Anyone driving down Forest Falls Drive in Yarmouth on a certain morning in September might have noticed a couple of things about the then-nine-month-old SeaGrass Bistro. While the dining room was still draped with shadow, the lights above the range and ovens were burning brightly. That pickup truck that always seems to be parked out front was there, and the owner of that truck, Chef Stephanie Brown, was busily working inside.
One might expect there to be morning prep shifts at this increasingly popular restaurant in Yarmouth, but in this case Chef Brown wasn't preparing the evening's menu; she was making sandwiches, granola, and candied apples for local students on a field trip — to be delivered directly to them, in the middle of the woods.It was a favor she wouldn't dream of blinking at. She feels she owes it to the community that has treated her so well.
"I come from Boston, which is extremely cutthroat. You couldn't just go knock on another chef's door and borrow X, Y, and Z from them," she explains, "Here, I was embraced by everyone."
The local support has been overwhelming since late 2004, when she stood outside the peaked and shingled fa?ade of the space that was to become her first restaurant and held up the blueprints. A car stopped, and a head poked out.
"What are you building? When are you opening? Is it too early to get a reservation?"
From then on, it didn't stop. Word of mouth spread of a new restaurant opening up just off Route 1 in an upscale business park, and visitors continued to stop by, ask questions, and offer advice. By then, the chef had also taken on the role of general contractor and was simultaneously ordering around, taking orders from, and feeding multiple crews of construction workers. When the stainless steel countertop she'd ordered didn't fit through the door, she did what she does best: brought everyone together, and improvised the thing through the window. "We installed it just a bit crooked," she laughs.
Local news of the SeaGrass Bistro spread quickly, so much so that her unofficial, non-advertised "soft opening" from mid-January to mid-February of this year involved packing the dining room full of people. Her official "hard opening" saw two hundred customers come and go. She and her staff did well to handle the pressure, though, and she constantly recognizes their commitment to the restaurant.
"I feel very lucky to have the staff I do," she says. "I don't have a front-of-the-house manager, so when [customers] walk through the door at four o'clock, it's a great comfort to know I can release that part over to the servers."
Each server can suggest alterations to the menu to suit particular tastes, and the chef not only will accommodate these changes, but insists that each diner get exactly what he or she wants, despite what the menu might say.
"The menu is just a suggestion," explains Brown. "You want a different sauce or side? That's fine; it's easy. I look at my restaurant as an extension of your kitchen or dining room, not mine." That's the opposite of what you hear from many chefs: that the kitchen is an extension of their dining room, and you're their guest. At the SeaGrass Bistro, you're always in charge, you're paying for the service, and you should get what you want. "You wouldn't believe how many people bring me home-grown vegetables," Brown says.
And does she add them into their plate that night?
She laughs. "Some for them, some for me."
Not that you'd be taking a risk if you ordered from the menu. The offerings change not just with the seasons, but every three weeks to accommodate the freshest local product. Brown is constantly making trips out to farms to see what produce is going to be on her menu before it's even out of the ground. But she's already learned not to plan too far ahead: "What do you do when a woodchuck eats an entire crop of romaine lettuce I was going to use for grilled romaine? Now I have to react all of a sudden. It's exciting to me."
Native beet medley with farmer's goat cheese and baby greens drizzled with ginger maple vinaigrette is a clear nod to the root vegetables of the fading late summer, while the four cheese ravioli with a velvety butternut squash beurre blanc, wilted greens, and sun-dried cranberries leans more towards early fall flavors. Everything on those two plates was grown locally, your server will point out, and the vibrancy of the colors and flavors bear this out.
Maine-ly Poultry provides the centerpiece for the beautiful and towering oven-roasted Cornish game hen, red wine reduction with cranberry essence, brown sugared autumn squash, and wilted greens. The squash is so tender that it is cooked with the skins on, melting into the sweet flesh with virtually no chewing necessary. The same can be said of the oven-roasted sweet potatoes that accompany the grilled Australian rack of lamb, caramelized fig reduction, and grilled asparagus. Skin on, and silky sweet.
Desserts range from the crisp and clean, like a lemon-laced blueberry sorbet, to decadent homemade ice creams to an apple crisp that tastes like whoever made it spent her early days working on an apple farm.
Which in fact she did.
stephanie Brown got her first food service job at the age of sixteen. It wasn't the "glamorous" dishwasher position that has launched a thousand chef's careers, but at the time it didn't seem so much better. Bagging apples at Drew Farms in Westford, Massachusetts, was, at first, mindless and painful, but then something clicked. Brown began to see the apples turned into pies and crisps, applesauce, and pressed into cider when the season got old.
Already imparted with a love of cooking and the family meal by her Italian family, Brown began to develop a love of food service. Working in bakeries and catering through college kept the fix at bay, but a year after graduating with a degree in business she took the advice of the chef at the Colonial Inn in Concord, Massachusetts, where she was working as an assistant to the pastry chef. She remembers her response clearly: "He told me I should really think about culinary school, and I said 'What's that?' "
Brown enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. From there it was off to the San Francisco's Ritz Carleton, where she got her first real dose of a professional kitchen. "I was the only woman on a line of seven men, and I worked right next to the chef at the saucier station. And he didn't speak to or acknowledge me for three weeks."
But after months of gaining the chef's trust with her impeccable work ethic, professionalism, and sense of personal accountability, the two became close friends. Brown knew she wanted to get back to the East Coast, however. She worked a series of jobs in Boston at the International Hotel, the World Trade Center, and as assistant director of catering sales at the Charles Hotel.
It was on her daily commutes into and out of Boston that the idea of her own small restaurant started germinating. Drawing from all the influences that had formed her food philosophy — her family's dinners around the table, her job on the local farm, her series of positions in hotels where the goal is to make guests feel at home — she envisioned a small restaurant where the customer would feel empowered to change menu items to their tastes.
"I wanted to pick one street in the United States of America and put my restaurant on it."
And Yarmouth, Maine, seemed as good a town as any in which to pick a street. Why not Forest Falls Drive?
SeaGrass Bistro is located at 30 Forest Falls Drive in Yarmouth. Hours are 5:30 p.m. to close Tuesday through Saturday. First courses: $7 to $10; entrees: $22 to $28. 207-846-3885. www.seagrassbistro.com