Hen of the Wood, Waterbury, VT
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
- Robert Frost, Reluctance
Robert Frost and I grew up in neighboring towns, and despite the more than 100-year age difference, I’ve long harbored a little crush on the famous writer. So when I drove to Vermont last weekend, I couldn’t help but think of him, a man who left a legacy of affection for the Green Mountain state in the form of some of the country’s most famous and loved poems.
Driving through those rolling hills and bucolic open spaces, it was easy to see why Frost spent more than four decades there. I wanted to quit my job, buy a farm and spend my days baking bread and chopping firewood. I’d feed my children raw milk and home grown veggies, and at night after they were tucked into bed, I’d sit before a fire and knit everyone cozy blankets made from the wool of a neighbor’s sheep. Yeah, ridiculous.
Instead, I decided to play out my Vermont fantasy another way: I had dinner at Hen of the Wood.
Chef Eric Warnstedt opened Hen of the Wood in 2005, envisioning “a restaurant that would be the culmination of everything I had casually discussed for several years; a warm inviting atmosphere, a historic and visually appealing setting, seamless service and most importantly outstanding wine and beautiful food.” Since then, Warnstedt has been named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs (2008), and for the past three years has been a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Northeast Chef award, which is pretty much like winning an Oscar for cooking.
Located in the basement of an old grist mill set alongside a rushing brook, the dining area is enclosed in a field stone foundation made of rocks so big I pity the man who placed them there. Century-old beams line the ceiling, reminding diners of the functionality this beautiful place one stood for. The late afternoon light streams in through the generous west-facing windows, and I can only imagine that the few tables they set outside in the summer are sublime.
The menu, which changes daily, seeks to highlight the best products and flavors of the region. The seafood comes from Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but nearly everything else is from Vermont (a notable exception is Warnstedt’s favorite cheese, which hails from California). “Our menus are printed daily to always reflect a snapshot of that day in Vermont,” he told Mother Nature News last year.
We began by selecting a few cheeses from the ample cheese menu. There are more than a dozen to choose from. I wanted something I hadn’t tried before and that wouldn’t taste like anything I could get anywhere else. Winnemere, by Jasper Hill and Pawlet by Consider Barwell Farm fit the bill. They came plated with roasted hazelnuts, candied fennel and ample pieces of thinly sliced toasted bread. The Pawlet, a raw cow milk cheese, was bright, nutty and perfectly good. The Winnemere, however, blew me away. Also a raw cow’s milk cheese, it’s wrapped in birch bark and washed in lambic beer before being aged 60 days in Jasper Hill’s legendary cellars. It comes out almost runny, with a smooth woodsy flavor akin to eating a spring day.
For an appetizer, I went with the signature hen of the wood mushroom toast topped with a poached egg. Here, Warnstedt showcased his talents, coaxing maximum flavor out of seemingly simple ingredients. The runny egg meshed perfectly with the soft mushrooms, making an almost creamy dish. It was an earthy, ethereal experience, and again, I felt like I was eating a piece of Vermont.
If the beginnings of our meal impressed, the entrees delighted. Seared rabbit over braised cabbage and parsnip puree sounds simple enough, but the flavors mingled together in such a way that I didn’t want my meal to end. Likewise, the lobster with hen of the wood mushrooms and cider brown butter was easily the best thing I have eaten this year, possibly ever. Too often, lobster is treated as something to boost up otherwise mundane ingredients (like mac ‘n cheese). Here, it was the other ingredients that boosted the lobster- the umami of the mushrooms and the nutty savoriness of cider brown butter. (If you want to try it yourself, there’s a recipe here.)
While restaurants that are so dedicated to the mission of good cooking can sometimes be intimidating, the staff at Hen of the Wood made the experience approachable and enjoyable. Our server guided me through my cheese choices in a friendly and conversational way; I never once felt out of my element. When the family at the next table questioned their bill, the hostess explained it succinctly without ever managing to sound defensive or condescending. I’m not sure I could have pulled that off.
My only qualm about Hen of the Wood was the desserts. Nothing really grabbed me, which was a shame given that it was prime sugaring season. After nearly two hours of continuous eating, I suppose I didn’t need dessert anyway. Instead, I yielded with grace to reason and accepted the end of my season.
*Hen of the Wood is located a quarter of a mile from I-89, at 92 Stowe St. in Waterbury. They serve dinner Tuesday through Saturday starting at 5 p.m. Reservations are highly recommended, particularly on weekends, as they do get booked up.