I’ve been taken for a fool before.
At the urging of an occasional freelance colleague – and because he was paying – I agreed to try what he professed to be “the greatest mac and cheese in the world.” I was skeptical for a couple reasons.
First off: mac and cheese is pretty easy to do “fine” and pretty hard to do “great.” A good mac and cheese needs a rich, creamy, authentic cheese and something more than just elbow macaroni. We’re fans of The Scuffer, a bar over on Burlington’s trendy Church Street, that serves up a Vermont cheddar sauce over cavatappi with the option to add grilled chicken, crackling bacon, or short rib. Add in a plate of their excellent poutine-style pub fries and you’ve got yourself a good night. I wasn’t sure another restaurant in the same area could meet that.
And second, well, mac and cheese is pretty boring. Don’t get me wrong, I love the stuff. But it isn’t exciting. It’s a comfort food, not a culinary adventure.
Winooski’s Our House Bistro does a lot more than just mac and cheese. They’ve got a great-looking reuben (which they say is “piled high” with sauerkraut, so I guess I’ll have to return to test that, too) and entree options like savory chicken pot pie, caramelized onion and roasted mushroom risotto, and octopus tacos (fried or grilled).
For dessert, they have a “chocolate drizzled, golden battered peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich served with a fluff frappe for dipping or drizzling,” and let me tell you how badly I wanted to try that. But the draw was mac and cheese, right? So I had to order one of those first and if there was room, then, maybe, I could consider a deep-fried PB&J.
There was not room.
Our House’s mac and cheese menu is eternal. From a standard “traditional” (cavatappi, cheese) to the “Polynesian” (ham, cucumber, cheese, sweet chili cream sauce, coconut shrimp) to the “Pumpkin Eater” (pumpkin, butternut squash, caramelized onion, cranberries, chevre, and pumpkin seeds), there’s a pretty big variety. I was tempted by the “Sugar Shack,” which has maple bacon and ground beef and is drizzled with maple bourbon, but I settled on the Chicken Parmesan Mac.
My colleague – the paying one – had ordered the Chicken Parm Mac the last time he was at Our House and it was the specific one he’d been raving about. It features a breaded pan-fried chicken breast, tomatoes, and basil.
The Chicken Parm Mac is delicious.
The chicken is tender and there’s a good portion both mixed in and on top of the finished mac. The sauce is nothing special per se: tomatoes and basil and not much else. But that’s exactly perfect for this, because it lets the star shine through: the mac – cavatappi, perfectly al dente – and the cheese, a parmesan-mozzarella blend.
If I had a specific gripe about the mac and cheese menu, I’d say “this is a gimmick to dress other foods up as ‘mac and cheese’ to appeal to a hipster audience.” After all, a Chicken Parmesan Mac is just a chicken parmesan served mixed together instead of one component on top of another. The same goes for the Shrimp Scampi Mac, which is just a traditional shrimp scampi mixed up and served in a small iron dish. It’s the latest in a line of restaurants that appeal to a kind of childish whimsy filtered through the glasses of a cold brew-swilling hipster, and Our House telegraphs that by dressing up the inside of the restaurant with vintage lunchboxes as if to say, “there, there, the gig economy is a nightmare and you have a six-figure college debt, but we’ll serve you mac and cheese under a He-Man and the Masters of the Universe lunchbox and everything will be okay for a moment.”
I wonder what that says about us? Because you know what? Our House is right. In that moment, as you quietly plow your way through a rich, savory mac and cheese, everything is okay.