by Barbara Floersch
When I first heard that a new restaurant was going to take the place of Rivendell Books on the corner of Main and Langdon streets in Montpelier, I was excited. Montpelier has lost a number of good restaurants in the past few years: Cognoscenti’s (later Phoebe), The Black Door, Finkerman’s Barbeque (later Ariel’s Riverside Café) to name just a few, so the addition of a new choice was good news. When I heard rumors that is was going to feature “southern” cooking, visions of hush puppies danced through my head.
I’m a child of the deep south and a fan of “The Bitter Southerner” (bittersoutherner.com), a colorful website maintained by a somewhat rowdy group of talented volunteers working hard to illuminate the “duality of the southern thing.” Not all “south” is “Old” south, and there’s a new and exciting southern vibe in cooking. That said, you won’t be surprised that my idea of good southern cuisine is not necessarily “Old” south, meaning the coleslaw doesn’t have to taste like my Aunt Vivian’s, the fried chicken doesn’t have to taste like my Mama’s (as if any other fried chicken could), and stewed okra is not absolutely essential to the menu. So long as the menu aligns with my memories of a warmly hospitable southern kitchen or a church dinner served hot “on-the-grounds,” I’m more than glad to welcome a new take on the old classics.
Down Home Kitchen is fresh, a little hip and obsessed with authenticity — not so much to a regionally focused cuisine, but to the background and experience of the owner, Mary Alice Proffitt. Proffitt grew up and learned the restaurant trade in Atlanta, Georgia, and came to Montpelier via the vibrant food scene in Asheville, North Carolina.
When we arrived shortly before noon, Down Home Kitchen was already crowded and noisy. Unless we were willing to wait a while, we were destined to sit at the bar on stools fashioned from what appeared to be old tractor seats, or elbow to elbow with other folks at a long community table, neither of which appealed to me. We ultimately chose the community table, which turned out fine because, as we say in the south, everyone minded their own business. On another visit, we scored a private table by a window that gave us a commanding view of Montpelier’s main intersection and provided plenty of people-watching fun.
The lunch menu is somewhat austere, with four “meats,” four “sides,” and a biscuit or cornbread to select from in making up your own mix-and-match “Meat and Two” plate. Other than that there’s a salad.
Catfish was something we had regularly at home, and the fried catfish here didn’t disappoint. It was tender, moist and flaky with a minimal cornmeal crust. The coleslaw was tangy and only slightly creamy (not the “drowned in mayonnaise” version I dread) with a somewhat pickled foundation that included onions. The potato salad had fresh herbs and was lightly dressed with a creamy concoction that somehow included vinegar. The corn bread and biscuits were light and tender — the cornbread almost too tender as it tended to fall apart as I smeared it with butter. Mercifully, the butter was at room temperature.
To my southern palate, the fried chicken missed the mark. Although the skinless and boneless chicken thighs were moist and tender, they were so heavily coated that the crust became the predominant experience. In every transcendent fried chicken experience I’ve ever had there was a delicate balance between crust and bird with the chicken taking the lead. And for those who are white meat lovers, thighs may not work.
The real surprise at lunch was a dessert of apple pie. Although I never had that growing up in the South, this pie had possibly the best pastry crust I have ever had. If Mary Alice could just dump some pecan filling into that crust, we’d be talking!
Breakfast is served till the restaurant’s mid-afternoon closing and the menu is more robust than lunch, with lots of change-it-up biscuit options, omelets, pancakes, sides and even a breakfast salad. Between three of us we tried the biscuit with sausage gravy; “the Southern,” composed of fried chicken, a biscuit, cheese grits and two eggs; and the biscuit benedict, served with Virginia ham, poached eggs and home fries.
The breakfast was good and certainly hardy. Although I wished the sausage gravy was a little more spicy, the hollandaise a little thicker and the chicken less battered, the eggs were cooked beautifully, the biscuits wonderful and if you haven’t tried the cheese grits, you really should.
The prices are not out of sight, but they are somewhat high. And while the service was friendly, it was somewhat slow on both of our visits.
As a new restaurant finding its footing, I expect the pace of service will pick up and the lunch menu will evolve over time. The lunch menu is fun, it’s just limited — no small appetizer-type plates and scant foraging for those who choose to eat on the light side or vegetarian.
A restaurant focused on any distinct regional cuisine is bound to raise some unrealistic hopes from natives of that region. I longed for some of the quirky regional specialties that are so good and would be so unexpected here in New England — fried green tomatoes, collards and ham, fried okra, field peas, grated corn, sweet potato dishes.
One small, new restaurant can only do so much as it is figuring out what sells and what doesn’t. Fried green tomatoes with hot relish may not sell, but they sure would remind me of home. And I sure do miss my hush puppies!