Not many Vermont restaurants show up regularly in glossy food 'zines. But Food & Wine recently named Chef Eric Warnstedt of Waterbury's Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill one of its Best New Chefs in America 2008. Last year, Gourmet lauded the rustically elegant 40-seat eatery — in a historic stone mill on Thatcher Brook — as one of the top 100 "farm-to-table" restaurants in the country, saying, "Chefs Eric Warnstedt and Craig Tresser seek out premium ingredients, both foraged and farmed, then prepare them in ways that coax out maximum flavor."
In Food & Wine's selection of superlative places to dine in the greater Burlington area, Hen of the Wood popped up again. A roving editor singled out its masterful duck breast with whole-grain mustard spaetzle as one of the top 10 tastes of the year.
That duck dish no longer graces the menu; Tresser and Warnstedt change things up regularly, and that's part of the restaurant's appeal. For an appetizer, they might offer mushroom tartine — grilled bread piled high with 'shrooms and topped with parsley, garlic and thick bits of local bacon. Or a luscious bowl of mussels resting in a thick, buttery puddle of cider reduction sauce and topped with crumbles of savory house-made sausage.
Entrée options are limited, but these diverse, largely "localvore" offerings lend themselves to lengthy description. A well-trained waiter attests that the pan-fried, Meyer-lemon-scented goat's milk gnocchi, served with roasted cauliflower, pine nuts and leeks, is safe for vegetarians. For their carnivore pals, the Syrah-braised lamb shank with fennel and soft, caramelized garlic cloves promises to fall off the bone with a single tug.
Both the all-American wine list and the wide-ranging selection of artisan cheeses — including 12 from Vermont — suggest Tresser and Warnstedt put their pots and pans where their politics are. And if that's not enough to impress a bigwig magazine editor, there's always the ginger pear croustade with spiced winter fruit compote, for dessert.