BRATTLEBORO — We’ve all been to diners, but we guarantee you’ve never been to a diner like this. A Brattleboro treasure for more than 30 years, T.J. Buckley’s is so exceptional that our three-hour round-trip car ride from Dorset was more than worth it.
This dining experience has it all. The history, the setting, the food, the chef, the service. All extraordinary. As soon as you walk into an intimate and charming 1920s Worcester dining car, restored to its vintage glory, you know you are in for a unique evening of fine dining and pure pleasure. In about 400 square feet sit seven or so tables, each graced by a simple white dahlia. In an open kitchen of half that size, the brilliance of owner-chef Michael Fuller is on display right before your eyes. It all works to perfection.
Chef Michael began learning his craft at 19 as an apprentice for the renowned Rene Chardain, the owner-chef of the Four Columns restaurant in Newfane. The Four Columns was the first true farm-to-table restaurant in the United States. In keeping with that tradition, Chef Michael locally sources whenever possible, including cheese from Parish Hill in Westminster and seafood from Adam’s in Brattleboro.
T.J. Buckley’s is an opportunity to savor world-class dining that is seasonal, organic, healthy and yes, absolutely delicious. All you have to do at T.J. Buckley’s is choose your dinner from a verbal menu (because each evening’s choices are dependent upon available local ingredients), then sit back and let it unfold before you.
We began with an onion, pepper, and parmesan bread from Orchard Hill Farms in East Alstead, brought to us by our delightfully well-informed servers, Effie and Amy, who worked the room gracefully and efficiently. This tastebud wake-up, along with a crisp and flavorful Pouilly-Fuisse from Domaine Cheveau, at a reasonable $52, paired well with what was yet to come.
Several starters, ranging in price from $12 to $22, are artwork on a plate. The evening we were there, the choices included a country pate with Pommery mustard and homemade peach rhubarb fig chutney, mostly from chef Michael’s garden; a crab cake with shrimp accompanied by a garlic aioli; a smoked trout and chevre tart served with roast corn, creme fraiche and paddlefish roe; a parmesan cheese tart with pine nuts and membrillo, a sweet jelly from the fruit of the nutritious quince tree, a familiar meal-ender in Spain often served alongside manchego cheese; and a burrata drizzled with wildflower honey on mesclun greens, Marcona almonds and house-pickled pear. Also available is a most vibrantly colorful and beautifully presented salad, consisting of local greens and vegetables with blue cheese from Highgate’s Boucher Family Farm.
Four impeccably executed entrees, all priced at or near $50, were carefully choreographed, but never at the expense of being a joy to eat. As good as Chef Michael’s food looks, it tastes even better. It’s clean yet elegant. It’s playful yet polished. Each plate is perfectly prepared and presented, meticulous without being fussy. You soon realize that this is a meal you cannot prepare at home. It feels special because it is.
We had halibut (something we rarely order because it too often is dry or tasteless), seared and steamed with an incredible Calasparra rice mixed with Vermont Shepherd cheese, local sweet corn and charred scallions topped off with a shellfish dashi. We weren’t familiar with dashi but learned that it is a family of stocks used in Japanese cuisine such as the base for miso soup. It is meant to accentuate the savory flavor known as umami. We have never experienced halibut that tasted as good as this did.
Our other main was seared sea scallops served atop a stone-ground polenta cake with local greens, artichoke, maitake mushrooms and an optional crispy pork belly, which we thoroughly enjoyed. The creative combination of these uncommon flavors was remarkably coordinated to deliver a most satisfying and pleasant package for the palate.
Since the tables are obviously close to one another, conversation between guests is inevitable. The folks next to us were from California and at another nearby table sat people from Boston. It’s perfectly acceptable at T.J. Buckley’s to more than glance at what is served at your neighbors’ tables. It’s all part of the fun. Although we did not have the Wagyu ribeye, it looked tempting and got rave reviews from those who did order it. It’s served with a house-made herb gnocchi and a mushroom garlic pan au jus. The remaining entree was rabbit. The leg is stuffed with bacon and swiss chard while the loin is wrapped in pancetta.
The takeaway here is that you will eat food you may have never had before and enjoy the heck out of it. Chef Michael is about offering a fresh and flavorful, ingredient-driven menu. There were no missteps the night we were there and we would return with the confidence that anything we ordered would be magical. Kudos as well to sous chef Kristen who has toiled in the kitchen with Michael for 30 years.
Since we couldn’t leave without trying Chef Michael’s desserts, we enthusiastically consumed a chocolate ganache layer cake and a strawberry shortbread with whipped cream. Also available was a vanilla creme brulee, a pear apricot tart and various flavors of gelato, all priced between $10 to $12.
There is an ample beer and thoughtful wine selection. 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 for a bottle and $11 to $13 for a glass, are from Bordeaux, Tuscany, California and a Malbec from Patagonia. The restaurant also offers champagne and sparkling wines, non-alcoholic beverages, espresso, cappuccino, latte and a large selection of teas.
Reservations at 802-257-4922 are hard to come by but worth the wait. Private parties can be arranged. T.J. Buckley’s at 132 Eliot St. is open Thursday through Sunday. Go and enjoy.