Oakes & Evelyn Health Check (Montpelier, VT)

As our regular readers know, here at Offbeat Eats, every once in a while we do a “health check”, revisiting one of our favorite spots and see how things are doing. We first visited Oakes & Evelyn in Montpelier back in May 2021 when they were a brand-new restaurant and the dining scene was still re-emerging from it’s long Covid-19 slumber. As you can read in that review, we were really impressed by that visit, and vowed to return for future trips. So in 2022 when we were looking for a place to celebrate our anniversary, we ended up choosing a revisit to Oakes & Evelyn, and even returned in December to celebrate my birthday (both of these visits had pretty similar Fall menus, so this review will cover both visits).

Aside from some minor readjustment and optimization of the seating, the dining and bar area at Oakes & Evelyn remains pretty much unchanged, it’s a rather nice and cozy space that we previous enjoyed when this spot was Kismet. With the large ornate bar dominating the front of the restaurant, Oakes & Evelyn has continued their excellent cocktail program, on our first visit we have a pair of Tip Top Toms, with Tomcat Gin (from Caledonia Spirits just down ther road), Campari, Cocchi Americano, and house Citrus Bitters. A good, well-rounded cocktail.

On our December visit, I ended up being lured in by the Earthly Paradise, with Barr Hill Gin (also from Caledonia), pear cordial, thyme, lemon, and whey; the combination seemed tempting to me, and in retrospect I should have expected this; I had this exact cocktail back in 2021, and it’s still a great cocktail, resembling a refined Lemon Drop. Carol, meanwhile, went for the The Arrow in the Gale, with bourbon, grappa-ginger cordial, lemon, and black pepper, and this was a nice, herbal cocktail to enjoy on a cooler day. Overall, it remains one of my favorite regional cocktail spots along with Wolf Tree and Main & Mountain.

Starting off the appetizers on both visits was the grilled naan with a harissa and lemon hummus. This was one of the surprise stars of both visits: the hummus is a perfect, smooth purée with both a surprisingly bold harissa spicing and a slight bit of lemon (both juice and rind), resulting in one of the most enjoyable hummus renditions I’ve ever had, and it’s one of the best values on the menu at $3 per person. I’d be happy to have a bowl of this and a small sandwich for a lunch.

Next up on both visits was the beef crudo. Looking back at our first visit to Oakes and Evelyn, one of the stars of that visit was a Wagyu Tartare served over house-made chips with some fresh parmesan and truffle aioli; it started with a perfectly-executed tartare (one of my most-favorite dishes) and lightly built on it with some house-made flavors, without burying the meat. The beef crudo that replaced that on the menu is a very different dish, but near-identical in calibre: The focus on this dish was some perfectly-butchered and lightly spiced crudo that still focused on the actual texture and taste of the well-marbled beef, but complemented it with some foie grad-fried onions, herbs, peanuts, and a black garlic vinaigrette that gave the overall flavor a bit of a bulgogi-like flavor, and this was a solid hit. Indeed, this is probably my overall most-favorite single dish in all of Vermont.

We also got the hamachi crudo on both vists, and it was quite similar to the hamachi crudo from our previous reviews: some fresh and nicely sliced hamachi in a coconut, kaffir lime, jalapeno, and macadamia presentation. This was actual to me a bit of an upgrade from the previous version: the bit of jalapeno and the tang of kaffir lime perfectly complement the hamachi, and this was a thoroughly enjoyable crudo.

Like our 2021 trip, our second visit in 2022 had us ordering several platters of cape cod oysters for the table, and these didn’t disappoint. Good, fresh set of well-cleaned oysters with fresh grated horseradish in a creme fraiche, and both a mignonette and a small dropper bottle of habanero-cucumber-lime vinegar which made for a very bold and flavorful dash of bright flavor alongside the quality oysters.

Next up, chef Justin brought out some bao for the table (Disclaimer: the chef knew I was coming, and sent these out gratis since he knew we’d enjoy them). These have had a major retooling in ingredients since our earlier visit, with both pork belly and Stone Farm mushroom bao on offer. I always enjoy a good bao, and these were served up with Thai herbs, Calibrian chile (for a bit of smoky kick), kewpie mayo, and togarishi, all in a fluffy but firm bun. I’d nominally call this the perfect little appetizer…

…except that the mushroom ones were better. The same basic concept, substituting a nicely-crisped oyster mushroom from Stone Farms, which was a perfect little bit of woody mushroom with a crispy-crunchy texture that actually resembled crispy pork skin a bit better than the pork itself did. Most everyone at the table enjoyed these a bit more than the pork ones, and these were a real hit.

Moving into our main courses, on our September visit, Carol and I got the ravioletto with ricotta and mushrooms, corn, bacon lardons, confit tomatoes, and pea tendrils. Basically a single large raviolo, this was a really nice little pocket of ricotta, mushroom, and corn with a perfectly al-dente pasta wrapper, with the lardons adding some nice smokiness, some confit tomatoes adding a nice bright not, and pea tendrils adding some herbal notes. A well-composed vegetarian dish, we rather enjoyed it, and in our December visit two of our tablemates enjoyed a slightly updated version of this with black truffle and kale.

On our revisit in December, I decided instead of go with a nice beef course, getting the prime strip loin. Served with bone marrow (mostly hiding here behind the loin), crisped broccolini, and cipollini onions over a bed of pureed potatoes, this was a very good strip loin, reminiscent of our previous visit’s Wagyu Strip. While less marbled that that, this was a perfectly-executed medium rare, tender, and full of flavor. The sides worked well, too, including the same crisped broccolini we’ve had here several times (although my favorite for that was the broccolini caesar, which was sublime). And the marrow? I adore a good marrow with a nice sear, and this was nicely done, reminiscent of the fine marrow we had at Le Bistrot d’Henri in Paris). Overall, an incredibly good dish, hitting on all cylinders.

Carol, meanwhile, went for the bone-in pork chop. A very large and generous chop with two ribs in it, this was served with chard, turnip greens, corn and bacon over a butternut squash and apple purée , and was a perfectly dish, the nice seared pork bits pairing very nicely with the sweater flavors of the squash and apple purée. I’m sure I would have been equally satisfied with that dish.

Shifting into desserts…. on our first visit, we split a dark chocolate budino. Served up With pecan cookie crumble and vanilla whipped cream, this was a nice, dark, rich budino (basically a thick pudding, bordering on a ganache), focusing on the dark chocolate notes. I always lean towards desserts that are on the less sweet end of the spectrum, and this delivered that perfectly.

On our followup visit in December, the dessert menu had rotated to a more holiday and winter-themed menu, and various members of our table get a selection of desserts. First up, a pair of Whoopie Pies (for those non-New Englanders among my readers, a local specialty of two soft cakes around a core of whipped filling, kinda resembling a Moon Pie without the outer dip layer). With peppermint butterfluff, ganache, and peppermint candy crumbles, this was a rich but not overly sweet treat, and quite enjoyable.

Next up, a coconut sticky rice with mango puree, fresh fruit, and basil. As I mention above, by the time dessert rolls around, I really lean towards more savory desserts, and this was the perfect counterpoint to the rest of the meal, a nice, light sticky rice with hints of coconut, basil, mango, and berry, I’d happily get this simple dessert again.

Finally, our friends Andy and Laura split an Eggnog Cheesecake, served with a chai caramel and gingerbread cookies. I didn’t sample this dish, but it was certainly attractive enough, and thoroughly enjoyed by them.

So, how is Oakes and Evelyn doing a year and a half after their opening? Splendid. They are still easy my most favorite dining destination in Vermont (and for that, they’ve got some tough competition), and their in-house abilities with various crudos remain unbeaten; that beef crudo remains my current favorite dish in all of Northern New England. I’m hoping they continue to have success, and the generally packed nature of the place even in the dead of winter suggests that others feel the same way.

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