If you have any doubts about the resurgence of Munjoy Hill, you should take your appetite, along with a few friends, and head up Congress Street — and not just on a weekend night, either. Along with Bar Lola and the Blue Spoon, another up-and-comer of recent vintage is chef Harding Smith's very casual, very accessible spot, the Front Room, which serves brunch and dinner seven days a week.
"I wanted to make it a neighborhood gathering spot, to have the homey feel like when you come into someone's living room," Smith says, and he has certainly succeeded.There's a full bar against one wall and another wall entirely of windows.Com
fortable wooden Hancock chairs are set around tables not too tightly packed. The space, which is indeed one large, open-plan room at the front of a corner lot, doesn't feel either too small or too crowded, even when full. Perhaps this is because, most often, you're distracted by the action. There is no wall separating the kitchen from the dining area, just the open countertop at which, during dinner especially, you can watch Smith throwing his plates together and catch glimpses of the rest of the crew at full steam as the meal progresses.
"I wanted," the chef remarks, "to do comfort food, approachable to everybody, which is why there's meatloaf and pork chops, stick-to-your-ribs cooking that might bring back good memories." In this, he has likewise succeeded, with a short menu of generously portioned salads, appetizers, sandwiches, and "main plates," the most exotic dishes one night running to the pink trout and monkfish on the specials board. "I'm trying to give big flavors, bold flavors," he explains. "Many of our customers are locals from Munjoy Hill, and if you're stopping in two or three times a week, you're not necessarily eating three courses. You may be getting an appetizer or one plate, so there's not time for subtle or complicated food."
This means very simple, honest, and satisfying combinations, like a warm goat cheese salad with diced beets and arugula in a muted vinaigrette or a slab of house pastrami-style salmon sauced with tangy mustard and sour cream, the smokiness of the fish nicely set off by the slightly sweet New England brown bread underneath it. You could easily make a meal of appetizers and salads alone, with choices like two crabcakes with so little filler — and so much meat — that they crumble on the plate and a crispy duck leg worthy of a bistro in southwest France, both with their greens. A bacon and egg salad includes a generous mound of frisée lettuce garnished with a poached egg whose yolk oozes over plentiful cubes of bacon and crunchy croutons. It does, indeed, bring to mind breakfast.
Among the main dishes, too, there's not a fusion mahimahi ravioli or a kiwi-sesame-cilantro foam in sight. The pork chop is oven-roasted, the scallops seared, the meatloaf grilled, the half-chicken baked, and the short ribs braised to melting perfection. With sides of creamed corn, pan-fried gnocchi, parmesan risotto, potatoes mashed with horseradish or gratinéed with cheddar cheese, it's clear that this chef has no fear of starches. He may have spent many happy hours in a steakhouse, judging by the appearance, too, of roasted red cabbage, sautéed spinach, skillet cornbread, and dressings and sauces with lashings of grainy mustard, blue cheese, and bacon fat.
To wash it all down, there is a full bar as well as a modest list of wines at very reasonable prices, almost all available by the glass and by the half-liter carafe, a welcome and rare innovation. "We don't have funky varietals," Smith says simply. "The goal was to have a lot of wines, by the glass, familiar varietals, wines we like and which are approachable." This last could be said of the desserts, too, old standbys like cheesecake and apple pie and fruit upside down cake, all ample and delicious if not wildly innovative.
While the hustle and bustle and the general noise level may put the Front Room out of the running as a place for an intimate evening at peak hours, that's not really the point of this corner bistro. "We let people have their fun, relax, and enjoy themselves," Smith explains. "They often linger long after their meal to hang out and watch the scene, have another glass of wine." It's true; you don't feel hurried or harried, the food is great, the ambiance lively, and the menu prices don't make you mentally check your credit card balance. How often can you say that about any restaurant?
The Front Room, located at 73 Congress St. in Portland, is open every day. Brunch is served 8 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., and dinner 5 - 10 p.m., 4 - 9 p.m. on Sundays. No reservations. 207-773-3366. www.thefrontroomrestaurant.com Maine MadeHanging Around
Not every family is lucky enough to have a great aunt to knit them stockings to hang by the chimney with care. And the stockings at Wal-Mart just don't have the same warm, fuzzy, holiday charm as a big, wool, hand-woven sock. Christmas Cove Designs (800-737-2128; www.christmascovedesigns.com
), a knitwear company in Richmond, has been playing the role of great aunt since it was founded in the early '80s, sending heirloom-quality stockings handmade from virgin wool to homes across the globe. The stockings ($36) come in dozens of styles, adorned with Christmas themes, Maine designs (lobster and moose and lighthouses), and more personalized motifs like golfers and skiers and fishermen. You'll even find smaller ones for Fido and Fifi. The company also makes ingenious hardwood and brass sock hooks ($9-$15) that let you hang your stockings without marring the face of your mantel.Quick Bites
If you've never noticed the redemption sticker that appears on each bottle of wine sold in Maine, now's the time to start paying attention. SoPo Wine Co.'s seemingly hand-written stickers have become a reliable guide to interesting, often affordable wines from independent producers. Owners Doug Watts and Catherine Oster know the story behind every wine they stock; their motto is "we won't sell it if we won't drink it." And their taste seems to be right on: the South Portland distributor has added several employees in the year and a half since it was founded, and now supplies wine to markets from Kittery to Bar Harbor, as well as to many of Maine's best restaurants.
Lupines, the restaurant at the Newcastle Inn in Newcastle, recently reopened under chef Dale Swartzentruber. Along with the new chef, who trained with Sam Hayward at Fore Street in Portland and then worked at Damariscotta River Grill, owners Peter and Laura Barclay have introduced an à la carte menu to go along with their five-course prix fixe menu. And they've done away with their single nightly seating; instead, Lupines (207-563-5685; www.newcastleinn.com
) now accepts reservations from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday year-round. -Michaela CavallaroBooksThe World in a Grain of RiceAn essayist and photographer find truth and beauty around the corner in Merrymeeting Bay.
Prepare to be seduced. This collection of nineteen essays and one hundred photographs will take you to a part of Maine that, in all likelihood, you've barely heard of and never wondered about. Yet by book's end you'll be ready to swear, as I was, that Merrymeeting Bay — a marshy tidal expanse stretching some dozen-odd miles roughly west and north of Bath — is the center of the universe. Or, at the very least, a little-known crown jewel of Maine's rich natural heritage.
Confluence: Merrymeeting Bay (Tilbury House Publishers, Gardiner; trade paperback; 224 pages; $30) is a collaboration between Franklin Burroughs, a retired professor of English at Bowdoin College, and Heather Perry, a photographer who specializes in marine and freshwater natural history. Both live with the bay more or less in their own backyards — Perry in Bath, Burroughs in Bowdoinham — and a sense of easy familiarity with both the region and its distinctive inhabitants suffuses this lovely volume. Like its subject matter, the book seems, at first glance, a modest and understated affair, but when you pause for a closer look you discover it is full of surprises, some of them rather dramatic.
Here's the first: There are only four places on earth where two large rivers converge at their mouths, creating a shared delta. Three of these confluences rate pretty highly in historical and geographic prominence (the Tigris-Euphrates, for example). Merrymeeting Bay does not. And yet this collision point of the Kennebec River, rushing south from Moosehead Lake, and the Androscoggin, snaking southeastward from the White Mountains and Lake Umbagog, encompasses one-third of all the flowing water in Maine, and gives rise to an ecosystem that is extraordinary even by Down East standards. "In geomorphological and global terms," Burroughs notes, "it is an extreme rarity. And it is, at the same time, a place that has been very largely overlooked."
He and Perry set out to correct that deficiency in measured, unhurried fashion, moving purposefully through the complex terrain like a duck hunter sculling his float through "the grass," as locals call the wild rice flats that are a defining feature of the bay. Self-contained, illustrated essays introduce us to topics both vast and intimate, quirky and ineluctable. In "Quabacook" we learn that the original Native American name for the bay meant "duck watering place," still a most apposite term. "The Oldest Profession" is all about eels — not the most promising subject, yet it yields its share of revelation: eel-trapping has been practiced in the bay for some 5,800 years, starting with the Paleo-Indians and coming down to one Jimmy McPherson, whose career might well mark "the end of our most ancient local enterprise." A chapter called "Newcomers" deftly intertwines zoological aliens (the carp) with political refugees (the Kims).
Bit by bit, facet by facet, we come about as close to knowing Merrymeeting Bay, which packs a lot of mystery into its modest square mileage, as it's possible to get without actually going there. And indeed, the text concludes with a brief but very precise set of instructions for those able and willing to look for themselves. ("You will need a boat," Burroughs begins, and proceeds to tell us what kind of boat, where to launch it, how to orient ourselves — right down to where and when to break for lunch.)
This is no Rough Guide to Merrymeeting Bay. It has its down-to-earth, useful side, but like the small watercraft called gunning floats, handbuilt by local craftsmen, that we encounter in a chapter called "Intelligent Design," Confluence is before all else a lovingly made, one-of-a-kind work of art. Heather Perry's photographs are not just beautiful but also accurate and expressive. Ranging from aerial overviews of the striking landscape to underwater close-ups of fleet, somehow unearthly life forms, along with affecting images of the bay's human inhabitants, they perfectly complement Burroughs' prose.
As an essayist, Burroughs shows his English-prof stripes in an unabashed love of the language. He cannot resist the perfect turn of phrase, whether it requires dipping into the Oxford English Dictionary or into what he calls the OGL (Old Growth Language) for a morsel of Maine vernacular. With a well-tuned ear for the way folks talk, an affectionate eye for the world around him, and an evident passion for "the one life you'll ever have," he makes me think of E.B. White — and I can't offer higher praise than that. - Richard GrantHow-ToBreaking Bread
Haven't started your holiday baking yet? Worse yet, don't even know where to begin? Michael and Sandy Jubinsky at Stone Turtle Baking & Cooking School (207-324-7558; www.stoneturtlebaking.com
) in Lyman have got you covered. Their hands-on Dec. 14 class on Christmas Gift Breads ($45) includes instruction in — and samples of — candy-cane mock braid, Polish babka bread, and Chelsea buns, the latter their own traditional Christmas morning treat. While the school is centered around the wood-fired Le Panyol stone oven whose shape inspired the organization's name, recipes for many classes, including the Dec. 14 installment, are tailored for conventional ovens. "We want people to be able to go home and make these breads without having to spend $12,000 on a wood-fired oven," Michael Jubinsky says with a chuckle. Got a yen to try out the stone turtle itself? Consult the schedule for early 2007, which the Jubinskys plan to post this month, for the Wood-Fired Oven Intensive and other classes.Briefly Noted
It's hard not to get wrapped up in Stealing History (Islandport Press, Yarmouth; paperback; 228 pages; $15.95), the first novel by William D. Andrews. A resident of Portland and Newry and the former president of Westbrook College, Andrews spins an entertaining tale about a young woman's efforts to find a letter from Abraham Lincoln that's gone missing from the historical society she directs. That its setting in Ryland, Maine, is a dead ringer for Bethel is just half the fun.
Earl H. Smith has spent more than forty years working in the administration at Colby College, the last three of them as the college's historian, which makes him uniquely well suited to write Mayflower Hill: A History of Colby College (University Press of New England, Lebanon, New Hampshire; cloth; 452 pages; $34.95). Focusing on the second half of the twentieth century, Mayflower Hill provides an in-depth look at one of Maine's elite institutions.Hot TipThe Old Kit Bag
There's something about an antique trunk that evokes romance — even more so when the trunk has been lovingly restored, like those at Brettuns Village Trunk Shop (207-782-7863; www.brettunsvillage.com
). Working out of his Auburn home, proprietor Churchill Barton carefully removes dull finishes, replaces broken parts, and does whatever else is necessary to return all manner of trunks — ranging from old Louis Vuitton numbers to a Vanderman stagecoach strongbox — to their original glory. Prices for these handcrafted works of art are surprisingly reasonable, ranging from $325 to $750 recently, and even include shipping within the continental United States. Not ready to buy? Spend some time perusing the before-and-after page of Barton's Web site, which is full of laconic notes about completed projects. By the time you're done, you'll be ready to book yourself — and your trunk — on the next steamer to Cathay. Or at least Bar Harbor.GetawayLocal FavoritesFreeport has more to offer than outlets and L.L. Bean.
Rather than sequester yourself in the airless mall this holiday season, spend a day — or a weekend — tramping the streets of Freeport, where the outlets are interspersed with a treasure trove of locally owned stores too often overlooked by shoppers.SHOPS
Tucked in a brick courtyard just off Main Street, Puzzles & Games, Etc. (58 Main St.; 207-865-4185) stocks old standbys like dominos and chess, as well as Red Sox — and, heaven forbid, Yankees — checkers and a surprising array of adult drinking games. Edible — and drinkable — gifts are the order of the day at Freeport Cheese & Wine (27 Bow St.; 207-865-3993), where owners Eric and Aly Fullagar and their staff write their own insightful tasting notes for almost every wine they stock. Earrings & Company (2 Mechanic St.; 207-865-3097) specializes in handcrafted — and surprisingly affordable — jewelry, with an emphasis on Maine and New England artisans. Pick up a stroller for your shih tzu, along with more prosaic supplies for dogs, cats, fish, and other small creatures at Pet Pantry (140 Main St.; 888-772-9392). Whether you're looking to gut a deer or dice shallots, Freeport Knife Co. (148 Main St.; 207-865-0779; www.freeportknife.com
) has the sharp implement you need. And if someone on your shopping list has been especially good, stop in at Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers (149 Main St.; 207-865-4519; www.thomasmoser.com
) for a gorgeous piece of handcrafted furniture.LODGING
Enjoy the fireplace, the indoor pool, and the newly renovated bathrooms at Freeport's home for hospitality, the Harraseeket Inn (162 Main St.; 207-865-9377; www.harraseeketinn.com
). The White Cedar Inn (178 Main St.; 207-865-9099; www.whitecedarinn.com
), the boyhood home of Arctic explorer Donald B. MacMillan, offers a Christmas shopping weekend package, complete with a complimentary bag of gift-wrapping supplies.DINING
The doner kebab (also known as a gyro) and babaghannush (pureed eggplant mixed with garlic and spices) are among the fresh, tasty treats served with style at the Mediterranean Grill (10 School St.; 207-865-1688; www.mediterraneangrill.biz
). There's something for every appetite in the cozy Broad Arrow Tavern at the Harraseeket Inn. Kick back with a pint of Christmas Ale and a burger or a dish of shepherd's pie at Gritty McDuff's (187 Lower Main St.; 207-865-4321; www.grittys.com
). Make reservations for one of the seatings at Jacqueline's Tea Room (201 Main St.; 207-865-2123), which serves a four-course lunch complete with finger sandwiches, scones with Devon cream, and all the tea you can drink.ACTIVITIES
When you tire of all the getting and spending, clear your head with a walk through the grounds at Pettengill Farm (207-865-3170; Pettengill Road), a nineteenth-century saltwater farm owned by the Freeport Historical Society. Or traipse your choice of wooded and coastal trails at Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park (207-865-4465; off-season, 207-624-6080; 426 Wolfe's Neck Rd.) - Michaela Cavallaro