Carpenter & Main (Norwich, VT)

After our recent whirlwind trips to Michigan and Alaska, it was nice to be back at home in the Upper Valley for a bit. We used it as a good opportunity to meet up with friends and check out one of our local places we hadn’t visited in a while: Carpenter & Main, in downtown Norwich across from Dan and Whit’s.

Carpenter & Main is getting to be one of the longer-lived fine dining restaurants in the area. I’m not sure the exact year it replaced the previous restaurant (La Poule et Dents), but it was around 2004 (shortly before I started this blog on Blogger), and it’s had at least one shift in ownership (from Chef Peter Ireland to current chef Bruce MacLeod, circa 2008), but it’s been a mainstay on Main Street for quite some time. When it originally opened, it was definitely on the high-end, fine-dining end of the spectrum, with a lighter pub fare menu available, but over the years it has focused more on tavern fare, good cocktails, and affordable Sunday dinners.

I started off my dinner with a cocktail. The Upper Valley doesn’t have a lot of good cocktail bars that feature their own house cocktails, but Carpenter & Main has reliably been one of the better offerings in the Upper Valley. On this trip, I had a Split Level, with Pisco, jalapeno-infused tequila, Cointreau, lime, pineapple, and orange bitters, and it was a nice, tangy and fruity cocktail for enjoying a summer afternoon.

The overall dinner menu at Carpenter & Main is essentially “small plates”, with a nice selection of appetizers and smaller entrees, which I rather like, since it gives you a chance to get a handful of appetizers to share while not worrying about eating too much when the entree comes. For our table, we started with roasted beets with Moroccan spices. Served cold, these were quite nicely executed: the golden beets were roasted just to the point of being tender and caramelized, and the Moroccan spices added a nice aromatic note to the dish while not covering up the beets themselves.

Next up was a plate of fried green tomatoes, served up with a tangy remoulade. I always love this dish, and the rendition here was expertly done: the tomatoes cooked just to the point of al dente, the breading nice and crisp, but still soft, which really helps avoid having the tomato collapse when cutting it apart. And the remoulade was a nice, tangy version that added a nice spicy note to the tomatoes while not covering them up.

For my main course, I went for a classic: steak frites. I really do enjoy a classic, well-executed steak frites (indeed, on my 2019 trip to Paris and Grenoble, I had about a half dozen variants on that theme), mostly since it is an exercise in simplicity: a simple steak, nicely done, some frites, and a light salad to green things up. The Carpenter & Main version was quite nicely done: my steak was a nice medium rare with a good sear, the fries nicely done, and the house-made steak sauce a nice complement. I’d definitely get this again.

Carol had opted for the buttermilk chicken, which was served up with slaw and a sweet potato haystack. Here, we weren’t as impressed as the steak frites; while nothing was wrong per se with this dish, I always like a good fried chicken to have contrast: a crispy exterior and a really moist interior, and this came out a bit dry, which is surprising for chicken legs. Not bad, but this was definitely the weak point in the meal.

When we got to dessert, however, Carpenter & Main really shined. One notable dessert at our table was a Tiramisu Mousse. Served up with a raspberry coulis, this was a very nicely executed mousse. Too often, I find mousses to be overly sweet and cloying, but their version was nicely balanced and smooth.

Our friend Sarah ended up going for a classic ice cream sundae. I don’t actually see these much anymore, and if I do, it’s usually something informal with some toppings dumped onto a scoop of ice cream, instead of a classic layered confection assembled into a nice parfait glass. The version at Carpenter & Main, however, was a refreshing return to the classic presentation, and perfectly executed. Starting with the excellent ice cream from Strafford Organic Creamery down the road, the rest of it was nicely layered with good sauce, and real whipped cream. I’ll have to remember this the next time I’ve got a sundae craving.

I rounded out the desserts with a simpler dessert, a root beer float. But making it with the same Strafford Organic Creamery ice cream, and using a good root beer (Boylan’s), this was a nice way to round out my meal.

Overall, I enjoyed our evening at Carpenter & Main, particularly the cocktails, the desserts, and the steak frites. I’ll have to work them into my rotation a bit more often.

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