Oakes & Evelyn (Montpelier, VT)

The big thing that limited my restaurant reviews during the last year’s pandemic was the simple fact that I’ve had very, very little formal restaurant dining. Indeed, between March 2020 and May 2021, Carol and I had exactly one elaborate, sit-down dinner, and that was at one of our local favorites for fancy meals, Pine (for which you can read an older 2014 review), where we had a splendid anniversary dinner, seated at a socially-distanced table on their outdoor patio on a beautiful September evening. But then a big shift happened at Pine in January 2021: we got news that, while Pine wasn’t closing (indeed, reports from friends are that it is still doing well), the chef there, Justin Dain, was leaving, along with manager Emily Chism and Bar Manager James Ives (who has had stints working with several of the better bar programs in the area). They were moving to Montpelier, Vermont, to open up a new restaurant in a space on west State Street recently vacated by Kismet (another favorite of mine, recently downsizing to their original location over on Barre St). The new restaurant is named Oakes & Evelyn, named in honor of two of Chef Justin’s relatives.

I was really excited for the change; while it placed one of my favorite area chefs, as well as a very imaginative cocktail program, substantially further from our home (Montpelier is about an hour fifteen from our place, so just far enough away to limit regular visits), I thought it sounded like a great opportunity. I always liked Pine, and their special event dinners were always a really great treat (particularly, I remember the Laphroaig dinner featured in my review, and a dinner where chef Justin recreated his menu from the invited dinner he did at the James Beard House), but Pine always suffered a little bit from what chef Ellis Cooley at AMP 150 once called the “Hotel effect”: if you’re running the in-house restaurant for a hotel with business travelers, you’re also the default choice for those travelers, so a good portion of the menu has to be dedicated to things like burgers and fries in addition to whatever inventive cuisine you’ve got, and I definitely got some of that vibe at Pine. I had a good dozen top-notch specialty dinners, events, and even the occasional lunch or dinner; but on a handful of dinner visits, the menu was a bit, well, plain. By moving to the smaller former Kismet site in Montpelier, I was fully expecting Justin to use this opportunity to shift to a smaller, more intimate dining experience and focus more on the specialty items that he did well with at Pine (gnocchi, small plates, and sous vide).

Just one little hitch for us…. Back in November 2021, Vermont changed their Covid-19 policy to restricting Vermont travel to those fully-vaccinated, quarantined, on essential travel, or with a recent negative Covid test. We’ve been trying to be reasonably good about observing the Vermont rules, so this generally kept mid-Vermont restaurants outside of our range, so we decided to defer a trip to Oakes & Evelyn until either travel rules were relaxed or we were “fully vaccinated”. Turned out both of these turned out to happen almost simultaneously, approximately around Carol’s birthday to boot; a week after we were fully vaccinated, and the day before our visit to Oakes & Evelyn, most of the Vermont Covid restrictions were lifted. So on a Saturday evening in mid-May, we arrived to finally experience something a long time in coming: a nice, fancy sit-down dinner, inside a restaurant. Indeed, I had to chuckle a bit when we saw our table; on our last half-dozen visits to the previous restaurant, Kismet (including a visit to the now-closed Himitsu Sushi roaming sushi takeover), we had sat in this exact same seat, so it was a bit like settling into a comfortable, familiar seat, one smack in the center of the restaurant, giving a view into the kitchen.

The menu at Oakes & Evelyn perfectly matched my expectations. Starting with the cocktails, they maintain a list of standard house cocktails with a rotating selection of seasonals. I could see the clear hand of James Ives here: many of the cocktails were refinements of the concepts from Pine, with a few new twists added. I particularly enjoyed my Midas Touch: bourbon, ginger-saffron honey, lemon, and black pepper tincture. Carol, meanwhile, tried the house specialty Earthly Paradise, with gin, pear cordial, thyme, lemon, and whey (the last a nice, unusual addition, the result was a bit like a refined Lemon Drop).

The food menu is broken up into appetizers, small plates, and large plates, primarily focusing on a combination of local farm ingredients as well as a good selection of seafood dishes. We started with an order of Cape Cod oysters. Despite Vermont getting to be a bit distant from the coast, while it is certainly not like going to, say, Portland, a handful of places in the area seem to be good at sourcing decent oysters (anyone else remember early in Worthy Burger’s history when they had good oysters?), and Oakes & Evelyn definitely had its A game going here: good, fresh set of well-cleaned oysters with fresh grated horseradish and both a mignonette and a Tabasco/citrus emulsion that complemented the oysters without covering them.

Next up in the appetizers was a pair of the Thai chile chicken bao (Disclaimer: the chef knew I was coming, and sent out two of the dishes to highlight what he thought were his appetizer highlights: the bao and the beef tartare). Each was a small tender of Thai-spiced chicken, served up with a kimchi-ranch dressing and a healthy portion of pickled daikon and carrot. I adore a nicely-composed bao, especially with a nice fusion mix of flavors (see my recent review of Broken Spoon for some other memorable recent bao), and these were quite pleasing. The underlying chicken was nicely spiced, with a perfect, moist slab of chicken with a nicely crisped breading. Add on a nice crunch from the pickled veggies, a bold tang from the kimchi-ranch sauce, and a nicely fluffy but firm bun, and these were the perfect little appetizer in both flavor and texture. I’ll happily order these again.

Next up was another highlight sent out by the kitchen: the American Wagyu Tartare. Those that know me well know that I truly enjoy a well-composed tartare; probably the best example I’ve written up was from Kwint in Brussels, but I’ve had some quite good tartares in places as diverse as Cleveland (the late Greenhouse Tavern, and even they stumbled once or twice) and the Lyon airport departure lounge, and done well, it’s a think of beauty: tender morsels of lightly-minced (it must still showcase the basic texture of the underlying meat), dressed just enough to give a bit of salt and tangy notes and round out the flavors without burying the meat. Before our own portion arrived at our table, I was a bit concerned about Oakes & Evelyn’s version, served as a hearty patty surrounded with a crown of house-made chips, seasoned with a truffle aioli, and covered in fresh-grated parmesan, might bury the flavors of the meat… but I shouldn’t have been. The American Wagyu beef remained the star here: served up as a lightly seasoned and oiled coarse mince, the truffle oil was applied with a light hand, so the resulting mince was neither overly truffle-ish or oily. The fresh-grated parmesan served much of the “salt” function, adding some nice flavor notes without interrupting the texture. The house made chips were the perfect vehicle for delivering scoops of the perfectly executed tartare. If there was a single favorite dish from the night, this was it, and something I’ll happily order on my next visit.

Next up, sticking with the basic tartare theme, was a hamachi crudo. The combination of fresh hamachi with good citrus is a nice, sublime combination, and just a little bit of vegetable pep (pepper, tomato, or tomatillo all work well) rounds it out very nicely; I still remember the excellent crudo I had at the no-longer-existent Uozumi in Palmdale, CA, and I’ve been chasing that ever since. Oakes & Evelyn’s version was a nice rendition: the hamachi itself was perfectly sliced, the citrus notes provided by sliced blood orange, and the tanginess provided by a nice tomatillo. It was a nice combination, and again showed the spirit of dressing the ingredient without covering it (although I’d adore it if they played around with some Anaheim or jalapeño pepper in this as well).

Our final appetizer was the broccolini Caesar. There are certain menu items that will always draw my eye, and broccolini is definitely one of them. I really do enjoy broccolini as one of my favorite cruciferous vegetables, combining the nice leafy blossoms of broccoli with an almost asparagus-like stalk. This dish was a classic example of “does what it says on the tin”. The result is pretty much exactly what I’d expect for a “broccolini Caesar”: a nicely dressed set of crisped broccolini with an egg, a nice tangy dressing, and some bits of brioche crouton. While being a distinct departure from the classic Caesar, the broccolini works well here. I’m not exactly sure the secret here, but I suspect this is a combination of sous vide and grilling: the broccolini stalks were soft without being overcooked, and the blossoms were perfectly crisped without being burnt. I wish I could figure out how to get broccolini done that perfectly, so I’ll call this a nice success as well.

Moving into the main course, both Carol and I opted for the same dish: the American Wagyu strip loin. A lot was going on here: two nice pieces of medium-rate strip loan served over a bed of German-style tangy potato salad, served up with more crispy broccolini (although the broccolini here wasn’t quite as good as that used in the Caesar), black garlic, and a nicely made house chimichurri sauce of pickled herbs. I rather enjoyed this, but I thought that the tartare did a much better job of highlighting the American Wagyu; some of the subtlety got lost here. But the rest of the dish really was put together well: the potato salad made for a nice starchy and tangy base, and the chimichurri had both a good herbal tang but not burying the rest of the flavors. Don’t get me wrong, this was a good dish, and I enjoyed it, but I feel there’s a bit of room for improvement here.

Finally, the dessert: I’m not much of a dessert person in general, but the dessert menu here called out two of the dessert flavors I enjoy the most: chocolate (preferably without a lot of sugar; especially as I age, I’m becoming more and more of a bitter chocolate fan) and cherry. This was a nice, simple chocolate tart that had just enough cherry (in the form of both a whip and the Luxardo cherries) to really balance it out. A nice way to finish out the meal without being overly sweet or cloying.

Overall, I was delighted. For our first real restaurant outing in eight months (and our first real return to indoor dining), this really hit the spot. I’m looking forward to some future visits to Oakes & Evelyn in the coming months; I’m sad that other obligations of mine keep me from attending their next cocktail dinner. Meanwhile, they’ve got quite a few menu items that really show of the kitchen’s talent, with the beef tartare and the crispy broccolini Caesar being some of the best menu items I’m currently aware of in Northern New England, and quite a few others like the bao and the crudo being top class as well. Chef Justin has definitely been enjoying the new spot (running much of the food to tables himself). It’s definitely more of a drive than Pine ever was, but Justin’s doing a lot of great work, and we’re definitely coming back.

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