When you stand on the dock at Cousins Island waiting for the ferry that will take you to dinner, it is hard not to feel that the elements are already conspiring to make it a unique experience. Across Casco Bay, the Chebeague Island Inn beckons, an impressive yellow-painted nineteenth-century structure set in a sea of green lawn and rolling golf links, the whole burnished by the setting sun. The sea breeze, the fifteen-minute ride on the Islander ferry, the easy conversation with the locals returning from work - as the boat pulls in, you feel the outside world begin to slip away.Walking that last quarter-mile up to your destination, your appetite, stimulated by the air and the stroll, reminds you that you're not just here for the view, as spectacular as it is.
Once inside the door, the transformation is complete, and you find yourself not just in another place, but almost in another century. A fire crackles on cool evenings in the massive ledgestone fireplace dominating one end of the huge open room, its walls and floors and beams of old, mellow pine. Comfortable sofas and chairs in rich, muted fabric are scattered throughout, tall windows are framed in cheery yellow gingham, tables hold board games and other diversions for kids and adults. A waiter welcomes you, offers a drink, which you can take out onto one of the porches to consume slowly as you watch the sun set.
Between lounge and dining room is another open airy space, to one side a small bar with, thankfully, no television blaring overhead, only another genial waiter who pauses to answer your questions about the inn and its island. And then, time for dinner. . . .
Ours began with Damariscotta Blue Point oysters on the half shell, each dashed with a hint of ponzu sauce and crunchy flying fish roe, the plate garnished with pickled daikon radish. Bang's Island steamed mussels also bore an Eastern twist, cilantro and Asian fish sauce. Lurking at the bottom of the bowl was a ball of fiery sautéed spinach, lemongrass, and jalapeno peppers, a perfect complement to the bright ginger perfuming the delicate flesh. Chef Allan Fisher offers more traditional first dishes, too, such as an authentic clam chowder using steamers (instead of the usual chopped quahogs), delicate seared scallops, and a choice of salads including an ample offering with lobster and another with grilled asparagus.
After the appetizer had disappeared and the sun had very nearly set, my wife turned to me and said, "The thing to do is plan to spend the night here." As I looked around the dining room, its dark walls and beams and soft candlelight somehow reinforcing the feeling of being far, far away from it all, I could only agree.
The dinner entrees reflect Fisher's varied kitchen background, which, after an education at the Culinary Institute of America, included stints at La C?te Basque in New York and more than a year's training in Japan in a hotel restaurant. You'll find beautiful cuts of beef - grilled hanger and New York Strip steaks, for example, with various spins on traditional steakhouse sides: potato-bacon cake, house onion rings, or sauteed spinach. Fisher can't resist playing with other classics, either. Delicate filets of lemon sole are sautéed and napped with a citrus butter sauce but then garnished with several plump fried oysters and a dusting of crunchy cashews. Bouillabaisse, that sturdy, French, fish-and-shellfish stew, emerges here in a Thai version, spicy lobster stock with red snapper, clams, shrimp, mussels, and spinach over rice noodles. A spring chicken, Asian lacquered poussin, reveals just how much work can go into a deceivingly simple dish. The small bird is immersed in boiling water, dipped repeatedly in a spiced brine, then dried overnight in front of a fan (in the refrigerator, of course). The next day it is roasted once and then gets a brief immersion in sizzling hot oil just before it gets to your table. The result? Succulent flesh, crisp skin, the whole redolent of the lime and soy that produce the almost-black lacquer that covers it.
To accompany your meal, you'll find a dozen wines by the glass and fifty bottles fairly priced and widely sourced geographically, their selection showing the restrained tastes of someone not overly impressed by labels but whose first thought is of how the wines will complement the food.
After the more elaborate courses, desserts here sound deceptively plain: berry pies and crisps, a lemon tart, a few ice creams and sorbets, an individual chocolate cake. How rare it is to take a bite of a raspberry-blueberry pie and taste just the fresh berries and melting crust, without an overload of sugar and cornstarch. The ice creams - vanilla, chocolate, cappuccino - remind you of the possibilities of real fresh cream and uncomplicated flavorings, while the lighter sorbets leave sweet and fleeting impressions of lemon, passion fruit, or mango.
This is the kind of place where the waiters are pleasant, efficient, and soft-spoken, where the chef may come out to chat about your thoughts on the new dish he's just served you. You're encouraged to relax, to take your time, and, indeed, the only limitation to the evening is the departure of the last ferry. You don't have to worry about this, either, as they'll run you down to the dock in the inn's golf cart if need be.
The French Michelin Guide reserves its three-star ratings for restaurants that are "worth the voyage." The "voyage" to Chebeague, pleasant and not at all arduous, is just the first reward, the meal that follows at the inn memorable, unusual, and wholly in tune with a very special place.
The Chebeague Island Inn is located at 61 South Road on Chebeague Island. Open Mother's Day to October 31, Monday through Saturday, for lunch and dinner, and brunch on Sundays. Soups and salads: $7-$10, first courses $8-$12, main courses $20-$35, desserts $3.50-$5. Reservations suggested. Moorings, van, and launch service available on request. Ferry services from Portland and Cousin's Island: www.chebeagueislandinn.com