Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bone Meal

We burst over to Poultney the other golden evening for dinner at the Red Brick Grill, something I’ve been meaning to do for some time, even before I walked beside a contented Stephen Chamberlain, a couple of months back, who was showing me, with obvious pride and pleasure, his Dutchess Farm. “Sharon,” he said, “I really encourage you to talk to Wendy and Frank, and go eat at the Red Brick Grill. It is exceptional food.” And, besides, they use LOTS of his product! But it wasn’t just Steve, because for the last couple of years people have been saying to me with a great deal of enthusiasm, “Have YOU been to the Red Brick Grill yet? Well GO! It’s wonderful!”

By “Wendy and Frank,” Steve referred to Wendy Jackson and Frank Rhodes, who replied to an ad by the Poultney Chamber of Commerce to make use of the renovated train station that they now call their culinary home. Although Wendy is the one who attended culinary school, it is Frank who cooks because, in Wendy’s words, “Frank has the most innate sense of flavor, texture, and combinations that I have ever seen! Every food he touches turns to gold. Cooking is a gift, not learned.” Frank attended Franklin & Marshall College and gained expertise in the culinary arts by apprenticing at some of New York City’s best kitchens, according to the Poultney website. Wendy is a graduate of Colgate University and the New England Culinary Institute in Essex Junction. Both have worked at some of the finest restaurants in Manhattan, Westchester County and Westport, CT.

It was May of 2005 that Wendy and Frank took over the Grill, July by the time it opened, and in spite of turning out much local food innovatively and expertly prepared and presented, there have been the same ups and downs that most restaurants travel, even those who aren’t a little ways down that road to Poultney. However, we tend to forget that Poultney is a college town, home to Green Mountain College, which has an Environmental Studies program offering a concentration in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Production, and thus spawns a community with an intense interest in good food. So the night we were there the little train station was glowing like a jewel, tables filled, murmurs of conversations in the air, smiles on the faces of our servers, and wonderful smells coming out of the small but ultra-efficient kitchen in the back, along with our bottle of house Cabernet Sauvignon.

That kitchen! There was a kitchen there when Frank and Wendy bought the place, and a very adequate kitchen at that, but it wasn’t THEIR kitchen, and so they made it theirs, with new configuration and appliances. At the same time, a brick wood-fired oven and wine storage, in which they also cure their house-made pancetta, were incorporated.

And now, from that kitchen, came two long ceramic-looking bones on a plate, accompanied by a sharp little mound of greens, for the appetizer I had ordered was os á moelle – roasted Vermont Marrow Bones, with coarse sea salt and garden parsley salad. I had never ordered marrow bones before: marrow is the guilty secret I consume in the kitchen when I’ve roasted bones for soup or stock, using a long-handled baby spoon to scoop it out of the bone, spread on some good bread, salted, and savored slowly. Marrow, of course, besides being fat, is full of all those good things that make bones – and you – strong! And flavor? Wow!! So here I was eating them in public, in the company of Leo and my dining companions who are the original “low-fat” connoisseurs.

But not yet was I eating them. I was still staring at them in some shock – two gleaming white bones on my plate with a little pile of greens. In its stark beauty, the picture belonged on a cookbook cover; but was there not a utensil with this, like that baby spoon, that would reach into the narrow opening and scoop out the good stuff? Our server, Emily, a student at GMC who is doing her thesis on the effect of the industrialization of certain food items such as the tomato, brought me an espresso spoon. Too big. I finally used the handle of the butter knife, which worked quite nicely, but I hoped that no one was looking – I had the awful feeling that I was making a gaffe! But the alternatives – pounding the bone on the table? putting it to my mouth and sucking? – did not seem any less raffish.

When I looked around for something to spread this lovely white marrow on, I found Leo gobbling up a small dish of crisps that had been left perilously close to the poor man’s place – he who had THOUGHT he would share my appetizer but wasn’t so sure of this one.

Obviously, I’ve never had properly roasted marrow bones from free-range veal before, nor had my companions, because that almost solid, very white, hot-from-the-bone stuff, spread on the little crisp, mounded, actually, then sprinkled with coarse gray sea salt, topped with a leaf or two of the astringent parsley, was like nothing I had ever tasted before. It wasn’t greasy, and the taste was not pallid – it was smooth and unctuous and totally flavorful. Even my rangy companions ate it right up. Later, Cynthia mused, “That wasn’t just marrow, do you think? There had to’ve been something added to it. “Just roasted veal marrow bones,” Wendy told me. “Frank soaks them in several changes of cold water, and then they’re roasted in the wood-fired oven.”

In the meantime, Cynthia and Alan were sharing an appetizer of hand-made ravioli gnudi: ‘naked’ ravioli with spinach and Dancing Ewe Farm ricotta, in a porcini cream, which I’d heard extolled far and near. It turns out to be the filling sans pasta pocket, very delicate in flavor and rich with the creamy sauce of porcini mushrooms.

We had chosen these two appetizers from a list that included a small Quiche Lorraine, chicken liver pate’, squash bisque, kataifi fried wild gulf shrimp with a garden salsa from their own field – kataifi being a kind of shredded phyllo dough; and a brandade of cod, potatoes, garlic and olive oil – each of which I aim to chow down on in the future!

For her entrée, Cynthia chose hand-made tagliatelle with ragu alla Bolognese, the pasta – again the word ‘delicate’ begs to be written, so here goes – delicate but with a definite bite, holding its own bathed in the full-flavored meat sauce. I can think of only one other instance of a pasta so tender yet with such presence – one that a friend, Ruth Cousineau, once made in strips to contain a wild-mushroom lasagna.

“It’s a regular egg pasta,” pasta-maker Wendy begins, then corrects herself, “No, I use an imported Italian flour – oo pasta flour.” She goes on to say how much she enjoys making pasta – “It’s almost a meditation.” Wendy also makes the bread that she bakes in the brick oven, and even sells some at Poultney’s Thursday farmers’ market, sometimes, in the summer.

Leo’s entrée of “moules frites” – a big bowl of steamed mussels with hand-cut French fries and aioli – was pronounced “very good” but he wanted more bread to soak up the sauce. What could I say about that, having almost pounded the table with a bone!

Alan’s crispy duck confit, with cider braised cabbage, bacon, fingerling potatoes and caramelized apples must have been very good because I didn’t get even a bite. It sounded good and it looked good but, as I say, I wouldn’t really know!

But I can’t blame Alan, because I was so intent on my boudin blanc – house-made Vermont veal and cognac sausage, with preserved-lemon mashed potatoes, and garlic spinach – that I forgot to offer anyone a taste until I was on my second plump sausage and had practically gobbled up the intriguingly lemon-scented potatoes and the mound of silky spinach. The sausages were plump and sizzling leaned up against the mound of mashed potatoes, and spurt their juices over them when cut into. This is not a Creole, but a classic French sausage, made of veal and chicken and fatback, mixed with milk, cognac, bread and mushrooms, flavored subtly with épices fines, poached in a milk bath and then grilled.

Tiny bits of preserved lemon are stirred into regular mashed russet potatoes, a classic example, I think, of Frank’s genius with combinations. I did not taste the texture of the lemons, just inhaled their perfume, and found it a curious yet addictive combination. And the spinach? Immensely pleasurable!

When I very tentatively asked Wendy if Frank ever gave out recipes, she said “Sure! What would you like?” And when I asked for the spinach recipe there was a stunned silence for a moment, and then she said, “It’s just sautéed with garlic, there really isn’t one, it’s just the spinach itself, Steve’s spinach, it’s so good.” She was talking about Dutchess Farm spinach. “I don’t know what he does to it. It’s creamy, almost mild, without that bite that other spinaches have. I think it must be his dirt. I was eating handfuls of it this morning while I was cleaning it.”

Indeed, it might be Steve’s dirt. The name Dutchess is given to a specific soil that he’s named his farm after that is conducive to growing vegetables, and it must work because Steve’s spinach, perhaps above all his other excellent produce, is famous far and near. And sometimes infamous, for it is expensive stuff. “It’s worth it,” says Wendy definitively.

We had chosen our entrées from a list that included Bucatini alla Amatriciana – a house-cured pancetta; a grilled tenderloin of beef with “smashed” German butterball potatoes and green beans, both from Dutchess Farm, with a sauce bordelaise; a grilled Vermont lamb steak; grilled mahi mahi in a Thai green curry/coconut broth with shiitake, cabbage, and rice noodles; risotto with wild gulf shrimp; house-made potato gnocchi with sage brown butter OR a ragu of Champlain valley rabbit, porcini, and house-cured pancetta; or a burger made of chargrilled Boyden Farm grass-fed beef. And that was only THAT night’s menu – it changes daily, according to what’s available locally in season. Wendy and Frank have numerous partnerships with local and Vermont, and just over-the-New-York-line farmers, and when they find a new product, such as the Dancing Ewe Farms Ricotta, they design dishes around it.

It was a very pleasant, an excellent and exciting meal, and after wishfully perusing the dessert menu we chose simply coffee and a small shared scoop of Wendy’s house-made Rum-Raisin ice cream, and then, delightfully surfeited, we found our way back down the winding roads to Wallingford.

The Red Brick Grill, 28 Depot St. Poultney VT 05764 is open for it’s winter hours, Thursday through Sunday from 5:30PM. For reservations call 802-287-2323. Appetizers $5.50-$9; Entrées $15.50- $26.50.

Red Brick Grill Native Garlic Spinach

If you don’t include the salt and pepper, this is a three ingredient recipe. Therefore, its goodness is dependent on the quality of the ingredients: spinach, garlic, extra virgin olive oil. Our spinach and garlic come from Dutchess Farm in Castleton (available at the Rutland Farmer’s Market). Now is peak spinach season; fall spinach tends to be the sweetest.

  • Wash and dry (either in a salad spinner or air dry) 6 oz spinach leaves, coarse stems removed.
  • In a large skillet, heat two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.
  • Add one heaping tablespoon paper-thin sliced garlic.
  • Just when the garlic begins to brown, add spinach all at once.
  • Season with salt and fresh ground pepper.
  • Turn constantly until spinach is thoroughly wilted.

Excellent on its own, as an accompaniment to grilled meat and fish, or tossed with pasta.

This column was originally published in the Rutland (Vt) Herald on October 23, 2007

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