Stripers serves up fresh fish from its scenic perch in Kennebunkport.
- By: Kathy Gunst
- Photography by: Jeff Scher
I didn’t mean to be rude, but when chef James Taylor walked into the dining room at Stripers Waterside Restaurant in Kennebunkport, I blurted out, “How old are you?” Taylor, dressed in a gleaming white chef’s jacket, stumbled. “I’m . . . sometimes I forget. Ah, yes. Just had my twenty-fifth birthday.”
I had expected a middle-aged, somewhat stogy chef wearing a big toque to preside over the kitchen at this sophisticated and kind of preppy restaurant located at the Breakwater Inn & Spa. But instead here was James Taylor, fresh-faced with a rich British accent and a killer smile.
Taylor’s eyes light up when he talks about Maine seafood. Gesturing to the water outside the restaurant’s doors, he raves about the cod, halibut, lobster, Atlantic salmon, swordfish, tuna, and the eponymous striped bass. “I try to keep it all really simple,” Taylor explains, “and let the fish speak for itself. So many places try to fancy it all up with sauces and crazy garnishes, but the fish is so good on its own. You’ve really got to respect that.”
Taylor’s cooking makes the guest respect it, too. At a recent dinner the salmon carpaccio looked like a spectacular orange blossom spread across an oversized white plate. Paper thin slices of salmon, cured in vodka and jasmine tea, were accompanied by a refreshing, crunchy orange and fennel slaw. Tuna tartar has become a tired, standard dish, but Stripers’ version stood out — super-fresh yellowfin tuna marinated in soy sauce, ginger, and scallions served with a creamy pickled ginger foam and a thin, crunchy sesame tuile.
In describing his culinary philosophy, Taylor says he is committed to using “local, seasonal foods as much as possible.” That respect was evident in the seafood stew, a terrific combination of day-boat scallops, cod, and a variety of local fish in a light tomato and herb broth with a Meyer lemon risotto. The dish was full of clean, fresh
flavors. The swordfish, which so often is dry and overcooked, was grilled perfectly.
Beyond its offering of fresh seafood, Stripers also happens to have one of the best views of any restaurant in southern Maine. An entire wall is devoted to floor-to-ceiling windows that spill onto a summer deck. Outside, just off the manicured green lawn, lies the Kennebunk River, spotted with lobsterboats. The breakwater offshore controls the river flow as it makes its way into the Atlantic Ocean. In the distance there’s Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk and the beaches of Wells. The green marshes and squawking seagulls complete a perfect picture.Stripers only serves dinner (and a Sunday brunch), which is a pity since many late night diners miss the view entirely. The night we had dinner a thick fog rolled in around 7:30, making us feel like we were eating at an old friend’s beach house. A very wealthy friend, that is. The clientele — a combination of hotel guests, locals (the Bush complex is just up the street), and tourists — were a subdued crowd, ordering off the very extensive wine list and wearing lots of pink and kelly green. Stripers is, above all else, a comfortable place, with good jazz and a surprisingly attentive waitstaff.
Perhaps the lack of pretense comes from the top. Chef Taylor, who hails from Leicester, England, first came to the U.S. in 2001 to work as a camp counselor in Michigan. Several American counselors persuaded him to return and attend a two-year culinary program in nearby Grand Rapids. (“I’d never even picked up a knife,” he laughs, “except for cooking a quick meal for my Mum and Dad.”) Immediately after graduating he scored a job at Sunriver Resort in Oregon. A year later he was hired to work with the highly-esteemed chef Jonathan Cartwright of the White Barn Inn, just down the street from Stripers in Kennebunkport. After a year of hard work, Cartwright asked Taylor if he would be interested in being a sous chef at Stripers (the Breakwater Inn is a sister property of the White Barn Inn). Taylor jumped at the chance. In September 2007 he was named head chef of Stripers — a fast leap to the top.
“I’m not obsessed with getting stars and diamonds,” the young chef explained when asked about his future goals. “I’d love to have a really good gastro pub and serve really interesting local food. But for now I’m having great fun experimenting with all these good Maine ingredients.” KATHY GUNST
Stripers Waterside Restaurant is located at the Breakwater Inn & Spa, 127 Ocean Avenue, Kennebunkport. Open daily in the summer 5:30 to 9 p.m., and for brunch on Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday 5:30 to 9 p.m. in the winter. Appetizers $8 to $18. Entrees $20 to $32. Deserts $8. Full bar. 207-967-5333. www.thebreakwaterinn.com