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May 24, 2008 10:17 AM

Hen of the Wood, Waterbury VT

I tend to be a bit cynical when a restaurant repeatedly gets rave reviews. It can’t possibly live up to its billing, especially in Vermont, where it’s a struggle to put the whole package together. You might get great food, but the service often can be amateurish. I’m generally not a huge fan of the lackadaisical, under-trained waitstaffs that populate most Vermont restaurants. Or, vice versa, good service, mediocre food. It’s rare that Vermont establishments get it right on both counts.

So I’ll admit that it was with a jaded eye that I continually read the raves for Hen of the Wood in Waterbury. We booked a 6PM table for Friday night (May 23), my wife’s birthday. Our favorite restaurant, Christophe’s in Vergennes, had closed a few months earlier, and we wanted to try something different, something outside the generally-routine realm of Burlington restaurants, especially since this was her birthday.

We were surprised to arrive to discover that Hen of the Wood was already half full of diners even at our early hour. The building is an old grist mill, and before entering, we took a walk around the front porch and looked back up on the beautiful falls with rushing water, it was quite a lovely sight and sound. Our table was near the window, the setting was simple and rustic.

My wife started with the “Hen of the Wood mushroom tartine”, with garlic, parsley, a slice of thick-cut Vermont bacon, on grilled bread. The mushrooms were visibly exotic and delicate. I assume they were local in origin, and they might have been wild, though I am not certain. They were delicious, as was the bacon slice (yum!), and the butter-drenched grilled bread.

I began with a crusted soft-shell crab, served with some sort of simple mayo/capers dressing. I’m not a big fan of dressing with my soft-shells, I like them straight-up, so I ignored the dressing. But the soft-shell was nearly a meal in itself, visibly a meatier, larger crab than the thin, nearly meat-less crabs I’ve encountered elsewhere. Every bite was a bit of soft-shell heaven for an enthusiast like me.

My wife’s main course was Wild Alaskan Halibut, served with a lemon-caper crème fraiche, and Proscuitto-wrapped grilled asparagus. She loved it. My main was smoked duck breast, with a stone-ground mustard spaetzle, topped with baby carrots and sage. It was divine. I’m almost at a loss for words how good my main dish was, and I’m almost embarrassed that a restaurant cynic like myself could be at a loss to find appropriate superlatives to use in this narrative.

The duck was smoked, though very subtly, not at all overpowering. The skin was crispy, the meat was cooked perfectly and just as tender and succulent as one could hope with a duck breast. The surprise star of the meal for me was the mustard spaetzle. How such a humble side could enhance the duck simply astonished me. The spaetzle was so fresh, so tasty, and that mustard “twist” in its preparation made it really special, and enhanced the overall unique taste appeal of the entire duck main course.

Our waitress also was superb. She was clearly well-trained, and exceptionally knowledgeable about the food and the wines that they served. Their wine list is excellent, populated with American wines from the west coast. I did not see any offerings from France, Chile, Australia. That posed a bit of an issue for me, since I prefer French wines, but I understand that they tend to be poor values given the abysmal dollar-to-Euro exchange rate these days. So I asked our waitress if she had any pinot noir she could recommend that had a similar taste profile to French Burgundy, with its mineral flavors that are usually lacking in west coast pinot bottlings. She recommended a 2003 Vista Hills pinot noir from the Willamette Valley, which she said had a slight ‘peppery’ taste that was somewhat reminiscent of a Cotes du Rhone, yet was 100% pinot. She also said it would complement my duck perfectly. When the wine arrived, I was very impressed. She knew exactly what she was talking about, it was a lovely and tasty wine that satisfied my Burgundian preferences as a very worthwhile substitute.

My wife passed on dessert, but I chose the rhubarb tartlet, with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. It was good, though the tartlet itself lacked the crispy outer shell I would have preferred, it had a softer ‘muffin-like’ or ‘cake-like’ texture.

Our bill, including 20% tip: $208, which included that $72 bottle of wine. Frankly, given the exceptionally high quality of the service, and the freshness and thoughtfully different, creative food, that’s a bargain in my book. This was truly a great dining experience for us.

There is one major caveat about our dinner experience that I want to bring to readers’ attention, and to the attention of the owners of Hen of the Wood. This restaurant is not easily accessible for handicapped people. There is a very daunting double set of stairs that lead down to the restaurant from the upstairs lobby. Worse yet, the stairs are very dimly lit.

My wife is visually impaired, and struggles mightily to see in low-light situations, such as hallways, stairs and the like. In the case of Hen of the Wood, we had called a week in advance and asked for a well-lit table, explaining my wife’s visual impairment. Unfortunately, the person who took our reservation never mentioned the stairs, and they were quite a shock to find and try to navigate safely when we arrived.

The restaurant owners could take simple and relatively inexpensive measures, such as install proper lighting on the staircase, and use some sort of contrasting reflective tape on the steps themselves instead of keeping the existing black-on-very-dark-brown color scheme. Instead, what they have accomplished, apparently in the name of low-lit ‘romance’, is create a frightening black abyss for people like my wife. She was forced to walk down those stairs one-by-one, exceptionally slowly, with me explaining to her where each step would be, and she would gingerly feel with her feet to find each step, since she couldn’t see any distinguishing features of the steps. It was an unnerving, and unnecessarily frightening introduction to our first visit to Hen of the Wood.

These same steps will also be a problem for anyone who has trouble walking (broken leg, or using a cane or walker, for instance), so visitors should be forewarned to take whatever precautions you need to take. There apparently is no alternative handicapped-accessible entrance, or at least, none was offered to my wife. It is my sincere hope that the owners of Hen of the Wood see this and take a more proactive approach that would demonstrate a measure of respect for their physically-handicapped customers.

With that said, I must say, Hen of the Wood justified every ‘rave’ review I’ve previously read. If only there were more restaurants in our neck of the woods who did it this well. Bravo, Hen of the Wood!

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  1. NIce review ! We have a table for Thursday night and will be doing a Chef's Tasting menu. We are all past/present restaurant industry vets and agree that it is a short list of truly great places in this area. I don't mind dropping $100 per person but it better be nearly flawless. Most places, even in that price range fail to deliver at even 75%.

    I'll be sure to post after Thursday.

    1 Reply
    1. re: TonyO

      Thanks for the compliment. I look forward to your review, too, esp. from the perspective of a restaurant insider veteran.

    2. It seems there is a door from the outside to the inside at the eating level - perhaps there is a manner in which one can get into the dining room from an outside access point? Don't know as I never needed it or asked but I'd throw this as a possibility.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Jestner

        I don't know if that access point is viable or not. However, if it is, the host who greeted me and heard my problem about my wife (waiting at the top of the stairs until I assessed the situation), did not offer an alternative handicap-accessible route to the dining room.

        1. re: signothetimes53

          Haven;t been there for a while now - so the downstairs access point may just be a figment of my imagination...don't know...if the host didn't offer it - then regardless of whether a door is down there or not is irrelevant as it clearly isn't being used.
          While I like Hen of the Wood, I personally preferred the Grist Mill a little more...but regardless - Hen of the Wood is a very good place and the atmosphere in there is my style

      2. They recently had a group of 4 dining with them, one of which was in a wheelchair. They set up a nice dining table and area upstairs to accomodate their guests. While they didn't experience the full ambience, they did experience the great food.

        1. I will agree with several of the points the original poster made: great ambiance, attention to atmosphere, delicious food, and yes, the serving sizes are small... very small. My wife and i went to Hen of the Wood last night for our anniversary, excited about all the hype the restaurant had been given. We lived in Manhattan for 10 yrs and ate at some of the most talked about restaurants. Never in 10 yrs had we experienced portion sizes so small, small to the point of being pretentious. I had ordered the proscuitto wrapped mozzarella starter. In a large soup bowl came two pieces the size of my ring finger ( I'm a small guy) with a sprinkle of arugala. I honestly thought someone had eaten half of my starter on the way to the table. My wife had ordered the callimari, cooked to perfection but with a rather simple sauce that lacked depth. The entrees were along the same lines, flavorful but tiny. I had ordered the short ribs ( as in plural, more then one rib) what I received was what looked to be one very small rib pulled from the bone and tossed with, no joke,10 gnocchi. My wife ordered the halibut which was fine in size but lacked in taste. We skipped dessert and raced to our favorite restaurant in Burlington. We were disappointed with Hen of the Wood. There have been many rave reviews of this place but I wonder if the reviews were just ppl caught up in the hype of a seemingly average restaurant. We spent $130.00 for the 2 of us, which seemed quite expensive for what we received.

          1 Reply
          1. re: ducati_freak

            This comment is not in direct reference to The Hen of the Wood. In general, I am finding the "shrunken portions" seems to be appearing at many restaurants. In some cases, this accompanies lowered prices in an attempt to drive business during the "recession". In some cases, portions have been shrunk rather than raising prices. I am ok with both. However, in some cases portions have shrunk for no obvious reason other than to boost profits. Yes, I know times are tough for many restaurants but this is not the time to make people feel they have been taken when dining out may be the only "luxury" they can afford. Think how you would feel if you ordered a $10 martini and the bartender pour a 1/2 shot of gin. To me, the smart move is to hold the line on prices and portions and add a few more moderate priced items and a few higher margin items to bolster the menu. Better times are coming (we just might have to wait until 2012 ....................).

          2. Finally! We made it there for our 19th anniversary (every year we make a point of going to a fine dining restaurant that we've never eaten at before, which is why we never made it to Hen of the Wood before, I was saving it for an anniversary ;) last night.

            We were early but since it was 5, there was no problem getting seated right away. There was a little wait as a few other tables were being settled before us, but I wasn't in a hurry. The staff made a point of speaking to us to say "it'll just be a moment longer." I thought that was nice.

            The ambiance was lovely. Our seat gave us a lovely view of the stone around where the river rushes past the restaurant and the patio, which must be absolutely glorious on a summer night. Lighting was low, and it felt very romantic.

            We were greeted with sparkling wine at our table, and a happy anniversary wish. Very very nice. Also, the chef sent over some Red Hen toast/crostini with bleu cheese (a bit melty) and drizzled with honey, with his compliments. It was delightful. I normally don't care for bleu cheese but this was grand. He told us which it was but I don't remember now. The cheese list they have is dazzling and a bit intimidating. I wished we'd had more room for cheese as a starter but I knew we wouldn't so we didn't get any. Instead we had the special starter for the evening, crispy fried poussin liver with tomato marmalade and mustard creme fraiche. The livers were delightful and surprisingly light, with a delicate liver flavour, not at all intense. The tomato marmalade was a little too sweet in combination with the liver for my husband, but I enjoyed it, so I had bits with it on and I gave him bits that didn't have it. The mustard creme fraiche went very well, too.

            My husband ordered the hangar steak with tarragon aioli and red wine sauce that was served with "crispy" fingerling potatoes (they weren't crispy, but he said they were good anyway). He loved the sauce and aioli. He'd asked for his steak medium but it was rare when it arrived (not bloody, but very red all the way to the edges). I suggested we send it back but he decided not to after he'd tasted it. It was tender and delicious, despite it not being quite how he was expecting it. I had a bite and was in heaven (I LOVE rare :).

            I ordered the braised rabbit with mashed sweet potatoes and braised cabbage. It was only a bit gamey, which was good, and even my husband (who generally doesn't care for game meats) declared it yummy. :) The sweet potatoes and cabbage (which was red, and possibly had beet juice in it? I'm not sure, slightly sweet but everything was so delicious I forgot to try and identify individual components :) were wonderful, and complemented the rabbit. I had two (or would it be three?) pieces of rabbit, a whole hind quarter and a long strip of what looked like loin. I was unable to finish my vegetables but the rabbit made it all down. :)

            We were both pretty full but we splurged on a truffle torte with vanilla ice cream and hazelnut praline. Oh... my... god. I ate too much and made myself uncomfortable because it was so good.

            Our waiter, Scott, was attentive and easily answered every question I had about the menu without having to ask anyone anything. He was able to intelligently discuss the cheeses and their various qualities (as was another staff member at another table whom I over heard discussing the cheese with a patron). He was very pleasant without hovering. The bus staff were unobtrusive and asked before clearing every time. They were aware enough to leave me the butter with my roll that I hadn't finished yet when they were clearing the rest of the appetizer dishes.

            From start to finish this dining experience was everything I'd hoped it would be based on the expectations built up by reviews here.

            I was thoroughly delighted, and will make a point of returning.

            Hen of the Wood
            92 Stowe St Ste 1, Waterbury, VT 05676

            2 Replies
            1. re: Morganna

              Congrats ! I'm glad your night was so enjoyable. The Hen is on a short list of places that are able to do it right night after night. The formula is simple: great ambiance + professional and courteous service+ delicious, simply prepared food + well choosen wines +good company = a great night out ! Repeat often as needed ! Thanks for the review. Hopefully I will post one soon as well.

              1. re: TonyO

                I have been twice and disappointed both times. Seasoning is good, almost at the point of over seasoned though. Raw calamari, raw duck, crunchy undercooked dried beans. On the second trip the portions had shrunk to nouvelle cuisine size. Now the Maitre d' has moved on to another establishment. Chef needs to get back in the kitchen and be in charge. I am harsh but after all the raving expectations are high. I have also been in the business for many years.

                Hen of the Wood
                92 Stowe St Ste 1, Waterbury, VT 05676