I think we have a very happy little bistro here," says Brian Hill, chef-owner of Francine in Camden. He's being modest. Francine is indeed a happy little place - but it's also a great deal more. Located discreetly at the foot of quiet Chestnut Street, a block removed from the post office and the often hectic activity on Route 1, Francine is a salutary addition to the town's dining scene.
As you step up onto the front porch of the rehabbed frame house you're greeted by a tray of tiny, tilty white candles and some strings of white lights that twine around the porch posts. (In summer, cocktails and desserts are served on the porch or in the garden.) Once inside, it feels like you've been transported to a bistro in France, perhaps in an outer arrondissement of Paris. The walls of the smallish room, which is also aglow with candles, are painted a chic chocolate brown. A charming collection of slightly mismatched china and linens grace the tables, and an old church pew creates banquette-like seating along one wall. The tables seat twenty-six, with six additional stools at a small bar that looks directly into the open kitchen. Aha, you think, this attention to detail, this cozy sophistication really bodes well.
First impressions are confirmed by the pleasant, professional greeting, and, once seated, by the arrival of . . . the bread. The bread is the best I've eaten in Maine. Chestnut-dark of crust, warm tan of crumb, this peasanty sourdough loaf tastes of open-hearth baking traditions dating back centuries. Can you divulge the secret, I ask Hill? It's the age-old story of the understudy being forced into the spotlight and becoming a star. "We used to buy our bread from a local bakery," he explains, "but one day the order didn't get here so we decided we needed to make our own." So they made a starter from the ground-up leaf of a particularly fresh and beautiful head of cabbage (the sourdough starter still used today), and then mixed a dough with artisanal grind organic King Arthur flours (some white, some rye), salt, and water. They proof the dough overnight and the shaped loaves are baked in the morning in the regular restaurant oven "as hot as we can crank it up," - no fancy, expensive wood-fired hearth at all! The slices are served with organic sweet butter from a local farm.
Local is the watchword. Almost everything they cook at Francine is local. "This was my philosophy, starting out," says Hill, who worked with several top chefs in Boston, New York, Hawaii, and New Orleans, before opening Francine in 2003. "I grew up on a farm in Warren [fifteen minutes from Camden], so I had a pretty good sense of the local farming scene and what it had to offer. We decided to start simply - take what we could get fresh every day and do four starters, four entrees, four desserts - and a salad." The ingredients dictate the day's menus, which he writes in the morning and refines with two or three more drafts as the day progresses. The mission is straightforward: "We focus on taking those ingredients and making them taste the very best that they can." Seafood comes from local fishermen and from Portland's Brown Trading, Hotrod Seafood on Route 1 in Rockport, and Plant Seafood in Bath. Chicken is supplied by Maine-ly Poultry in Warren. "I love their chickens," says Hill. "Most commercial chickens are truly disgusting - not worth eating." Caldwell Farms in Turner provides beef, which Hill considers to be some of the best he's ever tasted.
"I'm really inspired by the produce we get - especially in summer, of course, but I can get some great stuff all year," says Hill. "Sometimes mesclun or mushrooms or a basket of apples arrive at the back door." If not, Peacemeal Farms in Montville is a big supplier of herbs, squash, leeks, and potatoes. Shepherd's Hand in Washington grows lettuces and other greens, and Searsmont's Dilly Dally Farm has a greenhouse that supplies mesclun and other vegetables all winter. Hill also searches out Maine cheese makers. He has come to love the cow's milk cheeses made by Debbie Hahn of Hahn's End in Phippsburg, particularly her aged cheddar-style cheese and a creamy washed rind variety called Eleanor Buttercup. And a cheese maker in Auburn at 1797 Farm crafts a pecorino-type cheese exclusively for the bistro.
Even with just four menu listings in each category, the selection process is excruciating. There's always a soup - but don't necessarily expect to be presented with a smooth potage. Hill takes a concept and proceeds to deconstruct it. By keeping the various elements separate and then "building" the soup at the time of serving, he presents a revelation. A good many of his soups are based on beans. ("We've found a way of slow poaching them that amounts to an almost religious experience," says Hill.) So a dish listed as "shrimp soup, white beans, chilies, and cilantro" emerges as a steaming bowl of garlic-poached flageolet beans (soft and toothsome, not underdone, which is the unfortunate propensity of too many chefs), tiny sweet Maine shrimp, and a finely chopped fresh salsa that perfectly complements and ties together the whole. Since the seasons dictate the menu, in spring and early summer you might find the likes of asparagus soup with morels and Vidalia onion fondue, or first of the season elvers (baby eels) with toasted garlic, or dandelion greens, poached duck egg, croutons, and bacon vinaigrette. Or how about applewood smoked trout, crispy johnnycake, asparagus, and horseradish crème fraiche?
Francine's simple salad is always "tender lettuces, fines herbes, lemon vinaigrette." The greens are impeccably fresh (never out of a bag, sour and wilty), the lemon dressing lovely and light and somehow very, very French.
"Steak Frites, pan roast of bistro steak with Proven?al herb frites," is one of the few dishes that is almost always available. This entrée consists of a hefty portion of grilled Caldwell Farms beefsteak served with a gorgeous heap of steak frites - at least six kinds of potatoes, fried in extra virgin olive oil and served with a bundle of fresh rosemary, thyme, sage, and marjoram. Seafood ranges from the likes of Maine halibut with spring greens and cool artichoke-crab vinaigrette, to skate wing with lemon, capers, fiddleheads, and scallion potatoes, or roast Rhode Island swordfish, baby clams, leeks, and arugula. One night we had one of the best dishes I've eaten anywhere. The description, "Smoked veal ribs, Morse's sauerkraut, mushroom pearl barley, mushroom sauce," didn't do it justice, but I should not have questioned the recommendation. Hill had taken a whole side of veal breast, given it a dry spice rub, and smoked it for hours out back in Francine's own smoker. He then carved off the juicy, sweetly smoky riblets and combined them in a casserole with the local Morse's sauerkraut (fresh, and not oversalted) and the other ingredients to make an incredibly flavorful sort of Maine choucroute - a dish that was down-to-earth, yet at the same time the ultimate in sophistication.
Chicken might be served roasted, with triple-poached garlic (making it sweet and mellow), garlicky greens, and bits of slab bacon, or with an olive and chorizo stuffing and spinach polenta, or accompanied by green lentils, baby tatsoi, and garlic puree. Asian flavors creep in (nori, black bean sauce, sesame, and ginger), but most dishes look to Europe - Provence, in particular - for their provenance.
All desserts are made in-house. Many are created around seasonal fruits - fresh berries nestle in buttery tart shells or are whipped into house-made ice cream; apples and pears are baked into darkly caramelized croustades and topped with nut ice cream. And usually, something chocolate finds its way onto the menu - bistro chocolate mousse or white chocolate tiramisu or dark chocolate torte.
Francine has a full bar and an interesting, eclectic wine list that includes bottles from France, Italy, Spain, California, and New Zealand. Many are available by the glass, and most are moderately priced. Brian Hill and his staff do the choosing. "I know we have kind of an odd, slightly off-beat bunch of varietals," he says. "We try to pick out wines that we like. They all taste good. That's our rule."
And that motto seems to apply virtually across the board. At Francine everything really does taste good. That's the rule.
Francine is located at 55 Chestnut Street (off Route 1) in Camden. Prices range from $6 to $10 for first courses, and $18 to $26 for entrees. All desserts are $6. Francine is open year-round, serving dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 10. Reservations recommended. 207-230-0083.