget bacon grease; duck fat is the richest taste on the planet. That is, until you combine the cone of thick, crispy chips with its side of truffle aioli. The combo of mayonnaise and earthy truffle flavors with duck fat is culinary magic.
Desserts at the Upstairs Lounge offer a reasonable cooldown. Those girlie little macarons you’ve seen in pâtisseries? They’re double-size at Leunig’s and available in various flavors for $2 a pop. The strawberry-meringue cookie was candy colored and filled with butter cream that beautifully married berry and butter. A raspberry-flavore chocolate truffle tasted more of booze than fruit, but, like the macaron, was $2 and enormous. It was also one of the darkest, most intensely chocolatey truffles I’d ever tasted.
The damage, sans alcohol and before tip, was right around $40 for two hearty eaters. A worthwhile deal, when you consider that several entrées downstairs hover in the $30 range.
275 Main Street, Warren, 496-6350, pitcherinn.com 
The stately façade and clean lines of Warren’s Pitcher Inn  belie its history of hardship: a devastating fire in 1993 and, last year, flooding during Tropical Storm Irene. Nor does the exterior offer any clue that the ground floor holds a lounge called Tracks with the cozy feel of an Adirondack lodge, a menu of creative small plates and the same crisp-yet-warm service found at 275 Main, the inn’s upscale restaurant. Tracks is a relaxed place where you can hang your coat on the back of your chair but still soak up the Relais & Chateaux vibes, not to mention sample some seriously tasty food and local brew from Lawson’s Finest Liquids.
It wasn’t so calm last summer during Irene, when water from Freeman’s Brook behind the inn spilled over a retaining wall and into the building. Now Tracks, which bore the brunt of the flooding, is restored to its beamed-and-firelit glory. There’s an exquisite new pine bar, the Mad River mural has been touched up, and the walls are painted in warm tones. Even the antique pool table was salvaged and again offers entertainment, along with a vintage shuffleboard, in the Maple Room, a sort of lounge within the lounge.
The small plates at Tracks aren’t cheap, per se, but they have the same intense flavors featured at 275 Main, and they’re accompanied by the same imaginative cocktails, amazing wine list, and local cheeses and meats. Chef Sue Schickler’s menu is eclectic and sumptuous, with the simplest dish a quintet of crisp, maize-y hush puppies ($10) served with a subtly spicy mayonnaise. The rest is more opulent, such as duck rillettes ($10) — a luscious treasure of velvety, slow-cooked meat served in a ramekin beneath a half inch of silky duck fat. Smear some on a tiny toast, slather with a red-onion relish and a sharp little cornichon, and you may feel like singing.
Another standout is a wobbly, warm round of Maplebrook Farm  burrata topped with a heavenly sauce dotted with capers and bits of anchovy ($12). Fish and cheese rarely share airspace, but, after spreading bits of this gooey, briny cheese on charred toast, you’d swear they belonged together.
The burger is ubiquitous on pub menus, but its success usually relies on the quality of the meat. The Niman Ranch brisket used in Tracks’ burger practically melts on your tongue. It’s a little pricey at $14, but I inhaled every bite of the meat and the perfectly crisp fries nestled around it.
The inn’s desserts are made across the street at the Warren Store. They’re $10 each, but should you eschew a bowl of chocolate-rum ice cream because of price? No, you should not.
15 Center Street, Brandon, 465-8347, cafeprovencevt.com/center-street-bar 
The logo is a big, barrel-like mug overflowing with suds. The regulars are resolutely of the “Cheers” variety. The food comes from the kitchen of Café Provence upstairs.
Such is the odd mix presented by the Center Street Bar  in Brandon. Sports are on TV, and a chalkboard sign recommends Bud Light and Pabst Blue Ribbon as diet meals, yet the other, more filling options are prepared (or at least conceived) by Robert Barral, former executive chef at the New England Culinary Institute. He’s also the owner of upscale Café Provence  and the Gourmet Provence Bakery and Wine Shop  just down the road.
It’s clear that the brand-new Center Street Bar has already attracted a devoted following; many of them were sitting together at the bar the night I stopped by. I chose a table near the door and perused the menu — a succinct array of 10 items ranging from salads to pizzas.
I started with a Caesar salad ($6.95) best described as Romaine and cheese. The creamy dressing covered the lettuce like a silk robe, full of Asiago and garlic flavor. Mixed in were crisp, hearth-baked croutons. I’ve never felt more indulgent eating a salad.
Suddenly, my order of baked Brie ($7.95) seemed a tad redundant, but the uncommonly strong cheese served en croute had a character all its own. The buttery crust left no need for the crostini served on the side, but I was more than happy to scoop up dried cranberries and toasted walnuts to contrast with the footy cheese.
I was surprised to see the bartender slip my pizza into one of the commercial ovens beside the bar. He explained that some dishes are prepared at Café Provence in advance, then cooked or warmed downstairs. Perhaps that’s why the hearth-oven pizzas upstairs cost $5 or $6 more than those cooked below. Despite mild reservations, I was impressed by the pulled-pork-and-caramelized-onion Piggy Pizza ($6.95), which bears the more staid name BBQ Pulled Pork Pizza at Café Provence. The crust was a New York-style winner, so chewy that I was happy to eat the “bones.” The pulled pork was draped across the pie like soft, meaty candy, flavored with a sweet barbecue sauce characterized by aromatic cumin and a hint of spice.
The oven-reheated chicken wings were more successful than I’d expected, too. I chose to get my dozen wings ($6.95) tossed with Buffalo sauce rather than barbecue. This wasn’t just any Buffalo sauce, but was mixed with butter for a rich, fatty taste tempered by hints of vinegar and heat. Gorgonzola dipping sauce was like a tangy synthesis of ranch and blue-cheese dips, perfect for the carrot sticks that came alongside.
Best of all, I didn’t have to save room for dessert. I simply headed to the pastry case upstairs and took my chocolate roulade to go, buttery burn still on my lips.
326 Main Street, Norwich, 649-2922, carpenterandmain.com 
Until last week, the only time I’d ever occupied a table at Carpenter & Main  was a few years ago, on my birthday. Even though the restaurant is one of the finest of the fine-dining places in the Upper Valley, I preferred (and could more often afford) to take a seat at the bar for quick meals. Usually, that was a plate of duck confit salad and a glass of red wine — a meal so deeply satisfying that I can practically taste it as I write this.
Over the years, chef-owner Bruce MacLeod must have noticed grazers like me. He recently updated his bar menu to include graduated sizes and prices, from morsels ($4 to $6) to small plates ($8 to $15) to larger plates (which top out at $33 for Rabbit Three Ways). Now, more than ever, it looks like a classic bistro menu, with a boxed-off section for four different kinds of mussels and a column devoted to Plats du Jour. “My regulars are ecstatic about it, so I must be doing the right thing,” says MacLeod.
I love it, too. While snacking on crispy fried chickpeas ($4) with subtle Middle Eastern flavors, I soon found that even the smallest plates can be filling. Take the Mazzamuru ($5), a Sardinian bread casserole composed of a garlicky slice of bread drenched in juices from roasted tomato and spiked with Romano cheese. When I broke the poached egg that covered the entire thing, bright, golden yolk oozed into the dish, making it the best breakfast-and-dinner mashup you could hope to find. How I love thee, poached eggs over anything.
Another nod to vegetarians is a trio of glazed and caramelized tofu triangles, their corners crisped up and their insides subtly sweet and creamy. Even tastier were the tiny curried beer-and-potato minipies that resembled samosas; the zingy mint sauce spooned over the top brought the warm, savory fillings alive. You get three for $6, but you’ll want more.
The standout is borrowed from the entrée menu and, even at $13, is still a bargain: tender gnocchi bathed in earthy brown sage butter and nestled against wilted spinach and bits of tomato. It almost made the duck confit fade from memory. Almost.
7412 Mountain Road, Stowe, 253-3560, stowemountainlodge.com/hourglass.php 
Few dining rooms in Vermont are more majestic than that of Solstice at the Stowe Mountain Lodge, with its towering, Adirondack-craft-style walls. But the fine-dining restaurant’s bar is no slouch in the ambiance department, either. Overlooking the forestlike lobby, Hourglass  is all ski-chic sophistication, complete with fireplaces and a giant hourglass hanging behind the bar.
It doesn’t seem like the place to find a bargain, but bargains are relative. Hourglass is the kind of bar where a cup of soup and half sandwich cost $14, but artisan perfection is a guarantee — even when you’re not buying the $38 ribeye next door at Solstice.
A case in point: the $16 artisan-cheese and charcuterie board with which I began my meal. Dark, manly house prosciutto and Vermont Smoke and Cure ’s sharp pepperoni were simple enough, but the local and homemade accompaniments made the dish a winner.
Silken, burgundy-colored cranberry sauce went beautifully with the prosciutto and alpine Ascutney Mountain Cheese from Cobb Hill Farm  in Hartland. Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery ’s Bijou was irresistible atop grilled bread and drizzled with local honey and raw pistachios. Mild, almost sweet Lady in Blue from Westfield’s goat-tastic Lazy Lady Farm  paired gorgeously with dried cherries and raisins.
I would have been satisfied if the meal had ended there, but then I would have missed out on the Taste of Vermont flatbread ($15). The crisp, floury crust was topped with local apples, Vermont bacon and Cabot cheddar, a faultless combination. I improved it by dipping the shattering crusts in honey when the cheese and toppings were gone.
Hourglass guests order dessert from the Solstice menu. I was disappointed to miss the sold-out specialty Snickers Bar ($9), made with chocolate cake, peanuts, nougat and salted-caramel ice cream. The $12 dessert trio was a satisfying, if pricey, replacement. The artistic lineup included a sliver of chocolate cake decorated with blueberries and raspberries; and a petite round of puff pastry filled with banana, then topped with white cinnamon ice cream. But the winner of the three, standing appropriately in the middle, was a Bailey’s crème brûlée, ideally creamy with an almost microscopically thin sugar crust. An espresso Madeleine mitigated the sweetness, though it didn’t bring back any fond childhood memories.
That cheese board, by contrast, will surely cause me to wax Proustian upon my return.
1342 Route 106, Perkinsville, 263-9217, weathersfieldinn.com 
Since coming to the Inn at Weathersfield almost a decade ago, Chef Jason Tostrup has raked in the honors. Fodor’s named the inn’s Restaurant Verterra the best restaurant in Vermont; and, two years ago, Emeril Lagasse trekked here to cook with Tostrup. Together, they made country-fried quail and apple tart.
So you might expect the chef to have become a rarified guy, a man of ideas rather than execution. Not at all. The lanky, always-smiling Tostrup is equally likely to be spotted in the dining room chatting with one of his farm partners or in the woods leading guests to his secret ramp patch. On Verterra’s menu, Tostrup can definitely roll out some culinary bluster, but he and his staff pack just as much farm-to-table passion into the casual dishes offered inside the cozy, firelit back room called Lucy’s Tavern.
It’s a simple but solid menu: burgers, frites, fried calamari, Caesar salad and the like. Yet, no matter what you order, you’ll be pampered with particulars, including Orchard Hill Breadworks bread and the evening’s amuse bouche. On the night we visited, it was an artfully quartered deviled egg that had been spiked with Rabbi’s Roots horseradish and arranged on a plate with a cooling but sharp golden-beet confit and a buttery wafer. Umami, sweet, salty and tart flavors all shared the plate, not something you bank on when digging into pub fare.
Some dishes at Lucy’s can also be found on the Verterra menu, such as (on that night) a midnight-black lentil soup topped with a dollop of fresh sea-bass salad and drizzled with cilantro oil ($10). The fish brightened and fattened every bite of the earthy soup.
Next up were rings of calamari ($11) piled high in a newspaper cone; their outsides were crisp and peppery, their innards tender and fresh. The aioli served alongside was spiked with habanero pepper, sexing up every crunch of the baby squid. Also served in paper were light-golden, crispy frites ($5) dusted with parsley and served with a tangy mustard sauce that dwarfed their saltiness.
At $8, the towering Lucy’s cheeseburger is a steal: a grass-fed, Black Watch Farm patty slathered with caramelized onions and local cheddar, then loaded on a toasted brioche bun alongside a pile of lightly dressed baby greens. Each bite was so rich and wet that the juices ran down my chin.
We had little room left for our last dish, a bowl of housemade spaghetti drenched in a crumbly sausage Bolognese ($15), with melting squares of tangy farmer’s cheese and bread crumbs toasted on top. It was impossible to finish that, never mind one of the sumptuous desserts. Still, the chef sent out some Meyer-lemon sorbet that practically pierced our hearts with tartness. That’s the kind of guy he is.