There are a couple of truisms about Stowe as a dining destination. First, a pandemic couldn’t stop more than a dozen new food-forward businesses from opening in the past year and change.
Second, Jack always comes back.
Jack Pickett, a Stowe restaurateur who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London and cut his teeth as executive chef at the French-influenced Bistro at 10 Acres, later striking out on his own with high-profile eateries such as Blue Moon Cafe, Frida’s Taqueria and Grill and the short-lived but dynamic Phoenix, is bringing the seafood pondside.
Soon, diners in need of a seafood fix can check out Big Fish at the Commodores Inn.
As the name suggests, there will be a rotation of fresh fish on the Big Fish menu. Pickett or head chef Jason Clark will be constantly working the phones with providers to see what’s fresh and affordable, and bringing that in for specials.
“We’re talking glistening fresh,” he said. “That’s one of my skill sets. I can tell what’s fresh.”
Big Fish goes back further for inspiration, to Pickett’s childhood and young adult years on the Massachusetts seacoast. Of course, this being 2021 and not the 1970s, seafood is a hot commodity, like pretty much everything in the pandemic world right now — lumber, computer components, auto parts, but also lobster, crab and fish.
But just like someone going to a restaurant and ordering a $10 rack of ribs is going to get the ribs they paid for, Pickett says Big Fish is going for the best quality for the price.
“I’m not going to charge $38 bucks for a lobster roll, but it’s going to be fresh, cooked here, in house. The fried clams are going to be fresh and freshly breaded,” he said. “Just like I remember on the seacoast.”
There will also be “legitimate, real chowder,” Pickett said. For him, that means fresh clams and no flour.
Pickett being Pickett, there will be some terrestrial features, too. He’s particularly excited about offering rotisserie chicken made from scratch on premise.
“That’ll lend itself well to a larger party, say if four people want to share a meal. “And it’s a really good takeout item,” he said. “You know, a good simple meal but fun to eat on the deck with your hands and lots of napkins.”
The rotisserie chicken on the menu recalls the adventurous spirit of Phoenix. Even if the “regional American” eatery didn’t make it much past the 18-month mark before closing in fall 2015, Pickett thinks the menu’s diverse cuisine — tamales, soft shell crab and fried chicken and waffles sharing space with burgers, banh mi and po’ boys — is still seen in area restaurants today, six years later.
“Look at that menu. And then look at stuff around town,” he said. “We were just a little far ahead of our time.”
Big Fish was still a work in progress last week, with chef Clark scuttling toward one task or another, and a potential bar manager swinging by in a pair of wet swim trunks to introduce himself and get on the schedule this week to start ordering the booze.
The old Commodores bar was tiny — narrow and long — and walled off from the rest of the restaurant, reminiscent of a speakeasy than part of the larger whole. Pickett went all Pink Floyd on it and tore down the wall but left the unique terraced feel of its seating area, so there’s still an alcove where people can eat and drink and watch TV. Pickett likens it to a cool airport lounge, slightly separate from the rest but still there.
The bar wasn’t yet complete, so Pickett had to paint the vision by talking about it.
The bartop will be metal, a zinc alloy that will purposely develop a patina through use.
“I’ve done a marble bar, a wooden bar, a concrete bar, a limestone bar, and now, metal,” he said.
Pickett is a detail-oriented restaurateur, taking lessons from his previous ventures, like Phoenix, Frida’s and Blue Moon, as well as places where he worked but didn’t own — 10 Acres, where the Stowe story starts, and Trapps’ Bierhall, the latest chapter before Big Fish. For instance, the bar cooler and draft system has been placed directly on the opposite side of the draft wall, meaning the beer needs to travel a journey of mere inches, rather than countless feet, which makes draft line cleaning an onerous chore.
There will be 10 beer taps, and two for wine. A raw oyster bar built into the end of the peninsular wraparound bar pretty much goes without saying.
Pickett knows his seafood and knows how to source it. He said when he was the chef at 10 Acres, the place was the second largest purchaser of Maine crabs in Vermont. Getting it cheap is out of the question these days, when even modest Maine shacks are shilling lobster rolls in hot dog buns for $38 apiece.
Sit or go
Not long ago, takeout used to be generally frowned upon in full-service restaurants, if not totally verboten by the chef or owner. The pandemic changed that, and woe unto the fanciest establishment that doesn’t offer it now. The obstacle facing many places, though, has been trying to make sure the food quality doesn’t suffer from being served in a box and placed on the passenger side floorboard.
“A lot of times you get something to go and it’s just a crap pile of soggy salad or something,” he said. “One of the guys who is working for us worked in New York City, where to-go has been a reality for a million years. And they stick it on a bicycle and ride it through the streets.”
The pandemic has made outside dining a near necessity during fair weather months, and Big Fish has plenty. The Commodores Inn has an already-established nautical theme, with a picturesque pond right off the expansive deck, where in normal years people pilot remote-powered miniature yachts.
There’s also a deckside pool for inn guests, if that’s more to your nautical tastes.
Another trend that has been a long time coming for long-time restaurant chef-owners? The elimination of the white tablecloth, the fancy china, linen napkins and multitudes of forks. That’s from a different generation, the former fancy French chef said.
“Now, people, if they saw white tablecloths when they walk in this place, they would turn and walk out,” he said. “Is this food fancy? Yeah, it’s gonna be real fancy. But what makes it fancy is its freshness and its simplicity.”