If Addison Country has anything close to a restaurant don, it could be Michel Mahe . In the 11 years since he opened his first Vergennes restaurant, the Black Sheep Bistro, the indefatigable chef has exported his approachable yet sexy brand of food and drink to five more places. Though they’re not all still owned by him, all except for the Up Top Tavern are still alive and kicking.
Mahe may appear to be building an empire, but dominating the market isn’t his only concern. He’s also intellectually hungry, constantly analyzing everything from the dishes people order most frequently (steak and chicken) to whether the local-food trend is sustainable and permanent. Each of his venues seems to be testing for a new concept, and each project feeds the next.
Such was the case of the Bobcat Café & Brewery in Bristol, which Mahe purchased in 2008 and turned into a neighborhood-spot-cum-brewpub. Its success convinced him that “if you create a local place that’s affordable, accessible and casual enough, people will show up in droves,” he told Seven Days earlier this year, vowing that he’d put one “in every major town in Vermont.”
Now that grand plan is unfolding in Vergennes, his home turf. Last winter, Mahe purchased Park Squeeze , the empty, three-floor restaurant whose retro sign lights up the town’s main drag, and renovated it into what he said he hoped would be a “burger and a beer” home away from home for his neighbors. It opened in May.
Mahe and the contractors he works with are gifted when it comes to creating ambience. Like that of his other eateries, the design of Park Squeeze weaves together rich hues and touchable textures — brick, metal, wood — to create a place where you’re happy to sit down and reluctant to leave. The bottom floor holds a sunny, luncheonette-type room with a counter in the front window for people watching. (“Some people don’t like to sit near a bar,” Mahe observes.) The upstairs feels like a boîte: A soaring, beamed room has a sculpture of a rhinoceros running along one brick wall and a reconstructed, carved 1800s Dutch bar along another. Subtle, thoughtful details — such as the mesh curtain separating a portion of the bar from the dining area — segment the space; a spiral staircase adds visual punch.
For all this airy largesse, Park Squeeze seats just 60 people on two floors (the third houses offices). On the first night I visited, all of those seats were filled at 6:30 p.m. — on a Monday. Many of the people I watched enter that evening seemed to know the servers, someone else in the room, the chef or all the above.
Indeed, when I tried to enlist diners for comment, a few declined. “Keep in mind what this place is,” said one patron who visits regularly, his meaning cryptic. Barely a month into its existence, Vergennes residents seemed to be extending a kind of familial protection to Park Squeeze.
Each of the restaurant’s tables holds an oblong tray with yellow mustard, ketchup, salt, pepper and Sriracha sauce. It’s a clue to the kind of food you can expect here: basic and hearty with the occasional twist. Back in February, Mahe asserted that Park Squeeze’s menu would be pretty much limited to burgers, flatbreads and beer. By opening day, it had swelled to nine starters, five salads, six flatbreads and 11 entrées, plus a quartet of desserts.
All these must be primed and ready to go in the kitchen, judging by the speed with which they appeared. Once our orders were in, the dishes started flowing within five minutes, and the servings were generous. A plate of fried risotto balls called Basil Suppli ($8) arrived when I was barely two sips into a raspberry-basil caipirinha — a muddled, fruity and seed-dense (albeit somewhat weak) cachaca-based cocktail. Each crisp, nut-brown ball contained gooey innards of cheesy, carby goodness, better still when dragged through a ramekin of savory tomato sauce.
Just as tasty were a pair of half-moon-shaped turnovers stuffed with sweet, succulent, adobo-braised pork ($8). The kitchen didn’t skimp on the filling, though a tart cider dipping sauce threatened to overpower its gentle flavors. A generous hand was also behind a bowl of greens piled with warm green beans, pickled onions and a shower of salty feta ($9), all doused with a sticky-sweet balsamic dressing.
The suppli and turnovers seemed designed to augment a night of drinking, as did the nachos, poutine and wings. In keeping with that theme, the bar has plenty of craft beers, plus a handful of South American wines on offer.
The bigger plates on the menu were more uneven. Chef de cuisine Justin Patras draws on his Greek traditions to produce some interesting flavor juxtapositions. But he can be overexuberant with spices — such as in a lamb meatloaf ($16) spiked with rosemary and other spices and slathered in a deep, dark Madeira-fig reduction. It sounds scrumptious, but the kitchen had laced the meat with something — allspice? nutmeg? both? — that lent it too much of a Christmasy quality. With a little more Yankee restraint, the dish might really sing.
The Pecan Crusted Chicken ($16) suffered a similar fate: It was swaddled in a thick, spicy, soggy armor that didn’t do it any justice. Every other item on the plate was pitch-perfect, though, from the singed fingerling potatoes to the crisp-tender broccoli. A dollop of date chutney was a nice touch.
The heavy hand reappeared in at least one of the six flatbreads, the Red ($9). Though the melted cheese was ample, the crust crisp and the pepperoni tasty, its ponderous brownish tomato sauce lacked brightness and weighed down the pie like an anchor.
That pie’s opposite was the garlicky House pizza ($12), with fresh, pale mozzarella, curls of roasted peppers and crumbles of sausage tarted up with a lace of balsamic reduction. I could eat that again and again. I would also come back for the Classic Burger — outsize for its $10 price, cloaked in melted Grafton Village Cheese cheddar and served with crispy, addictive shoestring fries — or the toasty Tofu Falafel sandwhich served inside a warm pita with buttermilk-dressed greens. Either could fill you for lunch and dinner.
The lemon-hued coconut pudding, one of the four desserts here, came in a tall glass topped with a festive sprinkle of toasted coconut flecks. Not too sweet and subtly citrusy, it had a fun consistency hovering between solid and liquid.
When I was a kid, my parents took me to their favorite candlelit Italian bistro on Friday nights. Though my dad worked as a printer and my mom stayed home, it was cheap enough that we were able to eat there weekly. They’d slurp spaghetti and drink beer while I smeared red sauce all over my high chair. Park Squeeze is that kind of place, sans checkerboard tablecloths and wax-covered Chianti bottles. It’s a neighborhood spot designed for dropping in at will.
So how much did two appetizers, two sandwiches, an entrée, a pizza, a dessert and two cocktails set us back? $83. And it was more than enough food for three people, since we took plenty of it home.
Park Squeeze needs to be tasted in context. After a long drive to Vergennes, I’d probably rather hit the Black Sheep Bistro, where prices are only marginally higher and the dishes seem more thoughtful. If I lived in town, though, Park Squeeze would be in my regular rotation for pints and apps — and I’d favor those that show a slightly lighter touch.
Park Squeeze, 161 Main Street, Vergennes, 877-9962. parksqueeze.com