Philamena’s (Montpelier, VT)

(Update: In 2017 Philamena’s closed their restaurant to focus on their wholesale pasta and sauce business, which continues to do well)

In general, I really enjoy that each part of the country has food specialties that they excel in, it gives me something to look forward to when I travel, like a good proper posole in New Mexico, or a proper Cuban sandwich in Miami. But it also leaves me with the occasional hard to satisfy craving. Like when I want a good, quality biscuit. Nominally, this shouldn’t be too hard, considering that within a 50 mile radius of me are about a dozen places that have biscuits on the menu… But I’ve learned that, like the phrase “New England Barbecue”, “biscuit” is a term to be treated with a certain amount of skepticism in these parts. I could get a nice, flaky, buttery biscuit with a bit of crumble… but I’m much more likely to get some sort of stale, leaden lump of dry dough that’s only vaguely suitable as a substrate for a biscuits and gravy. In short, most New England biscuits, well, suck. It baffles me a bit, since biscuits aren’t that hard to do… when I lived in the South, the vast majority of kitchens were able to put out a decent biscuit, without any products labeled with “Bisquik” or having any sort of canned dough being involved. But it’s something that most New England kitchens haven’t mastered, enough so that I’ve joked many a time about opening “Rich’s Remedial Biscuit School” and inviting local chefs.

I was in that frame of mind when I was checking out reviews for some new places in Montpeliers, and I had noticed several good reviews for Philamena’s, a new Italian place that opened this year on Montpelier’s west side. Most importantly, more than one review mentioned great biscuits. Hopeful, but still skeptical, we decided to check them out for breakfast.

Stepping in, Philamena’s is basically a cozy Italian deli and cafe, with a few tables, an ordering counter, and a couple of refrigerators holding various pastas and sauces for takeout. But on weekends, they set up for brunch, and the brunch menu is decidedly different from their usual Italian fare, instead consisting of Eggs Benedict, some sweet biscuits, several pancakes, and omelets… plus a few interesting nods to the Italian side, like Cacio e Pepe con Ouvo (spaghetti with cheese and poached eggs), or a nice Italian egg bake.

But we came for biscuits, so biscuits are what we ordered, in the form of their Benedict. I’m usually pretty particular about my Benedict having an English muffin for a base, but in this case, I made the exception so I could try the biscuit. And a few minutes after ordering, our Benedicts arrived. Giving the rundown on the components…. the eggs were poached to perfection. The Hollandaise sauce was particularly vivid yellow, but was a well-executed sauce, with a slight creamy note and a good strong tang without being too acidic. I opted for the bacon Benedict (another non-standard indulgence), and this was some good quality bacon nicely cooked to crisp edges without becoming too crunchy. A solid grouping of ingredients. Which leads to the biscuit. Was it up to the standard of the rest of the Benedict? In a word, yes. This was, in my often non-delicate way of giving compliments, “Finally, a biscuit that does not suck.” It was indeed a proper biscuit: still fresh and moist, with a nice flakiness and a good crumb, and a flavor that was rich, doughy and buttery without being overly salty. In short, this was the best biscuit I’ve had in Northern New England, by far. I’d happily come back and try to entice Philamena’s to do a variation of the classic Southern “Ham Biscuit”.

So, were we pleased? Indeed, we were. Enough so that I need to make it a priority to come back and see if the Italian side of their menu is as good as the biscuit. But until then, I say, “Thank you very much for a biscuit that didn’t suck.”

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