Brunswick’s Clementine transforms food into beautiful — and delicious — art that’s a delight for the palate.
- By: Maria Padian
Photography by Ted Axelrod
The creative energy that has made Portland one of the best places to eat in the Northeast has boiled over, spilling into the suburbs and beyond. Chefs are raising the level of food in places like Kennebunk, Freeport, and Lewiston, where for decades the dining spectrum typically ran from pizza to surf ‘n’ turf.
Downtown Brunswick in particular reflects Mainers’ growing appetite for adventuresome and locally sourced fare. It has rapidly evolved into a half-square-mile banquet of Indian, Italian, German, and Mexican dishes, creative vegetarian meals, contemporary American cuisine, even artisanal gelato.
“The Brunswick scene has been emerging for the last few years,” says chef Dana Robicheaw, who, with his wife, Nancy, opened Clementine in 2008 after simultaneous stints at Henry and Marty, one of the first Brunswick eateries to emphasize foods from local farms and cheese makers. “We realized that if we didn’t put our mark here soon, someone else would.”
Their niche is ultra fine dining, not in the jackets-and-tie sense (indeed, jeans and flannels are most welcome at Clementine), but rather, in the effort to make every aspect of the meal — food, atmosphere, and service — memorable. “Dining can be an artistic experience,” Robicheaw explains. “It can approach all of your senses, from the well thought out flavor combinations, to how the food is arranged on the plate, to how it pairs with wine. We believe a restaurant is more than what’s on the plate. Dinner is the entertainment.”
The Robicheaws draw inspiration from the finest examples in the Northeast. Dana, who attended Johnson & Wales culinary institute in Providence, Rhode Island, has cooked at Portland’s Five Fifty-five and the much-praised but short-lived Bandol. Nancy was a wait-staff captain at the late Chanterelle in New York, exalted not only for its superb French cuisine but also its informative and helpful waiters.
Both Maine natives, they met while working at Portland’s Back Bay Grill, where Dana says he had his “culinary epiphany,” courtesy of executive chef Larry Matthews, Jr. “Back Bay Grill taught me everything I know,” Dana says. “It’s a real classroom. I try to do the same thing for the people working in the kitchen at Clementine.”
Clementine has found an enthusiastic audience, Dana adds, pointing to the Brunswick area’s ever-expanding retirement communities and to the popular Maine State Music Theatre, which guarantees full-seatings in summer. Located in a block of quaint storefronts just over the bridge from Topsham, the restaurant’s forty-five-seat interior is intimate and angular.
A recent renovation by Bath interior designer Mandy Cuss transformed the formerly noisy (both visually and acoustically) space into a calm, harmonious dining area, which is elegant without being stuffy. Sound-dampening panels on the walls and under the tables have greatly reduced the din from other diners, while the revolving local art displays of the past have been replaced by natural, putty-hued walls, linen-colored wainscoting, and single-toned stencils of giant chrysanthemums. Spare arrangements of white plates, small mirrors, and plain canvases shift the focus to the real event: the food.
The selections are impeccably prepared and almost too beautiful to eat. Creative use of herbs, such as basil in the lemonade or tarragon syrup adorning the strawberry rhubarb shortcake, and unusual flavor combinations, such as mango and chocolate, make the experience one of repeated, pleasant surprises for the palate. Each gorgeously arranged dish should be savored one bite at a time, which explains the average dining times of two-and-a-half to three hours.
Among the outstanding first-course offerings: lobster tortellini, served with a white wine butter sauce. Arranged in a circlet of pillowy, lobster-filled bites with a dab of wasabi tobiko nested in the middle, this may be the finest way to enjoy the Maine crustacean, short of fresh from the pot with an ocean view.
The second course might include New York strip steak prepared in a red wine demi-glace or a Provencal seafood stew, a feast of fresh salmon, mussels, haddock, and shrimp, swimming in a perfect tomato-oregano broth with a bit of heat lent by small pieces of Andouille sausage.
Seasonal and local are, of course, the determinative factors in the changing menu. And because it’s harvest time, fall is Dana Robicheaw’s favorite time to cook. Expect to find him creating dishes with apples, pears, squash, and rutabaga, as well as preserved food recipes like gravlax, duck leg confit, braised beef short ribs, or lamb osso buco.
You’ll have to fight the urge to whip out your smartphone and text jealous friends when dessert arrives because the selections are that beautiful. A perfect mound of chocolate mousse surrounded by a mango puree is garnished with candied pistachios and a paper-thin, sugar dusted cookie shaped like a spoon.
That same cookie might form a butterfly, atop a panna cotta raft floating in a sea of fresh blueberries. Green polka dots of tarragon syrup surround the rhubarb shortcake garnished with cream. Best of all: They taste even better than they look.
An affordably priced (twenty-seven dollars) three-course prix fixe dinner guarantees the full range of the Clementine experience, from starters to sweets, and 80 percent of all guests choose this option. “We really, really like that,” Dana says. “People get to enjoy a fuller experience. All three phases of the dining experience. Portions are slightly smaller, but there is always plenty of food.
“Plus,” he confesses, “I have a particular passion for desserts. Everyone loves desserts, and it’s the last thing they see.”
Clementine is located at 44 Maine Street, Brunswick. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. First course (soups, salads, appetizers) $6 to $9; main course $18 to $26; desserts $8; three-course prix fixe menu $27. 207-721-9800. Clementinemaine.com
- By: Maria Padian