Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Claire's Restaurant - One Delicious Reason to Stop in Hardwick, VT

I was enamored with Claire's Restaurant before I even set foot in the dining room. And it didn't have anything to do with salivating over an on-line menu, as one might expect. In fact, there is no on-line menu because Claire's menu changes with the seasons, which brings me to my first reason for aforementioned infatuation: the menu is seasonal because it's based on what is available from the farms and producers in the area during any particular season. Approximately 80% of the food prepared by Claire's comes from the very local area. Now, in a place like California, sourcing the vast majority of food for a restaurant locally throughout the year might be a challenge, but certainly one that could be overcome with a bit of tenacity. But Vermont?!? It snows there for several months a year..that's why it's known as a skiing destination, as opposed to a gastro-destination! The growing season is short, and crops limited by the geography and climate. To truly appreciate the brilliance of Chef Steven, I reckon one should hit up the restaurant mid-February and marvel at what he's pulled from the root cellar and sourced from local meat producers, bakers, and cheesemakers to create an enticing meal.

In addition to the restaurant's dedication to buying locally, Claire's also has an impressive on-line presence, with a well-designed website, a fantastic blog that's updated regularly, AND they tweet regularly (@clairesvt)! In addition to highlighting in-season foods that are featured on their menu (e.g. fiddleheads which are in season right now), the blog provides links to its suppliers, and information about entertainment and events happening at the restaurant and around town. Tweets include updates regarding drink specials and menu items of the day, as well as interesting food and agriculture related news items, etc. Savvy marketing paired with education and community events - love it!

Finally, my admiration for this restaurant was cemented after reading several news articles that explained how Claire's restaurant had come to be a reality. The restaurant truly was a community supported effort, with members of the small town of Hardwick taking a leap of faith and purchasing $1,000 coupons (redeemable once monthly for $25 of food over Claire's first 4 years of business) in advance of the restaurant's opening to provide operating capital. A community supported restaurant, what a fantastic concept!

So, of course, my first meal in Hardwick had to be at Claire's. I went with Kate, who is one of the collective that run Buffalo Mountain Co-op grocery store, just two doors down on Main Street. The interior of Claire's is inviting and warm, spacious and cozy at the same time. We took a window seat and were greeted by a friendly server who Kate evidently knew quite well. It didn't take me long to figure out that in a town this small, everybody knew everybody. The menu was tantalizing - it was the first part of October, and the bountiful harvest showed through on the tempting selection of appetizers, mains and desserts available that evening. I ended up choosing an acorn squash stuffed with tofu, grains (including groats), and topped with delicious cheese. Luckily I chose to forgo the appetizer (truth be told I had my sights set on a dessert), because the main dish was an extremely generous portion of deliciousness. I somehow made my way through it, and despite feeling very satiated, I believe Kate and I agreed to share a dessert. I cannot recall what it was, but I am certain it was delicious.

During my first couple of weeks living in Hardwick, I fought the urge to return to Claire's. I could only handle so much indulgence and feared I might become addicted to the menu if I went back regularly. I did, however, elect to attend a fundraising event that was being hosted by one of Claire's servers on a Wednesday evening, when the restaurant itself was closed. The server was raising money to fund her trip to Africa, where she would be teaching local people sustainable agricultural practices. Her weapon of choice for fundraising: a dessert buffet. How brilliant!! Who could resist the combination of 'doing good' and indulging one's sweet tooth at the same time? It was sooooooo yummy!

Finally, after about three weeks I broke down and went to Claire's for a second dinner, this time I had the brisket. It was fantastic and, again, an extremely generous serving. At some point I decided that I should check out the bar area of Claire's. Thankfully they served a number of local beers, so I was able to enjoy alcohol while sticking to my locav-or-ganic pledge. After a couple of hours at the bar, chatting with Elena, a wonderful and inspiring woman I'd met my first week in Hardwick, I realised that I'd been missing out dearly by denying myself visits to Claire's. The bar was, after all, THE place to say hello to neighbours and make new friends. It also provided excellent live entertainment every Thursday evening and great drink specials on Sunday and Monday nights. I tried to make up for missed opportunities by going to the bar more frequently than I probably should have, but am quite sure I never made up completely for missed bar fly nights!

I never did get to try Claire's 'Blunch', a twist on the traditional brunch that is served only on Sundays. But I'm heading back to Prince Edward Island soon and have a feeling I may be stopping over in Hardwick for a weekend. If so, I'm pretty sure you'll find me at Claire's on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon!

Below is the brisket I had on my second visit to Claire's.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hardwick, Vermont - The Beginning...

In my life, I have discovered that places are like people. There are some places where you can always go, knowing that you'll find a feeling of familiarity and of 'being at home', just as there are people in your life with whom you know you can always feel comfortable just being yourself.

There are other places that you'll find yourself in for a slice of your life and, if you are open to it, these places will offer an abundance of experiences that can, in small ways and big ways, change the course of your life and/or your perspective, just as there are people that will pass through your life - they may stay briefly or stick around for longer - that will offer you insights into yourself and the world around you that will serve your evolution. Sometimes these places and people, I'll call them change agents, have such a strong impact on your head or heart that you struggle with leaving or letting them go, even when you innately know it's time to do so.

And then, in rare instances, you may be lucky enough to find yourself in a place that is a source of inspiration and evolution, as well as comfort and familiarity, just as you may be fortunate enough to meet someone whom you are instantly at ease with, but who also challenges you to move beyond your own barriers to growth and then gives you room to grow. These are what I like to think of as our soul-places and our soulmates. Perhaps that's a bit dramatic for some people. I know there are many who do not 'believe' in the concept of a soulmate, but I do believe there are some people and some places, where one's soul can rest easy that it is 'home' while also finding adventure and insight. The thing is, sometimes it's easy to overlook a soul-place or a soulmate. You find yourself instantly comfortable in their presence, so they don't necessarily offer the same intrigue that a change agent might, nor can you immediately place them in your 'safe' corner, because you don't have a history of trust upon which you can rely. So, in the end, you have to listen to and trust your instinct or your 'gut' feeling. Easier said then done, but worth straining your ears to hear and stretching your heart to trust.

And so it was in the early fall of 2009, as the leaves were doing their annual fire dance, that I found myself rolling into a tiny town called Hardwick in the North Eastern Kingdom of Vermont. Little did I know then, as I found my way to Main Street and tentatively entered the Buffalo Mountain Co-op grocery store to find my soon-to-be- landlady, Kate, that I had found that very rare treasure - a soul place.

My first night in Hardwick was a teaser, I arrived at twilight and had to drive on to PEI first thing the following morning to run the half marathon, and then return to Hardwick two weeks later just in time to see out October and begin four weeks of field research. At some point between waiting in the Buffalo cafe for Kate, enjoying a locally-sourced meal at Claire's Restaurant, where it seemed like everyone stopped by to say hello to Kate, and waking up to a crisp mountain air, my heart tugged. I knew then, without a doubt, that this little town was far more than a 'place' for me to carry out my research. It was to be another significant guiding post on my journey, and all I needed to do was be open to the direction it would send me - towards my bliss.