Taste Test: Vermont Thrush Restaurant, Montpelier
Vermont’s state bird isn’t just any thrush — it’s the hermit thrush, a creature that likes to hang out on the margins and sings a slightly melancholy tune.
Maybe it’s a fitting term for the century-old building at Montpelier’s 107 State Street, tucked as it is behind the Gulf station and surrounded by parking lots. For 36 years, this was the home of the Thrush Tavern, a hangout for legislators and the journalists who covered them, until it closed four years ago. The Thrush space sat empty until last spring, when the colorful Clean Slate Café opened there; that business lasted only a few months before its owner decided the demanding hours of running a restaurant were at odds with raising her young children.
This fall, the Thrush was reborn yet again when Sarah Moos and chef Cameron Moorby purchased the business. The new owners renamed it the Vermont Thrush Restaurant and wisely combined elements of both previous occupants.
Coming back can evoke a little déjà vu. Other than a blinking neon “OPEN” sign, no placard hangs over the door yet; inside, a gold-and-lime color scheme similar to Clean Slate’s rules, though in different tones. Even some of the previous establishment’s dishes — such as the banana-bread French toast and the smoked burger — linger on the menu.
Gone, though, are the retro travel posters that filled the walls. In their place are small paintings and a plastic-covered world map, both of which give the room a slightly unfinished quality. But that transitional feel doesn’t translate to what’s on the plates.
As generously portioned and fun as Clean Slate’s food was, the offerings at the current Thrush are tightened and polished. And the menu reflects a mashup of influences: Clarified butter, poutine, sriracha sauce, maple syrup, risotto and jalapeño-roasted corn all make appearances.
Moos and Moorby have extensive restaurant pedigrees: Both have worked at a long line of Vermont eateries, including Ariel’s Restaurant and the Kitchen Table Bistro for Moos, and A Single Pebble and Chef’s Corner for Moorby. When the couple heard that the Clean Slate was for sale, they leaped.
“Sometimes texting would be our only interaction for weeks at a time,” Moos says of their zany schedules. “We thought, If we’re going to work all of these hours, we might as well do it together.”
The menu’s Asian influence stems from Moorby’s first job in the kitchen of Burlington’s A Single Pebble, where he worked alongside Steve Bogart, the eatery’s then chef-owner, whom Moorby counts as his mentor.
The varied cuisines to which Moorby has been exposed since then have given rise to the Thrush’s imaginative bill of fare. It starts with a brunch menu that veers from classics such as hash and eggs to the BBQ Catfish Breakfast ($12.95) — three flaky, feather-light curls of catfish veiled in a sweet-tangy sauce and served alongside grilled polenta cakes and fresh, creamy, purplish coleslaw. This, too, evokes déjà vu: The dish was lifted from the menu of Plainfield’s erstwhile River Run Restaurant.
Also satisfying is the Smoky Benedict ($11.95), for which Moorby wedges two hunks of smoked tofu between a crisp muffin and perfectly poached eggs, then sparingly spoons over a Hollandaise sauce that’s light and restrained — far from cloying.
The midday menus are loaded with ways to combine soups, salads and sandwiches, such as the soup-and-half-sandwich combo ($8.50). On the day we visited, the mushroom soup was rich and peppery, tasting as if sherry had been added; the roast beef stuffed inside a half sandwich was enlivened by a tangy horseradish mayonnaise.
For those of the boozy-brunch persuasion, Thrush’s Bloody Mary is bracing and spicy, if a bit thin; the Mimosa is large but will set you back $9.
At many restaurants of late, it’s the appetizer or small-plate menu that offers the most creativity. At the Thrush, the reverse is true. The selection of appetizers seems almost reflexive — think Caesar salad and fried calamari — with one exception: the lobster cakes ($12.95), three to a plate and crisped to a nut-brown. The flesh itself was minced and mildly spiced, almost like a crab cake; the accompanying Thai-inspired peanut sauce was creamy and tasty. Yet it was the other sauce, a ramekin of clarified butter with a curl of spicy sriracha at the bottom, that I wanted to drink straight.
Speaking of drinks, the brews here will satisfy the basic beer lover — on tap are Vermont craft brews such as Fiddlehead IPA, Shed Mountain Ale and Switchback Ale. The wine, however, is a letdown; the only vino offered by the glass is Canyon Road Winery in all its iterations. Order the Chardonnay only if you are in dire need of such a thing: It tastes seriously sugared — that is, chaptalized. The Cabernet Sauvignon, while only vaguely resembling a Cabernet, is drinkable enough, and there is a marginally more interesting bottle list.
Instead, you could ask the bartender to make a classic Stinger or Grasshopper, or order from the selection of Scotches and whiskeys. The Thrush has a tiny pub in the back, and Moos told Seven Days that she hopes it becomes known for classic drinks.
The dinner entrées confirmed that the chef has a knack for relieving his dishes of their weight, turning them into more diaphanous versions of their usual selves. Zucchini and feta pancakes ($13.50) were like clouds, each bite melting into a puddle of earthy greens and salty white. A brick of poached salmon ($16.95) was rainforest-moist, and the pungent black-bean sauce and shaved ginger that topped it popped across the tongue.
Happily, Moos and Moorby inherited Clean Slate’s smoker — so the Smoky Burger ($11.95) still reigns. Beef from Marshfield’s Knob Hill Farm is cold-smoked for several hours, then grilled and served on a toasted brioche bun, the patty shimmering with melted Cabot cheddar. The intensely garlicky aioli delivered with it served a dual purpose: I smeared some over the meat, then dipped my fries in it.
Those fries, dusted with salt and paprika, are solidly in the floppy-fry camp — which makes them perfect ingredients for Moorby’s messy, fattening, chicken-gravy-doused poutine. Puffy, warm pockets of Maplebrook Fine Cheese curd ooze over the plate and burst in your mouth like savory gumdrops. If you try to resist — for instance, telling everyone at your table, “Just one bite” — you won’t succeed. It’s not Québec poutine, and it could use a touch less gravy, but it’s hard to put down.
Though the Thrush’s menu doesn’t mention it, a portion of the fare is local — at least, when the couple can get it. “We’re not billing ourselves as a local, organic place,” Moos notes. “We’re trying to use what’s accessible when we get a good price. People want to get in and out of here for $10.”
Vermonters could use more places like the new Thrush: unpretentious yet creative eateries where you can go once (or more) a week and not feel too much of a sting. As for the half-realized décor, perhaps the owners will tweak it as they get up to speed. Moos and Moorby already plan to change the menu in a few weeks.
I just hope they don’t change the basic formula: generous portions and offbeat combinations that are reason enough to find your way to this slightly out-of-the-way restaurant.
Vermont Thrush Restaurant, 107 State Street, Montpelier, 225-6166. vermontthrush.com