Pauline’s Cafe (South Burlington, VT)

It’s been a dreary week of early spring in Burlington.  Despite the cloud cover, it was brightened by the first anniversary of my girlfriend Morgan deciding to go vegan.  She’d decided months ago to make it her cheat day, and her heart was set on a particular dish: smoked salmon.  After a bit of googling, I made an online party of two reservation for that evening.

If you’ve ever driven into Burlington from the south, you used US Route 7.  It connects Norwalk, CT with St Albans, VT, running northward along the western edge of Vermont, directly through Burlington.  If you’ve ever been on Rt 7 south of Burlington, you’ve passed Pauline’s Cafe, though you may not have noticed it.  The restaurant is sandwiched between a gas station and an inn, and its parking is almost entirely behind it, so it has a decidedly subtle presence.

That subtlety serves it well though, with its cozy dining room and fairly small bar.  Pauline’s makes use of an old Victorian house, using the bulk of the ground floor as its dining area.  This drives the coziness, as having multiple smaller rooms means fewer tables per room.  This means fewer guests, and that means less noise.

Just inside the door is a host stand and a place to hang your coats, quite necessary this far north.  Behind the stand is the bar, and to your left the dining room opens up.  Morgan and I were led around the bar to a booth nestled in an alcove next to the kitchen entrance.  You might worry about kitchen noise; I routinely forgot the door was behind me.

A server was at our table in no time for drink orders.  Water for Morgan (her choice, I promise), a pint of Lost Nation‘s Sour Gose for me.  If you’ve never had a Sour before, and you like beer, I highly recommend you try it.  This one headlined its citrusy sour flavor, with hops and lemony notes to compliment the dryness, making it a crisp, refreshing beverage I could enjoy both alone and with my dinner.

It wasn’t long before the food arrived.  Morgan’s smoked salmon didn’t disappoint, though on the menu it is listed as an appetizer.  Naturally, this means it doesn’t come with sides and is a smaller portion, but that suited Morgan fine.  A ton of meat, even just fish, would not be a comfortable thing for her body to deal with.  She let me try some, and let me tell you.  Smoke has always been one of my favorite flavors and fish is delicious, so I knew I was going to enjoy it.  What I was not prepared for was the depth and complexity of the smoky flavor.  It was unlike anything I’ve had before, and my mouth waters at the memory.  It was interesting to eat a cold smoky dish, and not bad.  However, I’d hardly call myself a convert; smoke needs to be warm, in my opinion.

Never having even considered going vegan, I ordered one of the daily special dishes: veal meatloaf with a house-made barbecue sauce.  It was served with mashed potatoes and a side I wasn’t interested in, so I substituted some mixed greens.  I was immediately struck by the presentation.  The meatloaf was situated neatly on top of the pile of potatoes, with the greens contained in a corner of the square plate.

The first thing I tried was the house barbecue sauce.  It was thinner than most barbecue sauces I’ve encountered in the past, but it was no less flavorful.  It was tangy, as any good barbecue sauce should be, with a distinct richness that was difficult to pin down but complimented the potatoes perfectly.  The potatoes were delightfully fluffy and properly buttery, that perfect amount where the butter flavor comes through distinctly but isn’t overbearing, and had I wanted to, I easily could have buttered them further without going overboard.

This was my first time critically eating veal, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Beef, when ground, is a more tender dish than a normal cut, and the whole point of veal is that it’s more tender than beef.  Ground veal, therefore, is a bit like eating cake: soft and moist and simply delicious.  A word of caution, though: if you confuse the flavors of meatloaf with birthday cake flavors, you’re gonna have a bad time.  Quality ingredients are one thing, but a lump of soft meat doesn’t do anybody any good, and this meatloaf was far from it.  Everyone—from the prep cooks to the grill chef—knew what they were doing while this dish was being concocted.  The top and bottom of the loaf were seared to a delicious crust, one that was not so crusty as to seem dry.  Rather, it complimented the excellent tenderness of the meatloaf’s center.  Additionally, finely minced carrots and celery were a part of the mixture, and their inclusion created a wonderful diversity in this dish’s texture.

Altogether, our experience at Pauline’s Cafe was a pleasant one.  It’s a bit above my price point, as a thoroughly broke college student, but I’m confident any money spent there will be well worth it; I know mine was.

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