Bennington B&B adds A-plus bistro
The Alexandra Inn in Bennington, Vt. has a view over town and the Bennington monument, 12 rooms for guests, and a growing reputation for owner Daniel Tarquino's cuisine in the inn's small bistro. (Caleb Kenna / Globe Photo)
BENNINGTON, Vt. - Is this the same room where we had breakfast? This morning, the room was sunlit, peach pancake-scented, bustling with tourists carbing up for Green Mountain hikes. Outside, our host shooed away blue jays so he could refill the bird feeder with suet and birdseed.
Now the lights are low, there's a snowy tablecloth, a wine list, a jazz CD purring in the background. An appetizer of plump, fragrant sea scallops is set before me. The room holds four tables - I've had more people clustered around my Thanksgiving table.
By definition, a bistro is small, intimate, serving moderately-priced meals in an unpretentious setting. Does the cozy bistro still exist? It does - in this unlikely Vermont bed-and-breakfast.
At the Alexandra Inn Bed & Breakfast in Bennington, in a restored 1859 farmhouse just a squeak over the border from Massachusetts, a private dining room -available exclusively to guests at the inn - accommodates a mere 10 diners nightly.
The two-acre, 12-room B&B and bistro are owned and run by Daniel Tarquino, 27, a self-taught cook who purchased the inn and quietly turned it into a cozy gourmet retreat.
As guests relax over a glass of wine, Tarquino bustles between tiny kitchen and tiny dining room, serving up locally sourced, seasonal, professional-quality meals, accented with a hint of his Latin heritage. Consider one recent menu: plump, perfectly seared scallop; a salad of baby mesclun and Vermont goat cheese; and ahi tuna with a piquant walnut chimichurri.
"Cooking has always been a part of my life," Tarquino said. "I come from Colombia. Early on I was exposed to my mom and my grandmother and the maids that we had cooking for the family. I was always drawn by the aromas of what they were cooking. I always wanted to learn how to create that food."
Although my husband and I had planned a day of poking around antique shops, we lingered over coffee and fresh-baked scones as Tarquino told us about the B&B.
After graduating from college in Albany, N.Y., in 2003 with a business degree, Tarquino maxed out his credit cards to purchase the inn where he had worked weekends and summers as an undergraduate. Then-owners Alex Koks and Andra Erickson, for whom the Alexandra is named, were poised to retire just as Tarquino sought an alternative to Wall Street.
"I wanted to be my own boss," he said. "I saw my college buddies working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week at investment banks, and I knew that wasn't for me."
Like most New England inns, the Alexandra turned out breakfast for its guests. But things changed in the winter of 2005, when a group of executives who were staying here urged Tarquino to start serving dinner and get a liquor license so they wouldn't have to brave the December snowdrifts to get a bite and a brandy. Tarquino took their advice, opening the bar and bistro. His license restricts dinner service to patrons staying at the inn and their guests.
In addition to the traditional soups, stews, and braises he learned in Colombia, Tarquino also acquired more European-style recipes from the Dutch innkeepers during his summer stints. He added a copy of the Culinary Institute of America's "The Professional Chef" to his arsenal, as he boned up on more advanced techniques, like the art of sauce-making.
"The town has a little bit of everything - fine dining, casual dining bistro - but nothing has Latin American flair," Tarquino said. "I wanted to be able to show that to our guests."
He buys ingredients in the morning, preps the food in the afternoon, and serves in the evening. Menu choices change daily based on what looks good at the farmstand and the butcher's. Guests are required to book at least a day ahead, so Tarquino knows how much food to purchase.
But working small has its advantages: "Because we only prep what we buy during the day and only for our guests, we can concentrate on the quality of the ingredients, and I am able to explore my culinary boundaries," Tarquino said. His voice rises with excitement as he talks about tonight's dishes: a wintry veal osso buco with pine nut gremolata and hogao, a Colombian take on a tomato ragout. He's looking forward to exploring the bold flavors of game meats this fall and winter.
In addition to Vermont-brewed beers and a standard selection of liquors, the wine list focuses solely on Chile and Argentina, which Tarquino has selected for uniqueness as well as for value and quality.
He laughed when I described the setup as elite.
"No, no, no!" he said. "Please don't call us that. I have always envisioned being able to open to the public one day, have a full-scale restaurant. But I want to still be able to keep a balance, provide good service." Tarquino paused. "Besides, guests have warned me not to get too big, or we might lose our charm."
Contact Kara Newman, a freelance writer in New York, at firstname.lastname@example.org.