Monday, March 12, 2012

Love Buns and Pickled Shitakes

You can see the steamed windows from a block away, the glass foggy with oven warmth on this cold, late winter morning.

It’s a rare day when my two teenage daughters aren’t busy with friends, homework, dance (Isabel) or soccer (Faye). But they have the week off from school, so I’m able to pull them away from other demands and distractions to join me for lunch. My husband Chris had tucked a gift card in my Christmas stocking, knowing my enthusiasm for Vergennes Laundry, a stylish French bakery/café, in the former space of a dreary, little Laundromat. I’m finally getting a chance to cash in his gift, treating my girls to a delectable lunch, and myself to some uninterrupted time with them.

One of my favorite things about Vergennes Laundry is that it transports me to France, a place that I love and where I’ve had the good fortune to live for several brief periods of time. The bakery’s authenticity is evident in every detail, from the fleur de sel topping their irresistible chocolate cookies, to the chalkboard menu, to the handleless coffee cups. But they also incorporate Vermont products in creative ways, resulting in a Franco-Vermont marriage that is attracting the attention of national magazines such as Food and Wine. Fittingly, the bakery is owned by Middlebury College grad Julianne Jones and her French husband Didier Murat.

The space is anything but dreary now, decked out mostly in white, with the occasional bright orange detail. From the inside, the steamy windows cast a muted light, which softens all the whiteness and stainless steel.  It feels more Danish than French to me, and the overall aesthetic is definitely more Euro than Vermont. A massive mounted caribou head is a reminder that we’re still in rural New England, but somehow he looks über-chic up there on his perch.

The girls slept in this morning and haven’t had breakfast, so this is technically a brunch for them, giving them free reign to order pastries in addition to a lunch item. It’s their first time here, although I’ve been several times before, so they take their time deciding.

Faye starts with a Love Bun, an appropriate choice given where her thoughts have been lately, and I would wager a guess that she chose this sweet bun as much for its name as for the sugar shimmering on its surface. The Love Bun is a cinnamon roll with a citrus twist, the grapefruit and lemon zest adding a welcome zing to its classic cinnamon sweetness. 

She pairs that with a cappuccino (made with robust Intelligentsia beans), and delights in the creamy heart on its surface—the perfect pairing with her Love Bun. It’s her first cappuccino and a bit dark for her taste, but just right for mine.

Isabel forgoes the pastry and savors a café au lait, served in a handleless bowl customary of French breakfast coffee. It too comes with a creamy heart on its surface, and Isabel tips the rim to her lips with satisfaction. At sixteen, she’s become a coffee drinker and knows a good cup when she tastes one. 

I’m tempted by a chocolat chaud, made by pouring steamed milk over one of the Laundry’s ganache truffles. Last time I was here I had one and it’s deliciously rich, but not dark enough for me. I also prefer to have my chocolate at the end of my meal instead. The pain au chocolat is tempting too. I’ve had one of those here before too and it was excellent, but denser than the classic French pastry. In a rare occurrence, I couldn’t finish mine and let Chris have the last few bites.

I opt for the savory tart, today topped with Brussels sprouts, capers, crème fraiche, pecorino, and local Twig Farm tomme. It’s light but toothsome, the slightly bitter sprouts a nice counterpart to the salty capers and cheeses. A chewy pain au levain (sour dough) crust balances out the full flavors. 

On previous visits, I’ve gotten the potato rosemary tart, a simple combination of thinly sliced potatoes and piney rosemary that tastes like the essence of Provence to me.  The apple tart is also spot on, with its butter and apple melt in your mouth goodness that so often is obscured by too much sugar in the typical American version.

For our next course, Faye selects a classic Parisian sandwich: ham and butter on a baguette. This was often our go-to lunch when we were touring around Paris, and the Laundry’s version is better than most we had in France. The Vermont Smoke and Cure ham is thinly sliced and not too salty, and the cultured butter, from Vermont Butter and Cheese, is fresh and creamy. A welcome change from the ubiquitous, over-refined white baguettes, the pain au levain bread has some heft. This sandwich is the epitome of simplicity, but made with these high quality ingredients, it tastes like what every ham sandwich should aspire to be.

Isabel and I order the soup, today a velvety purée of sunchokes topped with pickled shitakes. It’s earthy, nutty, and oh so creamy, and its subtle sunchoke essence is enhanced by the tangy mushrooms. I love mushrooms and eat them in all sorts of ways, but pickled is a first for me. It works, though, because the tart pickling flavor isn’t overpowering; I gladly accept Isabel’s, as she’s not a fan of fungi.

For dessert, the three of us share a cannelé, which looks like a mini bundt cake and is made from a rum custard that sits for two days before baking. The center is moist and mild; the best part is its carmelized crust, which is slightly gooey and tastes vaguely like the burnt sugar top of a crème brulée. 

We also can’t leave without sampling one of my house favorites: chocolate sablés, small chocolate cookies dense with dark chocolate chunks and sprinkled with fleur de sel. 

By this point, the coffee is kicking in, especially for Faye who usually doesn’t drink coffee. Plus the sugar from her Love Bun and dessert. Giggles erupt from our corner of the café, in the way that only a 13 year old girl can giggle. People look up from their laptops and conversations, but Faye doesn’t notice, caught up in a sugar/caffeine/hormonal high. Isabel laughs too and then gives me her exasperated big sister look. She has one foot out the door, not only of this bakery and the embarrassing moment, but of our present lives. Her other foot is reaching for her future and all the exciting plans she has in the making.

And so on this day at Vergennes Laundry—a surprising gem in the western Vermont city of Vergennes, population 2,588—I’m transported not only to France for a quick visit, but also back to a time when my girls were little and the three of us had all the time in the world to laugh around a table, in the steamy warmth of a bakery.


  1. mouth is watering! I haven't been there yet - have to make a point to have lunch in Vergennes!

    1. You both would love it. And it's just down the street from the wine store!

  2. omg, it looks and sounds divine! my kids cried when PARK SQUEEZE closed, and i still miss EAT GOOD FOOD terribly. glad to see there is a new special place to try.