Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Vermont: the land of maple syrup, moose, and transcendental ice cream

Mr. Bear at the Orvis Store in Arlington
Ah, Vermont. Don't be fooled by the map showing major routes that you can take to traverse the state. Prepare yourself for wee little roads dotted with "moose crossing" signs. The good news is, Vermont is so lovely that you won't care if your tires are being slowly flayed off your car. Case in point, as we bounced over an unpaved road to Grafton, I stared at the lush green forest that arched above us into a canopy, dappling the road with filtered light, and I saw what might've inspired Robert Frost's line, "the woods are lovely, dark, and deep." There is a cool verdancy to the thickly forested land that seems like the kind of magic that would lure Hansel and Gretel further and further in, their trail of crumbs mysteriously disappearing. I was interrupted from this thought, however, when we rounded a corner and saw a bear crossing the road. My companion seemed quite delighted at this turn of events, while I stabbed at the auto-lock and squeaked for her to roll up her windows.

Near Bear Central
And the bear was not the first wildlife sighting of the weekend. Packs of wild turkeys, kamikaze squirrels, fuzzy little chipmunks, and trout the size of bread loaves were duly noted by the Bakery Babe. There's no getting around it: there's nature in Vermont. Luckily, there are also many humans who take inordinate amounts of pride in making really good food.

In the town of Bennington, we were treated to Cafe Nova Mae, an old-timey cafe with good looks and a tempting sweets case. The service was a bit slow, but altogether it's the sort of place you could happily while away a few hours over cofee.

Alas, all that glitters is not gold in Bennington. Just down the street, we stopped in at the intriguing "Crazy Russian Girls" bakery, only to find that despite warm cookies straight from the oven and cupcakes that looked like schnauzers, the bakery itself had a bit of gloom to it, with sparse shelves and a few bits of frosting that was beginning to crust over.

Feeling somewhat in need of a cheery thought, we fled next door to the Village Chocolate Shop.

But as we entered what should've been the cutest store in the entirety of Vermont, I quickly noted a plethora of cellophane badness, the absolute lack of the scent of chocolate, and two large "chocolate" moose that looked like their origins were strictly scatological.

Empty handed, we landed with some desperation at the Bakkerij Krijnen, an unassuming little building on the outskirts of town that has only the sign "Bakery" as any form of identification to the passerby. But trust me, it's worth hunting down. Inside you will find a bright Dutch bakery with exquisite frangipane tarts, pies, and cookies made with the best cocoa and marzipan.

Raspberry Linzer cookies

Cocoa Tulips
Yes, please.
This is exactly the sort of bakery I dream of stumbling into by chance on a quiet country road. At prices that are not too dear, you will walk out with a tower of goodies.

But for those seeking a truly unique Vermont experience, I suggest you proceed from Bennington to Shaftsbury, where you will find the Chocolate Barn on Historic Route A.

Now, I know that normally things which end in "barn" are not good (Liquor Barn, Dress Barn, Yarn Barn, etc.). But in this instance, you are to swerve, parachute, or walk on bended knee if you must to get thee to the Chocolate Barn. Why? Inside lurks the most heavenly, rich, creamy, substantial homemade ice cream that you will ever devour. By far better than any ice cream available in Boston. I opted for the maple walnut, and my face was quickly attached to a thick cream tower that was splendid with maple and absolutely packed with walnuts. It was magnificent. It was bloody good. And it was devoured so fast that I did not stop to take a picture. So you'll have to find out for yourself what the world's best ice cream cone looks like. But I can leave you with some idea of the other goodies that one might procure at the Chocolate Barn.

There were, of course, many treats of the inedible variety. Splashing about in idealic Lake Shaftsbury with some very energetic water monkeys, lounging on the cool screened porch and drinking Pimms with good friends, oggling fishing lures that looked like rock-star hair extensions at the Orvis Headquarters, fesh corn from the farm down the lane, and even trowling the local thrift sale for goodies. But I have to tell you, the very best treat of the weekend was something that simply cannot be bought in a store. Our gracious host brought out an amazing breakfast treat: maple syrup made from the trees on her land. In a quart jar. Served with a ladle. This is the kind of lux food indulgence that makes my heart and my blood sugar soar. A few puddles of this glorious stuff on blueberry pancakes gave me secret ambitions to move to Vermont permanently.

Do go:
The Chocolate Barn, Historic Route 7A, Shaftsbury, VT 05262
Nova Mae Cafe, 512 Main St, Bennington, VT 05201
Bakkerij Krijnen, 1001 Main St, Bennington, VT 05201

Do avoid:
Crazy Russian Girl Bakery, 415 Main St, Bennington, VT 05201
The Village Chocolate Shoppe, 471 Main St, Bennington, VT 05201

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Max Brenner: The Babe has a hissy fit

It seemed like a good idea. A restaurant that looks like a high end chocolate factory on Boylston street with chic sidewalk seating and a menu with choices like Truffle Cream French Toast. It seemed like a REALLY good idea, in fact, as I asked my friend if we could go there for brunch. After all, a restaurant that has a chocolate shop inside it can't be bad, right?


We were summarily, entirely, incontrovertably fleeced by Max Brenner. And I feel free to say this with such vigor because I've rarely had so crappy a meal for $14.95 as I did there. It's WRONG to advertise "Illegal Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Pancakes" with dark chocolate truffle cream, pure milk chocolate shavings, spiced pecans, and caramelized bananas....and then bring them a wreck of mediocre, over-sweetened goo that looks like Mr. Hershey vomitted on the plate.

For $15, I expect pancakes that sing a song, chocolate sauce that does the rumba, and toffee bananas that make me want to cry. This was a floppy mess with chocolate that did NOT taste a thing like the lovely confections that they sell in their chocolate store. This tasted like someone slid some funky bananas and some ovaltine into a beaker and mixed it up. Hershey's syrup would've been a mercy compared to this ooze. And the toffee bananas? Friends, there are many delights in this world that involve bananas quickly caramelized in butter and cream, but that's not what you'll get here. What I got were waterlogged banana chunks that looked and tasted like they'd been beaten with a mallet and left out on the counter for a few days.

Should I be more lenient? Should I forgive and try Max Brenner's again? I say, no. If you mess up something as good and easy as pancakes, what hope is there that the other items on the menu are going to come out any better? If only there was an IHOP in downtown Boston, I could've feasted like a queen for $6 and called it a day.

So let me end classily by saying that if you insist on entering this restaurant, may I recommend swerving to the left and sticking to their chocolate shop?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Tatte Bakery and Cafe: Look out Flour, there's a new bakery in town!

Some days, the gods smile on this Babe. Some days, I'm ambling along to review a cafe, and out of nowhere, a new and intriguing bakery will spring up and wave at me. This is exactly what happened as I was walking to review Voltage Cafe near Kendall. Across the street and up a block was a promising store called Tatte Bakery and Cafe that I hadn't read about in any search of Kendall Square. So, in I wandered, and, oh NELLY, oh SWEET HEAVEN. This Babe just about needed her fainting salts at the sight of a beautiful, rustic style French cafe that was absolutely packed with high-octane goodies.
Do I need a fig tart?

Do I need a cherry clafouti?

Do I need ten of these?

And five of these?

And an entire pistachio cheesecake? Why, yes. Yes, I do!

And I wasn't even to the part of the counter that had cinnamon rolls and croissant. Sweet little stacks of cookies here and there, tall sticky buns, unexpected flavors like rose infusion. It was, quite frankly, a bit much for this humble bakery reviewer. Tatte Bakery very nearly knocked me out of the ring with a tantalizing bounty of French dessert done right.

How was it that the entirety of Boston wasn't crammed into this treasure?

Well, it turns out that Tatte is an outcropping of Tatte Cookies, and has only been in this location for two months. But I guarantee that once you clap eyes on this oasis of beauty, you pate-choux heart is going to melt, and you will be here every weekend. I don't say this lightly: Tatte is just as good as Flour. And the line in this undiscovered gem is one or two people at most. True, the sit-down tables were packed with happy diners eating the savory dishes that Tatte serves. And the long wooden common tables were filled with folks having pastry and coffee. But it was nowhere near the mania you must fight through a T-stop away to get a pastry at Flour. And as I said, it's just as good. Really.

So take the plunge a veer a few blocks from the Kendall Stop, and step into modern rustic charm and a bonanza of bakery goods. Just be prepared to part with cash for some of the more high end items. The croissant (made in-house) is under two bucks, but the clafouti is more like $7.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Voltage: Amp me up!

I am not a huge coffee aficionado, I should state up front. Like most of the Eastern Seaboard, I am addicted to Dunkin Doughnuts and would probably vote for that over almost all over coffee concoctions. But occasionally I have a coffee that is just so superb and unique that I actually stop and think, "This is dang good." Well, at Voltage, I stopped and thought, "This is a frickin' masterpiece!" The drink was their caramel with sea salt latte. The setting? A post modern cafe with art installations all around, mostly populated by M.I.T. students with their faces glued to their laptops. And the fuel to get them through their cram sessions is only a step away.

So what is the art of the Voltage latte? It starts with the "pour over"...which I now know simply means that they brew their coffee the old-fashioned way, with little filters, cup by cup. Which is apparently infinitely preferable to the industrial elephant-sized filters that are used with Starbucks machines. I was a little sceptical, looking around at the sparse decor and a wee little cabinet filled with goodies, but I went with the sea salt caramel latte and a cookie, both of which were very reasonably priced.

I should also admit that very often I find the term "caramel with sea salt" being used to jack up patrons to the point of no return, only for them to find later that they have an overly salted, sweet mess on their hands. It's a very chic thing to call something these days. Not sure your cupcake will sell? Throw a little sea salt on the top and, Bingo!, it's gourmet. Call it "fleur de sel" and you'll have a tsunami of customers. Well, such are the musings of a Bakery Babe, at any rate.

But as I took a sip of a supremely smooth cup of coffee, with the sweet taste of caramel and the thick milk foam on top, a little crystal of sea salt floating above it all hit my tongue. And the Babe's taste buds went into overdrive. It turns out that the flavor of coffee, when hit just right with a jag of salt, is bloody genius. The cookie became rather perfunctory as I slugged down the latte, waiting like a kid on Christmas for that next hit of sea salt. It really was an extraordinary drink, in a town full of nice coffee joints where it is hard to stand out. If you like post-modern environments and are a coffee fan, may I suggest dallying from the red line just two blocks and having a cup?