The little town of Waterbury, Vermont (perhaps best known as the hometown of Ben & Jerry's) has been representing in the James Beard Foundation awards for a number of years. Waterbury is where you'll find the original Hen of the Wood restaurant. Its chef, Eric Warnstedt, has been nominated as Best Chef: Northeast for five years running.
Something tells me the sixth year might be the charm, especially since Hen of the Wood just opened a second spot in the bigger burg of Burlington. The restaurant is gorgeous, with a natural, contemporary feel that complements the simple and yet sophisticated food that comes from the open kitchen and features a bounty of local ingredients.
Locality extended to my dessert of choice: the Opera Cake ($9). Standing regally on the plate are six layers of almond sponge cake, but instead of the traditional coffee syrup, the sponge has been soaked in maple-rum syrup. Alternating between layers are maple buttercream and chocolate ganache, with the cake's glaze containing cocoa powder and cocoa nibs. There's a smear of the glaze on the plate, upon which is a perfect scoop of bean-flecked vanilla ice cream.
This opera cake is at once rich and light, the richness coming from the intense flavor of each layer. I say "bravo" in appreciation of the delicate play between the ice cream and the cake, and would order this again for an encore performance, though other desserts (with components like pine needle meringue, honey roasted crabapples, and maple walnut fudge) also entice me—as does an incredible selection of local Vermont cheeses.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.