Taste Test: Hen of the Wood Burlington

Hen of the Wood in Burlington — Photo by Oliver Parini

Hen of the Wood in Burlington — Photo by Oliver Parini

BY CORIN HIRSCH [11.13.13] SEVEN DAYS

“Did you see the pig in the window?” asked my friend as he returned from the bathroom. He seemed both fascinated and slightly horrified.

I had. A trip to the loo at Burlington’s Hen of the Wood brings you face to face with tomorrow’s dinner: A window into the walk-in cooler shows you cylinders of head cheese and maybe a carcass hanging from a hook, ready to be broken down.

These are not just for show. Various pig parts figure prominently on the menu at HOTW, from fried head cheese to pork rinds to ribbons of ham served under feather-light squash fritters. Lamb parts pepper the menu, too, such as lamb tartare and velvety lamb ribs. Then there are beef, rabbit … you get the picture.

Many Vermont restaurants list their farm partners on a menu or chalkboard. The next step in strutting one’s local-meat cred may be hanging carcasses in full view of the diners. That practice is also in keeping with the whole-animal ethos of HOTW, which opened alongside Hotel Vermont on October 9. At this sleek new resto, a line of chairs facing a kitchen window allows butchering to become a spectator sport.

Tonno maiale — Photo: Oliver Parini

Tonno maiale — Photo: Oliver Parini

Burlington’s Hen of the Wood was arguably the city’s most eagerly anticipated restaurant this year. HOTW’s first location, in a former Waterbury mill, carries a certain mystique; wildly atmospheric and challenging to diners seeking reservations, the place has long been popular for special-occasion dinners. Chef Eric Warnstedt, a multiple James Beard Foundation Award nominee, is behind its resolutely seasonal dishes.

Two years ago, Warnstedt and the owners of Hotel Vermont announced that a second location of HOTW would open in Burlington in spring 2013. Then, in summer. Then, in early fall. So many delays ensued that, when the restaurant finally opened last month, the staff joked, “Finally, right?” on the soft-opening menu.

Once you see the place, you understand why creating it took so long: It’s stunning. Burlington’s HOTW takes Waterbury’s rustic ambience and embellishes it with sleek urbanity and visual drama, beginning with the two gas lamps flickering beside the front door on an otherwise dim stretch of Cherry Street. Inside is a sophisticated space of inky hues, hickory bars, leather chairs and low lighting. Wood fires crackle on either end of the room, and stacked wood lines the walls. Even the ceiling has presence — it’s crisscrossed with barn wood. Perhaps those beams help absorb sound, helping make the place a combination of sexiness and serenity with the sensibility of a postmodern barn — even though HOTW, with 95 seats, is twice the size of its central Vermont sister. Restaurant designer Scott Kester and crew did a phenomenal job.

The room has two focal points: Near the door stands a U-shaped bar lined with swiveling wooden seats; on the far side of the room, a dining counter fronts the open kitchen. On a recent evening, former Bluebird Tavern chef Paul Link stood at the open, wood-fired oven, loading steaks and fish onto metal shelves that he adjusted with a pulley. Around him, the rest of the line — including chef de cuisine Jordan Ware — languidly plated food. No one seemed harried, including Warnstedt, who stood on the other side of the counter expediting the process. Clad in a T-shirt, jeans, apron and baseball cap, the chef read orders to the crew and then studied the plates before servers whisked them away.

“I look calm, but I have butterflies in my stomach,” Warnstedt said. It didn’t show. The service ran like a well-oiled machine, with dishes arriving quickly and at perfect temperature. The staffers seemed to work as if telepathically; they appeared when you needed them and gracefully left you alone when you didn’t.

Away from the counter, the room was so dim that I noticed several people using their cellphones to read the menu. It’s divided into starters (such as oysters, pork rinds and a ham plate), small plates and a few entrées, along with a couple of desserts and a carefully curated list of local cheeses. My dining companion and I sat in the corner lounge near the fireplace, where the small plates appeared to us as blurs in the dusk, gently focusing our senses on flavor rather than on presentation.

Craggy Pemaquid oysters-on-the-half (the selection changes often) were crisp and briny, delivered with a delicate mignonette and an old-fashioned cocktail sauce. A pot of tonno di maiale, or wine-braised ham, bore a bay leaf on its glistening surface. The shredded ham, submerged in nutty olive oil, was luscious and velvety, almost a dead ringer for the tonno of its name. It was also tinged with garrigue flavors from chopped green olive and herbs. We piled it on garlicky triangles of toast daubed with grain mustard.

Lamb ribs resembled a pile of tiny meat flutes resting in a smear of crème fraîche. My lips had barely touched one when the crisp, wood-fired outer skin gave way to soft, melting fat. With veins of tomato jam cutting through and slightly sweetening the meat, they were good — so good that I sucked every bit from the bones.

I had high hopes, then, for a plate of wood-fired octopus with smoky and tender tendrils, served atop a sunchoke purée. Yet its flavors fell a bit flat — especially compared with the other, zingier dishes, such as paper-thin radishes tumbled with piquant anchovies and slathered in a quenching citrus dressing.

Fat, cream and salt are used to full effect in many of HOTW’s dishes. Some could use a touch more of the kitchen’s house-pickled and fermented garnishes, such as the plate of creamed, smoked bluefish piled on toast beneath ribbons of shaved celery. That was tasty but probably won’t reel me in another time. A side dish of cider-glazed radishes tasted undercooked.

By contrast, I probably could have eaten three more ramekins of shredded Maine lobster and an earthy parsnip purée spiked with sweetness and tang from pickled apples. Or of the amazing discs of breaded, fried head cheese served atop yet another vegetable purée, its gamey, savory, almost bloodlike flavors tarted up with pickled zucchini and peppers. Or of the delicate crêpes filled with chanterelle mushrooms, ricotta and squash and scattered across the top with singed corn. This meatless, beautiful, delicious dish was almost my favorite thing on the menu.

The hanger steak at HOTW was cooked expertly: charred and smoky on the outside, deep ruby and succulent on the inside. Marry top-quality, well-aged meat to a deft chef’s hand, and you get sublime moments such as this. It would have been perfect but for the smear of salty blue cheese underneath. Maybe it’s a personal tic, but I find cheese on prime steak distracting.

With all that flesh, fish and salt on the menu, thirst inevitably sets in. Perhaps the epic beverage list was created with that in mind. Two of the barkeeps, Megan Mcginn and Chris Maloney, migrated to HOTW from Bluebird Tavern. They draw on eclectic influences, ranging from colonial America (Switchel, Stone Fence, punch), to 1930s hotel bar (Corpse Reviver), to Compton (Gin & Juice). Local apples make it into Ancho & Apples, an earthy martini with a spicy edge, as well as into the sweeter Apple Daiquiri. A standout is the Hopped Cachaça, a frothy blend of the South American spirit with egg whites and a drizzle of bitters.

Wine director and HOTW co-owner William McNeil has put together a diverse wine list filled with of-the-moment bottles from the Loire Valley, Beaujolais, Sicily, Austria, Alsace and Piedmont. By-the-glass sips range from Domaine de la Paonnerie Beaujolais to Folk Machine Chenin Blanc from California, and include a pair of rosés. The bottle list veers from ultramodern (Dirty & Rowdy Sémillon) to classic (Domaine Louis Boillot Gevrey-Chambertin).

Even some of the excellent beers are served in wine glasses, a choice that kind of captured my heart. Dieu du Ciel’s robust Belgian-style quadrupel (Rigor Mortis) stands up mightily to the heft of HOTW’s dishes. There are also Heady Topper and a bevy of other craft beers on draft, cans of Schlitz and sharable large bottles such as Anadromous, a sour black Belgian from Anchorage Brewing.

Despite heartily imbibing at HOTW, I drank something else once I got home: a dash of bitters in seltzer water to ease the feeling that I was about to burst. It could have been the to-die-for dessert of molten brownie topped with pine-laced meringue; it could have been my overall gluttony. But all that wood-fired meat, the cream, the butter-soaked toast and melted cheese took their toll. I would have mixed them up with lighter plates, but there aren’t many on the menu.

There are chefs in town working with more restraint and and finesse at the same prices — dinner and drinks for two at HOTW could easily cost more than a Ben Franklin. Yet with its whole animals, wood fires, farm-sourced ingredients and servers in flannel shirts, HOTW captures the quintessence of Vermont dining in 2013. It’s not for the meat shy or the small of stomach.

Hen of the Wood, 55 Cherry Street, Burlington, 540-0534. henofthewood.com

The original print version of this article was headlined "Light My Fire"