Bacon-wrapped pate with chutney, cornichons and grilled bread at ArtsRiot on Pine Street.SALLY POLLAK/FREE PRESS
George Lambertson is the chef at ArtsRiot, a bar/restaurant and event space on Pine Street in Burlington. He says he doesn’t want to go through “macaroni-and-cheesing through life.”SALLY POLLAK/FREE PRESS
Poached egg on hash at ArtsRiot on Pine Street in Burlington.SALLY POLLAK/FREE PRESS
ArtsRiot chef George Lambertson’s version of a Big Mac has special sauce and lettuce.SALLY POLLAK/FREE PRESS
The kitchen collective at ArtsRiot has given way to a solo endeavor, with George Lambertson cooking fulltime at the bar/event space on Pine Street in place of a crew of rotating chefs.
"This is the next evolution," said Felix Wai, co-owner of ArtsRiot. "The goal has always been to do the most creative, fun food we could do. ... We realize we need to be more consistent, more of a watering hole (that) we want people to drop in."
Lambertson, 34, is a Burlington native who has worked in many restaurants around town: Three Tomatoes, Smokejacks, Pistou, Hotel Vermont. He was the Friday night chef at ArtsRiot before taking over the kitchen five nights a week, Tuesday through Saturday.
"We're a group of young men who are excited and ambitious," Lambertson said. "Food is a way we can showcase that ambition."
At ArtsRiot, Lambertson has crafted a bar-food menu with creative (and delicious) twists, including tempura delicata squash rings and smoked meat hash. His priority is making food that's "void of pretense."
"It's really important that people come to be together for the company, the conversation," Lambertson said.
Lambertson, 34, makes good food and interesting conversation, as I found out on a couple of recent visits to ArtsRiot. I was invited to check out dishes under consideration for the menu, and I returned off-duty.
In the ArtsRiot kitchen, I ate an extended brunch with Wai — a series of dishes prepared and served by Lambertson, who joined our conversation from the stove or at the table. It was a few days before Christmas, late one Saturday morning in an otherwise empty ArtsRiot and not a bad way to kick off a week or two of holiday eating.
"Let's start with an egg," Lambertson said, perhaps inadvertently answering the big question as he handed us a poached egg on a pile of hash.
Runny egg, well-seasoned potatoes, shallots, chunks of Pine Street-smoked meat.
"I think that's a winner," Wai said.
I love poached eggs, and I was too busy licking my chops to talk.
Wai talked about the "holiday hangover" and being ready with a "smart expansion" when the seasonal daze lifted.
"It's time to dig in," he said. "When everyone wakes back up, we have something really exciting."
I was ready for a nap by the time I finished eating that day: After the egg came a hamburger slider, dressed with pickles, lettuce and special sauce.
We ran through bacon-wrapped pate with grilled bread, pickles and chutney, and house-made pasta with a tomato/meat ragout and yogurt sauce.
"I would rather go down in flames trying as hard as I can, than go ho-humming through the day and macaroni-and-cheesing through life," Lambertson said.
I think the latter is fairly unlikely, based on several pieces of evidence:
Lambertson's pate made with local pork shoulder and chicken livers; the tree that is growing parallel to the ground outside Lambertson's house in the South End (I knew the eye-catching tree from walking by it and learned its Lambertson provenance when we traded neighborhood notes in the ArtsRiot kitchen); Lambertson's re-enactment, from the cook's vantage point, of customers drinking wine from chicken-carafes at Sweet Tomatoes and living it up in that subterranean dining room.
"Talk about breaking bread!" he said.
That's the kind of energy Lambertson and Wai want to bring to the bar/dining area at ArtsRiot, they said. (They've got it down at the food trucks that park behind ArtsRiot Friday nights in summer.)
"Turn off your TV, come and talk over food," Lambertson said.
There might be a rock band playing in the next room, Wai said, "but we need the food to speak for itself."
Before I left that day, Lambertson showed me his meat-smoker out back. The vision of brined beef cold-smoking in a Pine Street alley stayed with me past Christmas and into the new year.
When I awoke from my holiday hangover, I returned to ArtsRiot.
There was no rock band that night, but a quieter presentation in the performance space: A video replay of Salman Rushdie's talk at the University of Vermont about storytelling.
The dining room was mostly empty — maybe because it was an Arctic cold night.
We had hot toddies in big glass mugs. I ordered a Reuben so I could eat Lambertson's pastrami. The meat was smoky, tender and chunky — the centerpiece of a very good sandwich (although for $13.50 I think it should come with fries or a salad).
Lambertson brought freshly baked chocolate chip cookies to our table, and asked if we'd like milk.
Contact Sally Pollak at email@example.com or 660-1859; www.twitter.com/vtpollak
What: ArtsRiot kitchen
Where: 400 Pine Street
When: 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Information: www.artsriot.com 540-0406;