Magnolia restaurant, in the heart of Burlington, prides itself for being “committed to the environment”. According to their mission statement, “we are proud to have been the first Green Certified Restaurant in Vermont, and our actions reflect these values on a daily basis”. On their website they emphasize that they purchase non GMO products, they recycle waste, have 10 energy star appliances and work with the Vermont Fresh Network. These are all wonderful and commendable efforts. I applaud them for it. I truly support the notion of a restaurant that has a small carbon footprint and shores up the local economy. On paper, it sounds like the best of all worlds: local, healthy ingredients that come together to showcase what Vermont organic farming has to offer. For all these reasons, I was happy to visit Magnolia to experience for myself their food and atmosphere.
It is not unusual in Vermont to find eateries that are invested in environmental correctness. It is part of the lifestyle and, thankfully, I feel that it tends to elevate the bar for everyone involved, from farmers to chefs. I also think that most people expect the food to somehow convey that philosophy. After all, the experience of a restaurant is not merely academic or cerebral, but very much mediated by the senses and emotion. In one word, the dishes must taste good and be satisfying at a very elemental level. It then follows that elevating ingredients of the highest quality is rather an easier task than endowing second rate food with freshness and flavor. Consequently, it was my assumption that great care of preparation would surely follow because I can attest that in Vermont there are excellent organic farming practices, a great deal of respect for food and a growing community of food lovers that ensure the quality of the ingredients at hand.
The locale is situated in a basement of an old brick building right off Church Street. It is a perfect spot for breakfast after a morning jaunt around the Saturday farmers market. After spending time looking at the beautifully stocked stands full of fresh fruits and vegetables, walking among the enticing smells of grilled artisanal sausages and freshly baked bread I was understandably hungry and decided to pay Magnolia Bistro a much anticipated visit.
The menu had GF symbols marking a handful of dishes that were completely gluten free. The majority of side order items in the menu were also gluten free (sausage, bacon, eggs, potatoes) and it seemed that the GF symbol was consistently and accurately applied. Nevertheless, and in order to err on the side of caution, I ordered what appeared to be a solid and rather uncomplicated breakfast dish. My expectations are easily met with some honest food, simply prepared, with no frills or complicated components. The “classic breakfast”, as it is called in the menu, succinctly consists of just eggs, your choice of meat and hash browns. It also includes your choice of bread with an available gluten free option. That really sealed the deal for me. It is rare to be able to substitute bread for actual GF bread. In my experience you typically have to wrangle with the server for some salad or maybe some extra potatoes or a side of fruit. Most of the time, you are simply expected to do without and be quiet about it.
I waited sipping rather weak coffee, until a different server approached my table. She carried an oval platter (talk about raising expectations) with my breakfast. As she came near I was able to observe its contents and it gave me pause. Two small scrambled eggs were flanked by a few shriveled strands of fried potato and such a tiny sausage that it insisted on rolling back and forth as she lowered the plate on to the table. I thought for a moment it might land on my lap. It looked like an orphan link sausage, lost in the middle of an oversize white platter. The hash browns were no more than a single, lacy and very overcooked layer of what must have been a quarter of a very modest size potato. With one single poke of the fork, it all came off the plate at once. The toast that I had so much been looking forward to was an inexplicably small rectangular piece of bread that had mockingly been cut into two miniature triangles. I was so hungry by the time I finished (it took no more than 5 minutes) that, against my better judgment, I unashamedly raided the sugary strawberry jam pot that was sitting on the table.
Although it is true that the flavor of the eggs and sausage were good, the portion size and appearance of the dish were by far a disappointment. Being stingy with potatoes is a capital offense in my book, even if they are locally sourced, organic and heirloom. My expectations of a proper breakfast were dashed the moment I laid eyes on that sad, sad platter.
As I left, I kept wondering if it had been an unfortunate coincidence that I had arrived just as they were running out of food. Perhaps it just happened to be a cruel breakfast prank and someone had secretly recorded my disenchantment as my plate was placed in front of me. One has to have a sense of humor about these things, although I guess we will never know…In any case, I had come to terms with the fact that I would have to eat something else at home to supplement such meager start of the day. Fortunately, the rest of my Saturday resumed as it should in Vermont: with plentiful sunshine, the shimmering Lake Champlain on the horizon and a glorious, home cooked second breakfast.