BRATTLEBORO – We’ve all been to a restaurant, but we guarantee you’ve never been to a restaurant like this. Brattleboro’s treasure for over 30 years, TJ Buckley’s is so exceptional that our three hour round trip drive from Dorset was well worth it.
This culinary experience has it all. The history, the setting, the food, the chef, the service. All extraordinary. From the moment you step into an intimate and charming 1920s Worcester dining car, restored to its period splendor, you know you’re ready for a unique evening of fine dining and sheer indulgence. About 400 square feet, about seven tables, each adorned with a simple white dahlia. In an open kitchen half this size, the genius of chef-owner Michael Fuller is on display before your eyes. Everything works perfectly.
Chef Michael started learning his trade at 19 as an apprentice to the famous RenÃ© Chardain, chef-owner of the Four Columns restaurant in Newfane. The Four Columns was the first true farm-to-table restaurant in the United States. True to this tradition, Chef Michael sources locally whenever possible, including cheese from Parish Hill in Westminster and seafood from Adam’s in Brattleboro.
TJ Buckley’s is your chance to savor world-class cuisine that is seasonal, organic, healthy and, yes, absolutely delicious. All you have to do at TJ Buckley is choose your dinner from a verbal menu (as each night’s choices depend on what local ingredients are available), then sit back and let it unfold in front of you.
We started with an Onion, Pepper and Parmesan Bread from Orchard Hill Farms in East Alstead, brought by our delightfully knowledgeable waiters, Effie and Amy, who worked the room with grace and efficiency. This awakening of the taste buds, accompanied by a crispy and tasty Pouilly-Fuisse from Domaine Cheveau, at a reasonable price of $ 52, paired well with what was yet to come.
Several entrees, priced from $ 12 to $ 22, are works of art on a plate. The night we were there, choices included a country pie with Pommery mustard and a homemade peach and rhubarb fig chutney, mostly from Chef Michael’s garden; a shrimp crab cake with garlic aioli; a smoked trout and goat cheese tart served with roasted corn, crÃ¨me fraÃ®che and spatula eggs; a parmesan pie with pine nuts and membrillo, a sweet jelly from the nutritious quince fruit, a familiar meal in Spain often served with manchego cheese; and a burrata drizzled with wildflower honey on mixed greens, Marcona almonds and pickled pear. A very colorful and beautifully presented salad is also available, consisting of greens and local vegetables with blue cheese from the Boucher family farm in Highgate.
Four impeccably executed entrees, all priced at or near $ 50, have been carefully choreographed, but never at the expense of being a joy to eat. As good as Chef Michael’s food is, it tastes even better. It’s clean but stylish. It’s playful but polite. Each plate is perfectly prepared and presented, meticulously without being fussy. You quickly realize that this is a meal that you cannot prepare at home. It’s special because it is.
We had halibut (something we rarely order as it’s too often dry or tasteless), seared and steamed with amazing Calasparra rice mixed with Vermont Shepherd cheese, local sweet corn and charred green onions topped with ‘a dashi of shellfish. We were not familiar with dashi but learned that it is a family of broths used in Japanese cuisine, as the base for miso soup. It is meant to accentuate the savory flavor known as umami. We have never experienced halibut as good as this.
Our other main course was seared sea scallops served on a stone ground polenta cake with local greens, artichokes, maitake mushrooms and an optional crispy pork belly, which we really enjoyed. The creative combination of these rare flavors has been remarkably coordinated to provide a most satisfying and palatable whole.
The tables are obviously close to each other, conversation between diners is inevitable. The people next to us were from California, and at another nearby table sat people from Boston. It’s perfectly acceptable at TJ Buckley not to just take a look at what’s being served at your neighbors’ tables. It’s all part of the fun. Although we didn’t get the Wagyu ribeye it looked tempting and received rave reviews from those who ordered it. It is served with homemade herb gnocchi and a pan-fried mushroom with garlic au jus. The remaining starter was rabbit. The thigh is stuffed with bacon and Swiss chard while the loin is wrapped in pancetta.
The bottom line here is that you will be eating food that you may never have eaten before and will enjoy it to the fullest. Chef Michael offers a fresh and tasty menu with a focus on ingredients. There were no missteps the night we were there and we will return with the confidence that whatever we ordered would be magical. Congratulations also to Sous Chef Kristen who worked hard in the kitchen with Michael for 30 years.
As we couldn’t leave without trying Chef Michael’s desserts, we enthusiastically enjoyed a layer of chocolate ganache and a strawberry shortbread with whipped cream. A vanilla crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e, pear and apricot pie, and various ice cream flavors were also available, all priced between $ 10 and $ 12.
There is a wide selection of beers and wines. White wines, from Napa, Sonoma, France and Italy are $ 35 to $ 95 with glasses available at $ 9 to $ 12. Red wines ranging from $ 36 to $ 140 a bottle and $ 11 to $ 13 a glass, are from Bordeaux, Tuscany, California and a Malbec from Patagonia. The restaurant also offers champagne and sparkling wines, soft drinks, espressos, cappuccino, lattes and a wide selection of teas.
Reservations at 802-257-4922 are difficult to get but worth the wait. Private parties can be organized. TJ Buckley’s at 132 Eliot St. is open Thursday through Sunday. Go and enjoy.