I tend to be a bit cynical when a restaurant repeatedly gets rave reviews. It can’t possibly live up to its billing, especially in Vermont, where it’s a struggle to put the whole package together. You might get great food, but the service often can be amateurish. I’m generally not a huge fan of the lackadaisical, under-trained waitstaffs that populate most Vermont restaurants. Or, vice versa, good service, mediocre food. It’s rare that Vermont establishments get it right on both counts.
So I’ll admit that it was with a jaded eye that I continually read the raves for Hen of the Wood in Waterbury. We booked a 6PM table for Friday night (May 23), my wife’s birthday. Our favorite restaurant, Christophe’s in Vergennes, had closed a few months earlier, and we wanted to try something different, something outside the generally-routine realm of Burlington restaurants, especially since this was her birthday.
We were surprised to arrive to discover that Hen of the Wood was already half full of diners even at our early hour. The building is an old grist mill, and before entering, we took a walk around the front porch and looked back up on the beautiful falls with rushing water, it was quite a lovely sight and sound. Our table was near the window, the setting was simple and rustic.
My wife started with the “Hen of the Wood mushroom tartine”, with garlic, parsley, a slice of thick-cut Vermont bacon, on grilled bread. The mushrooms were visibly exotic and delicate. I assume they were local in origin, and they might have been wild, though I am not certain. They were delicious, as was the bacon slice (yum!), and the butter-drenched grilled bread.
I began with a crusted soft-shell crab, served with some sort of simple mayo/capers dressing. I’m not a big fan of dressing with my soft-shells, I like them straight-up, so I ignored the dressing. But the soft-shell was nearly a meal in itself, visibly a meatier, larger crab than the thin, nearly meat-less crabs I’ve encountered elsewhere. Every bite was a bit of soft-shell heaven for an enthusiast like me.
My wife’s main course was Wild Alaskan Halibut, served with a lemon-caper crème fraiche, and Proscuitto-wrapped grilled asparagus. She loved it. My main was smoked duck breast, with a stone-ground mustard spaetzle, topped with baby carrots and sage. It was divine. I’m almost at a loss for words how good my main dish was, and I’m almost embarrassed that a restaurant cynic like myself could be at a loss to find appropriate superlatives to use in this narrative.
The duck was smoked, though very subtly, not at all overpowering. The skin was crispy, the meat was cooked perfectly and just as tender and succulent as one could hope with a duck breast. The surprise star of the meal for me was the mustard spaetzle. How such a humble side could enhance the duck simply astonished me. The spaetzle was so fresh, so tasty, and that mustard “twist” in its preparation made it really special, and enhanced the overall unique taste appeal of the entire duck main course.
Our waitress also was superb. She was clearly well-trained, and exceptionally knowledgeable about the food and the wines that they served. Their wine list is excellent, populated with American wines from the west coast. I did not see any offerings from France, Chile, Australia. That posed a bit of an issue for me, since I prefer French wines, but I understand that they tend to be poor values given the abysmal dollar-to-Euro exchange rate these days. So I asked our waitress if she had any pinot noir she could recommend that had a similar taste profile to French Burgundy, with its mineral flavors that are usually lacking in west coast pinot bottlings. She recommended a 2003 Vista Hills pinot noir from the Willamette Valley, which she said had a slight ‘peppery’ taste that was somewhat reminiscent of a Cotes du Rhone, yet was 100% pinot. She also said it would complement my duck perfectly. When the wine arrived, I was very impressed. She knew exactly what she was talking about, it was a lovely and tasty wine that satisfied my Burgundian preferences as a very worthwhile substitute.
My wife passed on dessert, but I chose the rhubarb tartlet, with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. It was good, though the tartlet itself lacked the crispy outer shell I would have preferred, it had a softer ‘muffin-like’ or ‘cake-like’ texture.
Our bill, including 20% tip: $208, which included that $72 bottle of wine. Frankly, given the exceptionally high quality of the service, and the freshness and thoughtfully different, creative food, that’s a bargain in my book. This was truly a great dining experience for us.
There is one major caveat about our dinner experience that I want to bring to readers’ attention, and to the attention of the owners of Hen of the Wood. This restaurant is not easily accessible for handicapped people. There is a very daunting double set of stairs that lead down to the restaurant from the upstairs lobby. Worse yet, the stairs are very dimly lit.
My wife is visually impaired, and struggles mightily to see in low-light situations, such as hallways, stairs and the like. In the case of Hen of the Wood, we had called a week in advance and asked for a well-lit table, explaining my wife’s visual impairment. Unfortunately, the person who took our reservation never mentioned the stairs, and they were quite a shock to find and try to navigate safely when we arrived.
The restaurant owners could take simple and relatively inexpensive measures, such as install proper lighting on the staircase, and use some sort of contrasting reflective tape on the steps themselves instead of keeping the existing black-on-very-dark-brown color scheme. Instead, what they have accomplished, apparently in the name of low-lit ‘romance’, is create a frightening black abyss for people like my wife. She was forced to walk down those stairs one-by-one, exceptionally slowly, with me explaining to her where each step would be, and she would gingerly feel with her feet to find each step, since she couldn’t see any distinguishing features of the steps. It was an unnerving, and unnecessarily frightening introduction to our first visit to Hen of the Wood.
These same steps will also be a problem for anyone who has trouble walking (broken leg, or using a cane or walker, for instance), so visitors should be forewarned to take whatever precautions you need to take. There apparently is no alternative handicapped-accessible entrance, or at least, none was offered to my wife. It is my sincere hope that the owners of Hen of the Wood see this and take a more proactive approach that would demonstrate a measure of respect for their physically-handicapped customers.
With that said, I must say, Hen of the Wood justified every ‘rave’ review I’ve previously read. If only there were more restaurants in our neck of the woods who did it this well. Bravo, Hen of the Wood!