Restaurants in the Green Mountain State are taking traditional Yankee fare to new heights

What ever happened to the kitschy plastic jug of maple syrup that for years has represented Vermont on America's kitchen shelf?Perhaps it took a cue from the rows of designer outlets that now line Route 7 around Manchester. Or maybe it's saving up for a one-way ticket to Fauchon or Dean & DeLuca. Whatever the case, the ugly duckling has metamorphosed into a minimalist glass swan of a bottle, fit for some precious olive oil from an exclusive pocket of Tuscany. And the syrup itself is not just any old stuff: now it loudly announces its grade, indicated by various glowing shades of amber.

Let's face it, Vermont was never a mecca for contemporary American cuisine. But the makeover of the syrup jug is emblematic of the slow yet passionate changes taking place in the state's kitchens. Chefs at upscale inns are casting off yesterday's French classics in favor of modern regional fare, working closely with local farmers who provide native bounty. Surly waitresses at historic diners dish out mozzarella and pesto alongside meat loaf and gravy. In a pinch you can sip boutique beers with your bison burgers, eat a tomato that tastes like a tomato, and, with a bit of luck, even find a decent espresso.

school cooks
Curious about what's on the menu for the 21st century?Chef's Table in Montpelier offers an eye-opening preview. The restaurant belongs to the New England Culinary Institute—with chef-instructor David Hale at the helm—and its kitchens serve as the training ground for a generation of chefs in the making. My meal was like a barometer of current culinary fashion, and if food were ready-to-wear, I'd say Donna Karan casual classicism is rising and Christian Lacroix baroque is falling.

Clearly out: skyscraper compositions, odd combinations, Miró-esque squiggles of sauces, expensive Burgundies, traditional French. In are Italian carbohydrates, clean flavors, farm-fresh ingredients, Zinfandels, sparse presentations.

The dining room at the upstairs restaurant-with its dark vermilion walls and white napery-manages to look both minimalist and dramatic, setting the tone for the meal to come. To start, the house-cured salmon sits on pretty coins of grilled red potatoes, accessorized with a dollop of crème fraäche and wedges of pink grapefruit. The main courses are future-perfect. Pink slices of smoked duck breast are fanned around a mound of pumpkin puréé. Rare tuna rests in a deep, musky sauce of sun-dried tomatoes and wild mushrooms, with a side of trendy grilled gnocchi. Little juicy Vermont lamb chops are classically paired with mashed potatoes and rustic roasted vegetables.

inn grand style
Despite its status as a luxurious Relais & Châteaux American auberge, the Inn at Sawmill Farm has a rambling, lived-in authenticity that makes you want to linger there forever (a slightly reckless impulse, given the prices). In the dining rooms, antiques, faded floral wallpaper, and white slanted beams create an atmosphere of parlorlike coziness.

The mostly French wine list is terrifically grand, while the menu is a throwback to circa 1978 (I'd forgotten the last time I had duchesse potatoes, or anything in forestière sauce). A glass of the voluptuous dry Alsatian Muscat is an ideal accompaniment for a first course, should you want to sample the petite salmon medallions with caviar on cracker-size potato pancakes.

Then let the waiter pour that noble Burgundy or Bordeaux. Swirl your crystal wineglass and inhale the aroma-as memorable and sensuous as the sultriest screen kiss. The knockout 1983 Corton Les Bressandes is definitely worth the $75; the Coudoulet du Beaucastel Côtes du Rhône, a good buy at $36. I'm rarely happy with American veal, but chef Brill Williams's grilled chop is as thick as War and Peace, and tender enough to cut with a spoon. The sliced rabbit loin perfumed with rosemary is a good, solid dish. Keep some of your wine for the cheese platter, and then savor a glass of port by the sitting-room hearth.

worth a detour
I'll never forget the Putney Inn's Indian pudding, a grandmotherly triumph of slow-baked cornmeal, sweet spices, and maple molasses. Come to think of it, the cinnamony apple crisp and the maple mousse were pretty sensational, too. If I were a Michelin Guide inspector, I'd say these desserts alone make this friendly, convivial restaurant rate a "mérite un détour."

Ann Cooper, one of the state's most active chefs, tends the stove here when she's not busy writing books or lecturing around the country. Open the menu, and you can almost hear her humming that new Vermont culinary mantra: "regional-seasonal-regional-seasonal."Cooper serves steamed Maine mussels in a sauce of Vermont Long Trail Ale. Smoked salmon arrives on potato pancakes with a salad of locally grown greens. Corn-crusted fillet of sole sits in a rich New England corn chowder suffused with the flavor of smoked Vermont cheddar. And in winter months, skiers driving south on Route 91 (the inn is a stone's throw from the highway) should stop by for fortifying plates of game, lamb, roast turkey, and meat loaf.

an american in paris
When Ted Fondulas was a kid, he would cook simple Sunday-morning meals for his little brother-using the radiator as a stove-while his parents slept. After college he roamed with his wife, Linda, through the European countryside, falling hopelessly in love with the lusty, exquisite food of the Michelin-starred restaurants. In 1982 the literary-minded Fondulases opened a restaurant of their own, Hemingway's, at the foot of Killington Mountain.

With its slightly provincial look, impressive wine cellar, and flawlessly sophisticated food (arranged in set menus), the restaurant could be somewhere in Umbria or the Loire Valley. Once again, if I were a Michelin inspector, I'd give Hemingway's a star, I decided magnanimously over an amuse-gueule of feather-light herbed cheddar profiterole. Maybe even two, I conceded after finishing the appetizer of delicious wood-grilled Vermont quail.

For the middle course, wild-mushroom ravioli float in a broth flecked with truffles and diced tomatoes. More truffles perfume the sumptuous mashed potatoes that accompany the succulent lamb chops. The buttery grilled tenderloin is another contender in the perfection stakes, though if you're avoiding meat you're safe with the vegetarian menu's entrée-phyllo sheets layered with asparagus, spinach, and fresh tarragon.

"This looks like a Dalí hat,"murmured my dinner companion, peering at the cylindrical coconut bavarois crowned by a surrealist cookie pirouette and set on a mango sauce painted with sour-cherry stars.

glass act
Imagine a restaurant where you can eat your cake and have the plate too-well, for a price. It is, in fact, the plates, the bowls, and especially the signature handblown glasses that lure crowds to the idyllic Mill at Quechee, headquarters of the glassblowing empire of the Irishman Simon Pearce. In this artsy mini-theme park you can observe glassblowers in action, eat a good meal, and let yourself go in the retail store's vast expanse of glassware, pottery, table linens, and furniture.

The Simon Pearce Restaurant-with its huge windows and blond wood furniture-is so bright and airy, you feel you're dining inside one of Pearce's glass bowls. The food is modern American eclectic, with an occasional Irish touch. It's hard to stop eating the savory scones and thin slices of Irish brown bread, so delicious with the house-smoked salmon. The Vermont cheddar soup tastes almost magical when spooned from an exquisite bell-shaped celadon Pearce cup. The soggy Caesar is a miss, but the Angus steak and cod-and-crab cakes are as pleasant as can be. And the apple cake tastes as if it were baked by an Irish auntie.

a perfect period piece
The scrupulously restored Grafton Village is such a diminutive confection of green-shuttered clapboard houses that you want to sneak it home in your pocket and reassemble it on the grand piano. Grafton's double-porched Old Tavern, one of the oldest inns in New England, is a showcase of colonial grace; in a setting so precious, I'd be content simply with a bowl of canned SpaghettiOs. But Norman Levitz, the Tavern's new chef, certainly does better than that. His menu strikes a nice balance between traditional warhorses (shrimp cocktail, onion soup) and lighter city fare, such as portobello bruschetta.

And, of course, Yankee classics. On the lunch menu, the chicken pot pie-teeming with pieces of delicately sauced farm-raised chicken-is so adorable it seems to wink at you from its pale blue ramekin. The corn chowder, served in a hollowed-out loaf, is thick with local corn, peppers, and Red Bliss potatoes. Dessert?Apple pie with a slab of Grafton cheddar, made just down the road. End your day in a guest room where Emerson or Thoreau may have rested his head. Portobello bruschetta aside, if that's not a Vermont experience, I don't know what is.

reality bites
Grilled gnocchi and maple mousse are all well and good, but what about the "real" Vermont fare: moist turkey with gravy, buttermilk doughnuts, a rainbow of pies?You'll find these and more at the following diners and dives-where the maple syrup still comes in an old-fashioned plastic jug.

Miss Bellows Falls Diner 90 Rockingham St., Bellows Falls; 802/463-9800; dinner for two $25. Tiny wooden booths, a marble counter, and red curtains outfit this Deco gem of a diner, famous for meat loaf and chicken pot pie.
Wayside Restaurant & Bakery Rte. 302, near Montpelier; 802/223-6611; dinner for two $15. Nothing beats the Wayside for fried clams, roast turkey with sausage dressing, sublime buttermilk doughnuts, and traditional pies.
Blue Benn Diner 102 Hunt St. (Rte. 7), Bennington; 802/442-5140; dinner for two $15. Classic lunch-car interior, Van Morrison on the jukebox, and a menu that mixes Yankee fare with seventies hippie eclectic (tofu enchiladas). Fun sandwiches, great six-inch-long fries, fabulous Indian pudding.
Dot's Restaurant W. Main St., Wilmington; 802/464-7284; dinner for two $20. A cozy hangout with outstanding thick corn and clam chowder, "very berry"pancakes, and the best chili in Vermont.

Chef's Table New England Culinary Institute, 118 Main St., Montpelier; 802/229-9202; dinner for two $60.
Inn at Sawmill FarmRte. 100 and Crosstown Rd., West Dover; 802/464-8131; dinner for two $95. Rooms start at $360, including dinner and breakfast for two.
Putney InnDepot Rd., Putney; 802/387-5517; dinner for two $65.
Hemingway'sRte. 4, Killington; 802/422-3886; tasting menus start at $40 per person.
Simon Pearce RestaurantThe Mill, Quechee; 802/295-1470; lunch for two $45.
Old TavernMain St., Grafton; 802/843-1801; lunch for two $40.

Prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.