Sunday, October 5, 2014

Weekend in Maine, September 2014

Downeast Maine is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Around every bend in the road is another awesome view. From the New Hampshire border to Bar Harbor, the coast is just one fabulous water view after another. Not to mention the winding country roads that a week ago were just starting to sprout their leafy fall oranges, yellows, and browns. Just driving around Blue Hill, Castine, and Orland, lowers my blood pressure.

But, of course, no weekend away for me is complete without great food. And, man, did we hit the mother lode on this trip!  We were disappointed that our favorite peeky toe crab shack in Bayview was closed already for the season, but we persevered and rewarded ourselves with dinner at The Lost Kitchen in Freedom. Set in a renovated 1834 gristmill so perfectly picturesque, you can’t help but want to linger. Erin French, chef/owner, has created something very special in this little off-the-beaten-path town. Walking over the footbridge, on a crisp early autumn evening, and then down a few steps to the Foundation Wine Cellar, I had the distinct feeling this was going to be a culinary experience.
Foundation Wine Cellar

Due to the town’s blue laws, the restaurant has no liquor license, but they’ve assembled an impressive wine list from which you can purchase wine to go with the evening’s menu. The very cool “wine cave lady” guided us to a terrific Pinot Noir (Folk Machine) from Central Coast California. With our bagged wine, we headed up to the restaurant. This is where the real magic happens.

In this gorgeous space, Ms French has built a beautiful open kitchen where she prepares dinner Wednesday through Saturday evenings for a very lucky 30 diners. Everybody sits down at 6pm, and the food begins to flow. We started with a deliciously porky pate, served with good, crusty bread, two kinds of mustard (stone ground and Dijon), and cornichons, alongside a bowl of delicious Mediterranean olives.
Lost Kitchen Pate

Next to arrive at our table was a lovely offering of cherrystone clams drizzled with a delicious lemon-butter sauce. Fresher, sweeter clams I have not tasted.

A few minutes after devouring the clams, Ms French came by with two teaspoons on a platter.  The spoons were filled with a frozen dollop of apple cider-rosemary sorbet. OMG (I really am beginning to hate the OMG thing, but sometimes it just fits)!  When I mentioned to her that so far everything was wonderful, she giggled and said, “I’m so glad you are enjoying it, and we haven’t even really started yet.”   Well, if we hadn’t started yet, I couldn’t wait to see what lay ahead.

It’s at this point, that Ms French clinks a wine glass and welcomes everyone to her restaurant. She tells us about her journey thus far, and then regales us with the night’s menu. You feel like you are at an intimate secret party that you were lucky enough to score an invite to.

The first “official” course of the night’s menu was Fried Basket Island Oysters served with a Crabapple Kohlrabi Slaw and Horseradish Aioli. The oysters were beautifully set on a bed of seaweed and sea salt, like a painting.
Fried Oysters
Endive and Red Lettuce Salad
The second course was an Endive and Red Lettuce Salad topped with luscious Pulled Duck Confit, a sprinkling of the last gorgeous raspberries of summer, tart purple plum slices, and topped with pecorino and honey.  Yes, it was wonderful.
Skillet-roasted Hake
Our last course was beautiful skillet-roasted Hake with adorable baby fingerlings, buttered croutons, and a mélange of olive, tomato, and spinach.  The fish was cooked perfectly, and the accompaniments were just right.

 Just when you think this meal could not get any better, you are presented with a delicate Earl Grey Crème Brulee for dessert.  And when you must leave this little oasis of food heaven, to make your transition to the real world a bit easier, a to-go bag of wonderfully crisp ginger cookies is presented to each diner. Ours didn’t make it past the parking lot.
Earl Grey Creme Brûlée

I can usually tell if a restaurant is going to be good way in advance of actually arriving.  It’s just a feeling or vibe that I get – I really can’t explain it. My culinary sixth sense was right on this time.  The Lost Kitchen has all the elements to become the Chez Panisse of the east – a talented chef, a well-trained staff, the bounty of the Maine coast’s sea and land, and warm, gracious hospitality (something that eludes far too many restaurants).  As Ms French says at the end of her welcoming speech, here’s to Freedom.

Sunday morning we started our long drive home. There are not many places open for breakfast along Rt 3 between Belfast and Augusta at 6am, so we dragged our coffee-deprived bodies a bit farther to Biddeford. I squirrel away restaurants in my mind for future trips and I had a breakfast spot in mind for us. The Palace Diner in Biddeford is Maine’s oldest diner, originally opened in 1927, and brought back to life by current owners, Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell. These two are not your average diner owners; they have real culinary chops, having previously worked at Hugo’s in Portland (Conley), and Gramercy Tavern in New York (Mitchell).

There are just 15 counter stools and we nabbed two with prime viewing into the little window into the kitchen. There, we could see Conley and Mitchell, calmly prepping, cooking, and laughing. Cool music is playing from somebody’s iPhone hooked up to a Bose speaker. The Sunday brunch menu is pure diner delight, kicked up a notch. I chose the Challah French Toast with Maine Maple Syrup, while my husband chose the Corned Beef Hash (natch).

Let me tell you about the French Toast – a huge thick slice of custardy eggy Challah, with a crème brulee crust that I could not get over. Luckily, I opted for the single slice, instead of two, but I mopped up every crumb and left my plate spotless. THE best French Toast ever!

Palace Diner French Toast

Palace Diner Corned Beef Hash

Now, if there’s corned beef hash on a menu, my husband is going to order it; he just can’t help himself. But all too often he is sorely disappointed. Not this time, my friends. A chunk of tender, savory corned beef, with minimal potatoes, topped with done-right eggs over easy, and terrific rye toast. Really good coffee from Tandem Roasters in Portland rounded out our “good-bye, Maine” meal.  I was tempted to order a side of the Brown Butter Banana Bread for the ride home, but that damned common sense prevailed (I’m so regretting it!) 

My sixth sense was on target here, too.

22 Mill Street
Freedom, Maine
Serving Dinner Wednesday-Saturday

18 Franklin Street
Biddeford, Maine

Serving Breakfast and Lunch Wednesday-Sunday