A Fine Dining Experience Unrivaled in the NEK| 12.27.19
Pros: Creative Culinary Masterpieces, Delicious menu options, Unique dishes, Showcases local and seasonal ingredients; a dining experience you’ll remember for years to come, comfortable, wonderful and knowledgeable service
Downside: Expensive, Not a restaurant for picky eaters, Is farther out from many of the area attractions so may be a hike for most NEK Diners
Mountain Rating: 9/10
Dining at the Rabbit Hill Inn was a culinary experience unlike any other in the Northeast Kingdom. Located in Lower Waterford, this restaurant is in the most southern area of the NEK, but the drive is more than worth it.
Among one of the many hidden gems nestled among the quiet towns of Vermont, this restaurant is well known to the immediate local population and to returning guests of the Inn itself, but as much as we frequent restaurants, we had not heard about the food here.
I was immediately struck by the simple yet elegant décor and the comfortable feeling that is the key to a well loved and highly frequented country Inn.
The two dining rooms were quiet, and guests were seated spaced out from one another instead of lumping everyone into one section. This added to the ambiance of a more romantic and intimate dining experience.
We were immediately brought menus and had our drink order taken. Before we had spent much time with the menu, our server had brought our cocktails and a basket of warm oat bread, made in house, served with butter in the shape of a rabbit.
As I browsed the menu, I also was delighted by the beautiful paintings and pictures of the Waterford area and of the Inn itself, depicted in different seasons and time periods. The dining rooms accentuate the history of the building, with the warm paint, darker woodwork, paned windows that frame a beautiful Vermont landscape, and doorways that speak to years of use as a home.
Though this setting charmed me to no end, I was not prepared for the culinary experience I was about to immerse myself in.
The list of items on the menu caught my attention immediately. Prawns, Waygu beef, duck, and wild boar all featured with a list of accompaniments that would excite any foodie. We selected the cheese plate and prawns as our appetizers, then ordered the Pan Roasted Halibut and the Waygu Beef Sirloin as our entrees.
The cheese plate arrived first. Four local cheese were beautifully presented alongside colorful house made vegetable crackers, honey comb and honey, and a variety of nuts. The light crackers made a wonderful vehicle for the Jasper Hill aged Cabot Clothbound cheddar, VT Shepherd’s Verano aged sheep cheese, the von Trapp Family Oma , and the Vermont Creamery’s goat’s milk Coupole. When drizzled with a bit of honey, the creamy textures mixed with sweet were more than enough to wake up our taste buds in anticipation of the rest of our meal.
When the prawns were delivered, I knew that we were in for a dining experience we had not anticipated. First, I noticed the plating. A common protein, the prawns were uncommonly paired with a corn medley, popcorn, and a foamy sauce that spoke of a higher degree of culinary expertise.
Now, I am aware that the NEK has attracted a number of fantastic, highly trained chefs to our corner of the world – but often they tone down their techniques to fit the people of the region. At the Rabbit Hill Inn, these skills were on full display, and the dishes enticed diners to be adventurous – pairing flavors diners had never thought to put together – like a popcorn puree, crunchy popcorn, a corn salsa dressed with citrus, all paired with the light flavors of prawn. It was an explosion of flavors in my mouth. I was in love with the corn puree, there simply wasn’t enough of it though the prawns were gone. I had to mop up the last of the sauce with some of that delicious warm oat bread.
Before we were able to jump into our meals we were served an amuse-bouche.
This is a food course traditional in French dining and fine dining establishments. Amuse-Bouche means mouth-teaser or mouth-amuser and is a single, bite-sized hors d’oeuvre. Each amuse-bouche is a gift to the diner, chosen by the chef and not ordered from the menu, they are meant to show off the chef’s style and technical ability while preparing diners for the meal to come.
The layers of flavor exhibited in the prawn dish had set our expectations for the entrees but when we were delivered this surprise element I was delighted. A small, bite sized cake made of layered beef tartar was the base of the hors d’oeuvre. Topped with mushrooms sautéed in a seasoned butter that was dripped through the meat, a delicious foam (I couldn’t identify what was in it) and a freshly fried potato chip dusted in salt, this “bite” combined many textures and flavors into a spectacular dish that I wish had been on the menu as well.
We now knew that each dish was meant to be enjoyed as an experiment of flavors, layered carefully to both delight on their own and be combined into something extraordinary.
I had ordered the halibut which came as a fillet, seared golden brown on top and bottom, then plated on a bed of leak cream, with lemon incorporated into both elements. Roasted carrots decorated the plate as did a lemon, celery foam that added a bright splash to each bite. But, the star of this dish was the brandade croquettes. Three golden brown orbs were positioned around the halibut. Brandade croquettes, made of mashed potatoes and flaky cod, formed into a ball, rolled in spiced bread crumbs and pan fried to golden brown, were not only flavorful but added a crunchy texture to the plate. When eaten together, the soft halibut and a bite of a croquette covered in the leak cream with a little foam added to the top, the whole bite offered everything one could want in a seafood dish – soft and crunchy with the lightness of fish combined with the brightness of lemon, all balanced out with the sharp flavor of leaks.
My husband’s meal was just as fantastic. For those not familiar with Waygu beef, it is a Japanese beef that is becoming a favorite of American chef’s due to its highly marbled texture, its tenderness, and because of the types of fat contained in this particular type of beef.
The sirloin steak we were served was perfectly cooked to a medium rare. The beef was akin to a more desirable cut than a sirloin and melted in your mouth and was paired with Maitake (Hen-of-the-woods) Mushrooms that added an earthy flavor to the dish. Mustard greens and three beautifully plated slices of kohlrabi (German Turnip) finished off the main components of the plate. The greens added more earthiness and that bitter sharpness needed to accentuate the beef, while the turnip brought in a lighter flavor more like cooked broccoli than a sharp turnip flavor, that helped to balance the greens. A black garlic shoyu (soy sauce) butter and red wine jus brought in the needed salt while completing the complex profile of flavors.
After our entrees were finished, we were intrigued by desert. Typically, we skip dessert as we are often too full to eat anything more. But, we wanted to see what this chef would do with his desert plates. The trio of house made ice creams seemed a perfect way to test our theory that dessert would be a continuation of flavors layered with texture, and we were right!
That night, the chef had prepared a vanilla bean ice cream, a lemon-rosemary ice cream, and a raspberry sorbet for the trio. This was paired with sugar cookies, a cookie crumb dusting the plate, a raspberry sauce, and fresh raspberries. Each frozen desert was delicious on its own, but by adding in the cookies elements for crunch, staking the three different frozen treats together, and adding a bit of the tart raspberry puree, all together in one bite – you were greeted with the taste of summer, though that season had already passed.
We have been to most of the more unique restaurants in the NEK and have mentioned a few as high end, fine dining experiences we would recommend. The Rabbit Hill Inn is something a bit more than that – this is truly a culinary experience. Something that from the start of your meal – when you first sit down – till the very last moment you are there, takes you out of your everyday life and sets you firmly in a world where food and flavor are the focus.
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