Benjamin Pomerance, All Points North

 

You used to see Maria here. Baroness Maria Augusta von Trapp, that is, history’s most famous singing governess, immortalized for eternity by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. She used to walk through the dining room of the ski lodge her family owns in Stowe, Vt., making small talk with the customers and ensuring that everything was shipshape. As her grandson Sam remembers it, Maria considered Trapp Family Lodge a treasure, a rare spot where guests could truly escape their burdens and obligations for a weekend. Ever the matriarch, she kept an apartment at the lodge, doing whatever it took to make certain Trapp Lodge operated “the von Trapp way.” Strolls through the dining room to connect with her visitors were just part of the duties, as she saw it, of keeping the place alive.

 Maria isn’t here anymore. She passed away more than two decades ago. Yet have dinner at Trapp Lodge today, and you’d swear she was still around, still making her appearances in the dining room and checking up on her guests. There is a unique sense of warmth at the Lodge, a genuine hospitality that’s laced with sincerity, not baloney. Some people might find the traditional Austrian outfits worn by the waitstaff to be trite, just as they might deem the menu loaded with typical Austrian specialties to be overkill on an “old world” theme. To me, though, it adds to the place’s charm. There is an image, cultivated both through the Lodge’s worldwide repute and through a certain Academy Award-winning movie musical, of what Trapp Lodge should be. In that sense, the Lodge still delivers, and does so in a way I believe Maria would appreciate.

The Lodge is free of glitz. Visitors are spared any needless Sound of Music bromides. Posters billing the movie or the stage show are inconspicuous, if they are there at all, and the tunes plunked out by the excellent pianist at the bar are Ain't Misbehavin' and Fly Me To The Moon, not Edelweiss or Climb Every Mountain. Still, visitors who come to the Lodge expecting the place to remind them of the movie are not, in my view, disappointed. No single aspect of Trapp Lodge throws The Sound of Music in your face, but the atmosphere of the place evokes the images you want of the life Maria and Georg von Trapp must have led abroad. Regal yet relaxed, stately but friendly, the Lodge seems to echo the personality we have come to associate with the von Trapps. As far as setting, few places are more beautiful than Stowe, the surrounding mountains making you think that you’re looking at the Austrian Alps. And if you’re in the market for a good meal, the Lodge’s main dining room just might help you believe you’re an ocean away, attending one of Captain von Trapp’s lavish dinner parties.

For me, the Lodge is a special place. My parents brought me here several times as a young child, instilling in me the love of quality food that I still nurture today. Over the years, our trips to Stowe have become much less frequent. Now, coming back to the Lodge on this particular January evening, I view the place through a slightly older evaluator’s eyes — and still, I like what I see.

The décor of the Lodge is classic Austrian and German, and the wood-paneled dining room is no exception. The room is surprisingly small, yet the tables are still well-spaced from each other, and virtually all seem to offer a lovely panoramic view out the large windows. Service here is professional, but warm and relaxed. You can chat about your day on the ski trails or the chance of a serious snowfall tomorrow, but if you want to know what wine would best complement your wiener schnitzel, the staff knows exactly how to switch into high gear without missing a beat. There is no rushing here, either, no urgent need to “grab a bite.” Your table is yours for the evening, as long as you want it.

 A duck fan, I could not pass up an appetizer of duck rillettes on our most recent visit to the Lodge. Rillettes, a preparation of meat similar to pate, are often made from pork, but duck proved to be an excellent base for this dish. Drizzled lightly with pomegranate syrup, and served with bok choy and an excellent Asian pear slaw, this proved to be an excellent starter. My mother’s choice, roast poussin (a young chicken more commonly known as a “spring chicken”), was equally delicious. The highlight, though, was not the meat of the bird, but the accompanying helping of portabella knoedl, a type of dumpling that is a typical German and Austrian side dish. The dumplings themselves were light, not pasty or doughy, and the filling of minced portabella mushroom was wonderful.

My father opted for a soup, which came in a steaming hot bowl. Potato-leek was his choice, and the flavors were magically creamy. Never have I seen a potato-leek soup served with bits of hazelnut-encrusted duck floating on the top, but it certainly beat the few shakes of parsley that many restaurants use as a garnish for their soups. Overall, the appetizer portions were substantial, but not so filling that we had no more room for our main courses.

 Good thing, too. As delectable as the first courses were, the principal plates were even better. After much deliberation, Mom opted for the weiner schnitzel, perhaps the best-known Austrian dish ever created. After sampling it, though, one can see the reason for its fame. Thin slices of veal coated with breadcrumbs and fried, served with traditional lingonberry jam, proved to be an excellent entrée. Served with a generous helping of spätzle, a tasty soft egg noodle popular in German cuisine, this may have been my favorite plate of the night. My father’s venison was also quite nice, stewed until extraordinary tender and served in a bowl with spätzle, red cabbage, and a cranberry-chestnut relish. Occasionally, restaurants will slow-cook a meat until all the flavor has been sapped from it. This stewed venison, however, retained all of the tastes one would ordinarily associate with the delicious meat.

 I opted for the pan-roasted pheasant, and again, I was not disappointed. For me, the best part of this dish was the currant-bourbon sauce in which the bird was served, a perfect match for the rich flavors of the pheasant. Sides of wild rice and baby carrots were nice, but it was the chestnut-creamed cabbage that really caught my attention. I have never tasted cabbage made in this manner before, but I would certainly like to try it again. All the flavors of this delicious serving mingled together perfectly, and although the portions were even larger than I expected, I managed to finish everything on my plate with ease.

Then came the desserts. Once again, we stayed traditional, ordering the three desserts that are most commonly associated with Austria. Mom enjoyed her linzertorte, made of a crumbly walnut crust lined with raspberry and red currant jams. Dad, a chocoholic to the core, was very happy to find that the Lodge was still offering their famous Black Forest Cake, a desert he has enjoyed on numerous occasions. This is one of the richest deserts I have ever sampled: layers of thick chocolate cake lined with whipped cream and cherries soaked in Kirsch liqueur, and then served in a warm chocolate sauce. My father pronounced it good, and so did I.

As for me, I couldn’t pass up the chance to try the Lodge’s apple strudel. An Austrian favorite dating back to the late-1600s, there seem to be thousands of ways to prepare this traditional layered pastry. Whatever recipe Trapp Lodge uses was a hit with me. The crust was cooked to a crumbly perfection, and the filling — apples, raisins, and cinnamon sugar — was sweet without reaching the point of being saccharine. An hour or so later, on the ride back home, I was still savoring the taste of this dessert, a fitting ending to a first-rate meal.

It had been a few years since I last ate at Trapp Lodge, and this trip reminded me that I should not wait so long before going back again. If there’s a place in Vermont that truly captures what I consider the essence of classic European dining, this is it. We had spent only a few hours enjoying dinner here, and yet all three of us came away feeling as if we had been on vacation. Somewhere, as she watches the business now run by her youngest son, Johannes, and her grandson Sam, I can only imagine that Maria is pleased with what she sees.
 

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