MANCHESTER — One of the joys of writing this column is the time we spend talking with chefs. Meeting chef Sigal Rocklin at Manchester Village’s famous Reluctant Panther Inn and Restaurant was one such occasion. Sigal’s story is one we can all appreciate and admire.
Sigal grew up in a small town in northern Israel where she learned farming early on growing banana trees. After serving her required two years of military service in the Israeli army attaining the rank of sergeant, Sigal made her way to the United States. Knowing that she shared her father’s passion for cooking, Sigal enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute where she graduated at the top of her class and met her future husband Michael, who today serves as sous chef at Chantecleer in East Dorset. Following her time at the culinary institute, Sigal travelled the country, gaining experience as a chef in California, Wyoming and South Carolina in small restaurants, as well as big hotels, including the Four Seasons in Jackson Hole.
After gaining the necessary culinary knowledge and skill, Sigal returned to Vermont to work at the Equinox Hotel. Soon thereafter, in 2016, Sigal became head chef at Reluctant Panther, where she leads her team by example. Being with Sigal is easy because she is remarkably calm and soft-spoken. Constantly crediting her team, Sigal sees her kitchen as a place to relax and enjoy. Without Sigal mentioning it, we discovered that she was awarded 2018 Vermont Chef of the Year by her peers.
Reluctant Panther seems to be a perfect fit for Sigal. The outside setting is bucolic and parklike. The grounds are beautifully maintained so as to offer a quiet place to sit and enjoy a before-dinner beverage. A very nice patio sits alongside the restaurant and is the ideal spot for a private reception. Sitting outside is definitely recommended, weather permitting. The Inn has 20 gracious rooms and luxurious suites starting at $199.
Sigal’s menu is imaginative and sophisticated while being down-to-earth and approachable. Her menu changes seasonally and is locally sourced as often as possible. The dining room is airy and pleasant, with tables nicely spaced providing comfortable seating. There are a few tables available outside on a deck in the warmer months while two handsome fireplaces warm the room in colder months.
For dinner, we started off with a very tasty bread basket, something many restaurants no longer offer, by our server Teri who was accommodating and congenial throughout the evening. Ever-present without interfering with the rhythm of the table is how we like service and Teri knew just how to do it seamlessly.
Appetizers, ranging from $11 to $18, include shrimp salad with avocado and arugula, heirloom tomatoes with locally made Maplebrook Farm burrata, a mixed green salad from Danby’s Yoder Farm, grilled shishito peppers (mildly spicy) with prosciutto and feta, Israeli falafel (a fried ball or fritter made from ground chickpeas) with hummus and a cucumber tomato salad, as well as the very popular lobster and brie fondue, which is as fun to eat as it is a treat for the palate.
Flavorful entrees include jumbo scallops served with black rice and crispy pancetta and a chive vinaigrette, short ribs braised in Switchback Ale, seared sea bass, a vegetable risotto, a grilled filet mignon from Cambridge, Vermont’s Boyden Farm with shoestring potatoes, roasted trout stuffed with crabmeat, roasted chicken from Misty Knoll served with zucchini and basil pesto, a lamb loin stuffed with pistachio and feta and a vegetarian “ratatouille” loaded with eggplant, tomatoes, squash, lentils and almonds. Entrees are sensibly priced from $32 to $43.
Desserts are simply wonderful. Take your pick from lemon ricotta cheesecake, flourless dark chocolate cake, homemade sorbet or creamy ice cream from the beloved Chocolate Barn in Shaftsbury. Or a selection of Vermont cheeses that can also be enjoyed as an appetizer. All a treat, reasonably priced at $9 to $12.
And now for those of you who enjoy wine, we have a delightful indulgence to share with you. The Reluctant Panther wine list may be the best in Vermont. Their offering of more than 100 quality wines at fair markup provides something remarkable for every preference, including 10 champagnes highlighted by a 2010 Dom Perignon perfect for that celebratory occasion. The caliber of the wine list at Reluctant Panther demonstrates both knowledge and thoughtfulness. Delicious Chardonnays include an excellent Cakebread from Napa at $85. The Reluctant Panther selection of red wines (our preference) borders on the spectacular. It can make your evening to accompany a fine meal with a 2016 cabernet from Frog’s Leap at $120. While admittedly pricey, these are truly exceptional wines rarely available in our Vermont dining establishments. You can even go over the top and savor a 2015 Opus One for $420. Did someone say anniversary?
An inside tip we learned several years ago while in Napa is to order a bottle of Overture which is produced by Opus One. Many, including us, find that it tastes just as good as Opus One, at half the price. Overture is offered at Reluctant Panther, the only restaurant we have seen it at in New England. This is the wine we had with our meal. So now we’re considering going to Reluctant Panther just to have wine and dessert.
Reluctant Panther, at 39 West Road, is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday starting at 5:30 p.m. Reservations can be made by calling 802-362-2568.