DiningThe French ConnectionPortland's Mims serves brasserie-style food with a local flair.
In a city in which outdoor dining is in inexplicably short supply, Natasha Durham has snagged the two locations with the best patios.
Natasha's, her thirteen-year-old flagship restaurant, serves European- and Asian-inspired cuisine from a stylish location on Portland's Exchange Street; in warm weather, diners perch at tables alongside the building's trompe l'oeil fa?ade in Tommy's Park.Just a few blocks away, Durham's latest endeavor, Mims Brasserie, occupies a high-traffic spot on the corner of Commercial and Dana streets. While diners on the street-level patio are immersed in the hubbub of high season in Maine's largest city, those on the deck above are at a serene remove, with views of the harbor and the neighborhood below.
It was those patios, as well as the prime location, that a decade ago piqued Durham's interest in the building that now houses Mims. She watched for years as the space cycled through several restaurant tenants. Then, in the late winter of 2003, the landlord called Durham: the space was hers.
In just three months, Durham and her team remodeled the space "down to the quarter-inch," she says, laughing as she remembers the minute adjustments necessary to fit the kitchen, the bar, and the twenty-two-seat dining room on the ground floor. Along the way, Durham pulled from what she says are the four or five restaurant concepts continually kicking around in her head to develop Mims' brasserie-style menu.
"At Mims, it's the beauty of the ingredients and the simplicity of the preparation that entertains and pleases. We don't have to mask or decorate or in any way market this plate of food," Durham says, spitting out the last verb as if it were an off oyster.
Her philosophy is echoed by Joe Boudreau, Mims' chef, who says he likes to prepare his ingredients "as simply as possible, with a nice balance of flavor." That doesn't mean the food is dashed off. Boudreau and sous chef Brian Harnois put in a lot of time up front, brining the veal breast, for example, for two or three days before braising it. Boudreau estimates that he and Harnois make 99 percent of the menu, including dessert, from scratch.
Durham and Boudreau clearly take inspiration from the brasserie ideal; the wine list is entirely French, and dishes such as duck leg confit and foie gras are menu staples. Even the restaurant's schedule — three meals a day, seven days a week — is a nod to the brasserie's traditional role as a cornerstone of its neighborhood. But not every dish has roots in France. A highlight of the weekend brunch menu, for example, is the gnocchi with spinach, roasted tomatoes, poached egg, and hollandaise.
While the dinner menu can be a bit daunting at first — there's an entire page of first courses ($4-$16), from salads of local lettuces to onion soup with gruyere cheese to a charcuterie plate, and then another page of entrees ($16-$30) and sides ($4-$9), which are ordered separately — Durham's intent is that diners assemble their meal in whatever fashion suits them. The friendly, knowledgeable waitstaff conveys that message with ease.
And while Durham ponders one day opening another restaurant that would focus on educating customers about everything from specific ingredients to different modes of preparation, for the time being she is content to serve as chief idea generator and problem solver for Mims and Natasha's. "My job now," she says, "is what it should have been from the beginning." Michaela Cavallaro
Mims Brasserie is located at 205 Commercial St., Portland. It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week. 207-347-7478.Quick Bites
- Harding Lee Smith's Munjoy Hill restaurant, The Front Room, has been the talk of Portland since it opened in December. With a solid mid-priced menu — entrees range from the apparently de rigeur macaroni and cheese ($9) to grilled tuna steak ($17) — and a casual atmosphere, The Front Room (207-773-3366; www.thefrontroomrestaurant.com
) fills a niche formerly dominated by Norm's Barbecue. The Front Room has a firm no-reservations policy, though, so be prepared to kill some time at the bar watching the Sox as you wait for your table.
- For highly personal takes on Maine's food and dining scenes, you'll want to bookmark the following sites. Both eGullet (www.egullet.org
) and Chowhound (www.chowhound.com
) have message boards on New England dining where you can find everything from discussion of this year's Maine shrimp season (in a word: dismal) to debate over the best cocktails in Portland (consensus: Katahdin pours a great martini). Even more opinionated, if possible, is Food for Thought (entertainment. mainetoday.com/dining/diningdiary/index.html
), food critic John Golden's blog on the southern Maine restaurant scene. Snarky, yes, but also very entertaining.
- A few beer-loving Down East readers took us to task last fall for not definitively naming the state's best beer in our November "Battle of the Microbrews" feature. (Sorry, not our style.) Now they've got an answer, of sorts: Saveur magazine has put Portland's Allagash Brewing at number thirty on the Saveur one hundred, the editors' annual list of their favorite foodie things. So there you have it, Maine's best beer. By one estimation, at least. Michaela CavallaroLodgingThe Green Room
Most travelers don't look to Maine's Department of Environmental Protection for information when selecting a hotel or inn. But the DEP's new green lodging program may change all that. The program, which was launched late last year, recognizes inns, hotels, and motels that have demonstrated a commitment to reducing their environmental impact through measures ranging from composting kitchen waste to offering guests biodegradable soaps and shampoos to generating their own energy with wind turbines or solar panels. Thus far, eleven establishments — including Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, the Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport, Maple Hill Farm Bed-and-Breakfast in Hallowell, Edgewater Farm Bed-and-Breakfast in Phippsburg, the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, and America's Best Inn in Augusta — have earned the certification, and the DEP hopes to continually expand that list. For more information, see the inns' Web sites or check www.maineinns.com BooksA Fast-Forward LifeDarcy Wakefield's memoir of ALS chronicles a year of triumph, love, and loss.
I was at the Freeport YMCA, reading the Portland Press Herald, when a friend leaned over my shoulder to scan the obits. "Got to see if anyone I know died," she quipped, then tapped her finger at something she'd found: "Died after a courageous battle with cancer."
"Doesn't that drive you nuts?" she said. "As opposed to what? All the people who had uncourageous battles with cancer . . . those slackers!"
I laughed. I knew what she meant. And yet some people are unusually strong in the face not just of death, but of crippling and painful disease. So it was with Darcy Wakefield. Her 2005 memoir — I Remember Running: The Year I Got Everything I Ever Wanted — and ALS (Marlowe & Company, New York; hardcover; 177 pages; $21) — describes her life from early in 2003 (when a boyfriend ends their relationship, saying he doesn't think she'll make a good mother) to late in 2004, when disease, love, and motherhood have completely transformed her life.
ALS — often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease — is a progressive, invariably fatal neurological condition that closes down the body's functions, one by one, leaving a working mind in an entirely incapacitated (speechless, motionless) body. It is, as Wakefield herself writes long before she suffers ALS's various insults, "the worst kind of death I can imagine." When first diagnosed, Wakefield is a vibrant, single, thirty-three-year-old — an enthusiastic runner, a teacher at Southern Maine Community College, and a lover of words. She's eager for a successful romantic relationship and, if not that, a child, even if she has to have the baby on her own. She considers artificial insemination, while admitting "it would be nicer if I could find some friendly free sperm."
While still wondering if she should complete "Operation Baby" with "Sperm Donor #2706," Wakefield meets Steve Stout, a Colorado psychiatrist with whom she makes an instant connection. A few months later, she learns of the ALS diagnosis with Stout at her side. Not long afterward, Stout moves to Maine, and the two buy a house in Cape Elizabeth and have a son, Sam. Even as her typing fingers and voice fail her, Wakefield writes a book about this experience. She constructs her memoir as a series of mini-essays, all titled with a gerund — "Dying," "Running," "Cooking, "Dressing," "Bracing," and so on. Collectively, Wakefield's essays — some of which first appeared on local and national public radio — portray an enormously appealing woman as she tries to understand who she is, now that she is living what she calls a "fast-forward life."
Without slighting her struggles or the horror of ALS, Wakefield embraces the gains of 2003 and 2004, a year in which she gets, as her book title suggests, everything she ever wanted— the love of her life and a baby. Though she loses the use of her legs, then arms, then voice, the disease, Wakefield insists, gives her something important: the chance to recognize what matters. "Sometimes," she concludes, "you need to be handed a challenge bigger than anything you could have imagined in order to see the goodness in every day, in the small things."
Though grateful, Wakefield is no Pollyanna in the face of an impossible illness. Her anger — at the medical establishment, at the language of illness, at those who might pity her — is clear. ALS toughens Wakefield, making her wish she had been more of an advocate for herself in the past. Though Wakefield comes across as wise, witty, compassionate, and fun, she does this by portraying herself as honestly as possible: crying in response to falls, sniping with Steve, wondering about suicide, and worrying over her increasing dependence on others.
One might wonder why a woman would give birth, knowing that she was going to die and leave her child and partner. Wakefield, who died at thirty-five last December, answers this question, addressing her particular circumstances while meditating on life in general. As for her partner, why did he do it? Well, clearly he loved Wakefield, and once you've read I Remember Running, it is hard not to think, "Well, yeah, who wouldn't?" Of course, there's the boyfriend who broke up with Wakefield early in 2003. So, a revised question: "Who with a working heart wouldn't love Wakefield?"
With I Remember Running, Wakefield has written her own heartbreaking elegy, a work that reads — and this is yet another triumph for its author — like a love letter to the family, friends, and life that must continue on without her. Debra SparkBriefly Noted
- In Outta My Way (Warren Machine Company, Portland; paperback; 307 pages; $14.95), Down East contributing editor Elizabeth Peavey collects the six years of columns she wrote chronicling her love affairs, neuroses, and musings on Maine for Casco Bay Weekly.
- In the very funny Down the Road a Piece: A Storyteller's Guide to Maine (Islandport Press, www.islandportpress.com
; paperback; 154 pages; $15.95) Maine humorist John McDonald has a joke that strikes close to the bone: "There was a time when Maine magazines used to have something to do with Maine. As peculiar as it sounds these days, they even wrote about Maine and the quirky individuals who actually live here . . . Just once I'd like to see a cover story in one of these magazines like: 'Maine's 10 Most Insufferable Landowners and the Unspeakable Things They're Doing to Our State.' "
We'll get right on it.Maine MadeSome Like It Hot
If Dan Stevens' slogan is to be believed, he's going to burn up the state of Maine — one tongue at a time. The Cape Elizabeth entrepreneur makes hot sauces that are, well, hot, both figuratively and literally. Stevens is the culinary talent behind W.O. Hesperus Hot Sauce (www.wohesperus.com
; eight-ounce bottles retail for $7-$8), a line of eighteen rubs and sauces that range from mustards to jerks. Though savory they may be, he's named them after some very unsavory people, places, and things from Maine history. Three of his sauces bear the names of the boats that brought British troops into Portland Harbor to torch the city in 1775, and he's named a whole line for Captain Mowatt, the man who directed the vengeful attack. What's more, his products are winning awards — his Canceaux Sauce picked up a blue ribbon at a national competition in New Mexico — and getting mentioned in the New York Times. In a state not known for its spicy flavor, Stevens is igniting taste buds. Hot, indeed.GetawayThe Quiet SideShoulder season might just be the best time of year to visit Southwest Harbor.
They don't say Southwest Harbor is the "quiet side" of Mount Desert Island for nothing. Just nine miles from bustling Bar Harbor, Southwest feels like it's a world away — especially in the so-called shoulder season, when room rates are lower, restaurant reservations are easier to come by, and the hiking trails at Acadia National Park are blissfully uncrowded.LODGING
With simple, elegant guest rooms sans TV, an impeccably manicured croquet court, and a row of rockers on the back porch overlooking Somes Sound, the Claremont Hotel (22 Claremont Rd., 207-244-5036) gently sweeps you away from the workaday world. The oldest bed-and-breakfast in Southwest Harbor, Penury Hall (374 Main St., 207-244-7102, www.penuryhall.com
) is a cozy, eclectic getaway, complete with a sauna to soothe those aching muscles after a day of hiking, bicycling, or kayaking.SHOPS
From the latest bestseller to a treasure trove of works by Maine authors, as well as the obligatory guides to Acadia's trails and attractions, Port in a Storm Bookstore (1112 Main St., Somesville, 207-244-4114, www.portinastormbookstore.com
) has your literary needs covered. Sawyer's Specialties (353 Main St., 207-244-3317) stocks all the wine, cheese, and specialty foods necessary for a really gratifying picnic lunch. And MDI Sportswear (366 Main St., 207-244-3121) is the place to go for everything from hiking socks and Tevas to an Eileen Fisher skirt.CHEAP EATS
Perfect when you want to rub elbows with the locals, Café Dry Dock & Inn (357 Main St., 207-244-5842, www.cafedrydockinn.com/restaurant.html
) is the kind of place where burgers and nachos are listed as "Lighter Fare." For breakfast, Café 2/Eat-A-Pita (326 Main St., 207-244-4344, www.eatapitachefmarc.com
) specializes in three-egg omelets, while the lunch menu is dominated by overstuffed pita sandwiches that can be ordered ahead for your hike or gobbled on their friendly patio.RESTAURANTS
Tucked at the end of a dark driveway, XYZ (Bennett Lane, 207-244-5221) is a lively haven for authentic Mexican food, as well as the best margaritas this side of the Rockies. Red Sky (14 Clark Point Rd., 207-244-0476, www.redskyrestaurant.com
) focuses on local, seasonal ingredients in an elegant setting. If you can't get a reservation, snag a seat at the bar and peruse the interesting, well-priced wine list. Michaela Cavallaro