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These foothills are alive with Japanese flavors

CHESTER, Vt. - The Old Town Farm Inn is tucked into the foothills of the Green Mountains of Vermont, and here you will find a rare combination of laid-back Vermont hospitality and exquisitely authentic Japanese cuisine.

The innkeepers, Aleks and Michiko Yoshida-Hunter, fill their menu with recipes drawn from those handed down through Michiko's family in its 125 years as restaurateurs. Rather than Americanize dishes too foreign for most of us, they serve a range of offerings still hewing to Japanese tradition that most Americans will enjoy eating, while giving those with more daring palates a chance to try something new.

``Some things just don't translate well in America,'' Aleks says. ``We want to keep things authentic, so we filter items out of our menu rather than change the recipes and risk losing the complexity of textures and flavors.''

Michiko's family originally made a living fishing eels out of a river in the village of Tome-cho, about 400 miles north of Tokyo. She says they used a giant, cornucopia-shaped trap 20 feet in diameter. In the 1870s, they switched gears and opened the Tokai-tei restaurant.

Fifty years later, they were serving their signature unagi kabayaki, dish of broiled freshwater eel, to Emperor Hirohito when he visited his summer palace.

Aleks and Michiko's 10-year-old daughter, Kiniko, is fulfilling her family heritage as a cook, and experiments with recipes of her own in the kitchen.

"What kid wouldn't want to go in there and try things out?'' Aleks asks with more than a hint of pride. "We have every kitchen gadget known to mankind in there. We call her the 'Aluminum Chef,''' he says, referring to the Food Network's cooking series "Iron Chef.''

Although eel is favored in Japanese culture, something about the concept of eating one repels many Americans.

"There's no middle ground when it comes to eels,'' Aleks says. "They either love 'em or hate 'em.''

I found that to be true when I ordered the royal dish and, as much as I swooned with delight as it melted in my mouth, I couldn't persuade my friends to try it. Instead, they were swooning over their own orders of sauteed ginger pork and teriyaki steak.

The eel is marinated, broiled, steamed, then broiled again to eliminate excess fat. The secret sauce, perfected over 100 years, pushes the dish into the stratosphere.

An opening salvo of hearty potato-miso soup set the tone for the meal, followed closely by a fresh and colorful seaweed salad covered with crabmeat. The main dish was accompanied by artful, isolated mounds of Japanese burdock; a mixture of shiitake mushrooms, bean curd, and rice noodles; pickled radishes; and pickled eggplant with gingered cucumbers.

"There should be one flavor when you first put it in your mouth,'' Aleks says, "and another when you start to chew. It takes excellent ingredients to achieve that.''

Aleks and Michiko are indeed particular about their ingredients. To make it to their kitchen, the eel must be freshly imported from Japan, and tuna used in sushi must have been frozen at sea to maintain freshness. Nearby Black River Produce supplies high-quality meats and vegetables for the restaurant's larders, as well as for those of other establishments throughout Vermont.

"A lot of our customers are in their 70s,'' Aleks says. "They find they can get the things they got when they were stationed in Japan that they just can't get anywhere else here in the states.''

Old Town Farm Inn, 665 Route 10, Chester; 888-232-1089; Dinner is served Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 5-9 p.m., and will also serve Wednesday-Sunday beginning the last week in June. Entrees are $14-$23.

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