JOHN GOLDEN: FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Portland Press Herald, Arts & Entertainment
I have two regrets concerning the Chebeague Island Inn. One is that it will be closing by Columbus Day for the season and I'll have to wait until next year to enjoy it again; and my second gripe is that I wish it had an off-season counterpart on the mainland--to enjoy the wonderful ambiance and food that I experienced at this magical island outpost several weeks ago.
The renovation of this stately old building is superb, and the dining room, which had its fits and starts last year, runs like a dream now. What struck me about the food this time was its simplicity and goodness.
The chef, Terry Foster, is a pro who's found his niche in a place that others might think too remote to make a difference in a chef's repertoire. I experienced his cooking often when he ran the dining room at the Pilgrim's Inn on Deer Isle. Those dinners in the elegant barn room were superb: perfectly roasted racks of lamb and other staples of American fare were always well executed.
The menu is not gimmicky or foolish. There are no inscrutable sauces or dishes shrouded in mystery.
I started with a corn and crabmeat chowder that was just thick and rich enough without falling into the brink of culinary disrepair.
My main course was a highly flavorful herb scented pork sirloin that was grilled and swathed in a silken reduction spiked with Calvados and peaches. I particularly liked the mashed parsnip and braised leeks that accompanied it.
Some menus around town are too complicated, and it's a relief to dine on expertly prepared food that is developed on ease of flavor.
There were six of us that evening that made the trek, which took place on one of the foggiest nights of the summer--even the ferry felt like it was poking through foreign waters.
Since we were a large enough group we got the chance to sample much of the menu. Like the beautifully prepared mussels that are served housed in a dish of little compartments for each mussel; the grilled Caesar salad, duck confit, smoked salmon were all beautifully prepared.
The menu has changed slightly since I was there and represents more fall-like selections. I just might make it out there again to try the Maine lobster and chanterelle soup or the tantalizing notion of carrot and ginger puree with chestnuts, celeriac and honey; or any of the main courses like marinated brochettes of lamb and artichoke or Wolf Neck beef tenderloin that's accompanied by a leek and artichoke strudel and roasted tomatoes.
Lately I've noticed that the food served in many of our best restaurants is too heavily salted. Chefs love salt and use it as generously as a down poor in the garden. Here at this island dining room I recall the taste of the food, purely and simply, rather than going through mats of salt that seem to reduce otherwise good cooking into misadventure.
Places like Back Bay, Caiola's, Primo, Cinque Terre and others offer the kind of enticing, straight forward menus that don't make dining out a chore or battleground of ingredients. The Inn has joined the group and I wish it was open to serve us year-round.
John Golden has written about food for Gourmet, Food and Wine, the New York Times, New York Post, the Daily News and was an editor at Cuisine and publisher of Good Foods Magazine. He now lives in Portland, where he dines out, or searches the area's markets for the best foods to prepare himself.