DiningThe ProtégésFore Street-trained chefs get quietly creative at Back Street Bistro in Brunswick.
In the late '80s, Sam Hayward opened 22 Lincoln in Brunswick, a ground-breaking restaurant that brought together the bounty of local organic farmers, foragers, and fishermen with Hayward's back-to-basics, elemental approach to food and cooking. In his restaurants since — most notably Portland's Fore Street — he's trained a series of young chefs, two of whom, Chris Pillsbury and Bob Magda, have brought an admirable second act to town in the Back Street Bistro.Just around the corner from the firehouse, the Bistro makes no attempt at racy nouveau dishes (no organ meats or Daliesque presentations), but instead aims at a clientele more modest of purse and mainstream of appetite.
The impression you get on walking in is of a neighborhood place where the pace is unhurried, the waitstaff is happy, and the barkeep greets half the customers by name. Though the restaurant seats sixty, it seems cozier; there are two open rooms and a small bar on the ground floor, with wide stairs leading up to another, larger bar, more tables, and an outside deck above. While the upstairs may welcome larger groups celebrating a special occasion, down below the muted colors and lighting, unfussy post-and-beam décor, and a crackling wood- stove make for a more intimate setting.
"We wanted," says Magda, "to keep Back Street casual, comfortable, and not at all pretentious."
"And to keep the food as simple as possible," adds Pillsbury, "but to offer a little something for everybody, too."
The menu, which changes weekly, reflects this idea perfectly, fitting neatly onto one sheet of paper and in type large enough to read without reaching for your glasses. In keeping with that principle of "not reinventing the wheel," as Magda puts it, you'll find among the starters a bowl of sautéed mussels, spice-rubbed beef carpaccio, and two generous salads: a standby like Cobb or Caesar and then a seasonal take, like the mound of golden beets, goat cheese, and baby greens offered on a fall night. The mussels are the tiny, succulent Bangs Island offerings with lemon zest, garlic, and almond butter while the carpaccio, a house favorite, comes as a fan of rosy slices on a large plate, a silky saffron aioli and caper/tomato salad at its center.
"Our menu goes from the familiar to the adventurous," Magda says. "I'm behind the stove five nights a week, and I know what's selling."
"Besides," Pillsbury says with a smile, "people aren't afraid to give us their opinion, and that's great."
Back Street's entrées are deceptively straightforward, too — a filet of salmon, halibut, sometimes swordfish in interesting preparations, a cut of beef or pork seared, braised, or roasted. It's in the smaller details that you find the evidence of an inspired, well-run kitchen. They make their own sausage and duck confit, smoke their own salmon, shrimp, and other seafood, bake their own bread. And due to their time on the line at Fore Street, they really know how to cook a piece of meat.
Consider ordering from the specials board, too. "It's a great place to test the waters," Magda points out, "with special seasonal ingredients" and unusual cuts of meat and kinds of fish. There you'll find more adventurous dishes like short-rib ravioli, cassoulet of duck confit, braised lamb shank, and house sausage in a rich white bean stew, or foie gras and wild mushroom stuffed quail. To complement the food, they offer an approachable wine list of four dozen labels, many under thirty dollars, a further dozen by the glass and the same of local brews on tap.
Diners with a taste for something sweet after their savory will be hard put to choose among the four or five house desserts. They run from the lighter — crème br?lées and pannacottas with seasonal sauces and flavors — to the sturdier. On my visits, we consumed an immensely satisfying coconut-chocolate p?t de crème with caramelized banana and a cranberry-apple crisp with homemade cinnamon ice cream, and had to try the rosemary ice cream, too.
Pillsbury, who tends the downstairs bar when he's not cooking, notes that people often come in for appetizers and cocktails before or after a movie or the Maine State Music Theatre shows in the summer. "So we try to keep things fresh — and reasonable." This applies to the drinks, too, as Back Street is known for its handmade (and good-sized) martinis, cosmos, and other mixed drinks.
"We're so happy you're here!" is a frequent customer comment, Pillsbury reports, and there's little mystery why. They know what they're doing and they do it well — with a smile in the bargain. —Michael Sanders
Back Street Bistro, at 11 Town Hall Place in Brunswick, is open for dinner year-round, seven days a week from 5 p.m. Daily soup $5, first courses and large salads $6-$10, main courses $16-$22, desserts $6. Reservations suggested. 207-725-4060.Maine MadeLilliputian Landscapes
Want to treat yourself to an original painting but don't have the wall space — or the budget — for one of the Old Masters' best works? Then consider picking up a miniature painting by Don Joslyn (www.donjoslyn.com
), a Bangor artist whose acrylic works typically run two by three — inches, that is. (Some are even smaller, the images dwarfed by a dime.) The pint-sized paintings' subjects tend toward lighthouses and rural Maine scenes, though Joslyn, a job coach for the mentally handicapped by day, has also made forays into surrealism and abstract art. "I enjoy the challenge of putting as much as possible in a tiny space," says Joslyn, noting that both his vocation and his avocation require large amounts of patience. Though the miniature paintings originally took Joslyn about three hours to complete, with practice he's gotten that down to about forty minutes. At fifty dollars or less for most works, Joslyn's paintings are an approachable, affordable entrée to Maine art.DatebookSigns of Spring
You're not alone if you find yourself dragging a bit this month. Your muscles might be a tad fatigued after hitting the slopes or trails, and you're probably well aware that spring won't get here for a month or so after that damn groundhog says it should. Luckily, a handful of events are going on this month that can provide some hope for the winter-weary. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Liberty Tool Company's Rites of Spring Sale.
March 3 at 8 a.m.
Main Street, Liberty.
- Portland Landmarks' Old House Trade Show.
Gymnasium, Westbrook College campus of the University of New England.
- Maine Boatbuilders Show.
The Portland Company, 58 Fore Street, Portland.
- State of Maine Sportsman's Show.
March 30-April 1.
Augusta Civic Center, 76 Community Drive, Augusta.
- Portland Flower Show.
The Portland Company, 58 Fore Street, Portland.BooksThe War at HomeA debut novel brings the ravages of Vietnam back to Maine.
There is a serious and powerful story buried inside Cheryl Drake Harris' first novel, Lily's Ghost (Delta Trade Paperback, New York; paperback; 244 pages, $13). Told in flashbacks, it is the story of a young doctor, Lily Townsend, who goes to Vietnam in 1967, assigned to a medical evacuation unit in the Highlands. There she tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to save the lives of horribly wounded American soldiers and Montagnard women and children whose villages have been napalmed in American airstrikes. The novel begins eleven years later. Lily is married, has a four-year-old son, and is living in a small town on the coast of Maine, but she is suffering from post-traumatic shock. She has terrible dreams, dives for shelter when she hears loud noises, and is visited by the ghost of a napalmed Montagnard child who died in her care. Trying to soldier on as a wife and mother, she is literally haunted by the war and her memories of the mutilated bodies of men, women, and children she could not save.
Harris, who lives in Gardiner, spent ten years researching women who served in Vietnam. Her expressed intention in writing this novel was to honor those women and describe the personal and psychological difficulties they encountered once they returned to civilian life. In this she has been partially successful. What Lily witnesses in Vietnam and her subsequent fears, memories, and nightmares are vividly described. Readers will certainly be moved by the sections of the novel that portray her attempts to maintain a semblance of normality — shopping, cooking, caring for her husband and child — while struggling with terrifying flashbacks and hallucinations. Her coping mechanisms include weeding the garden by moonlight and sleeping under the bed. Her idea of a fun children's outing is taking two four-year-olds for a walk in the cemetery at midnight. This woman is not well.
But Lily's Ghost is not the searing, necessary work of fiction it might have been. Harris has chosen to shoehorn the story of Lily's Vietnam and post-Vietnam experiences into a vapid genre novel of domestic infidelity and romantic rescue. Told in first person and present tense, the plot unfolds in a predictable way with a predictable cast of characters. The reader knows at once that Lily is the good mother, trying to be a loving parent to her son, Jaime, while struggling with her nightmares and memories, and that her evil husband, Ben, will divorce her and take custody of Jaime on the grounds that she is crazy and therefore a danger to their son. There is some truth to this, but Harris does not let us sympathize with Ben for even a second. Fortunately, in chapter two, Lily meets a knight in shining armor in the person of a poetry-reading plumber named Callahan. Naturally Callahan is carrying a secret guilt of his own, and so will understand Lily, protect her, and ultimately help her find the right shrink who will give her the right drugs so she can be reunited with her child. And they will all live happily ever after.
This plot is so formulaic it seems to have been laid over the Vietnam novel like a grid, or a corset. The results of corsetting can be terrible. Though Harris' Vietnam scenes are living and breathing, filled with surprising moments, there are too few of them. Submerged as they are in the romantic melodrama, they haunt the narrative much like the dead Montagnard child haunts the narrator: "The void creates an atmosphere that draws the Montagnard child. She is there nearly every morning when I wake, and always, always I am galvanized by her eyes, dark and knowing: what we are all afraid of, while we are living, to know . . . It is the face of lost life, of what is known only to the dead . . . Sometimes we may vaguely intuit it, but we always circumvent it, occupying ourselves."
Harris could have written a book that did not circumvent the ghost inside her novel, but she didn't. Still, she has something important to say. War doesn't end on the battlefield. War stays in the memory, in the body and the soul. It comes home with men and women, even to small Maine towns, and it wreaks havoc on their lives and the lives of people who love them. This is the truth at the heart of Lily's Ghost, and it is a truth that, sadly, we still need to hear. —Agnes BushellAn Excerpt from Lily's Ghost
The child's breathing had ceased, the hissing of the oxygen intensified by the sudden stillness. I removed the canula from the diminutive nostrils and slipped between the bed and the O2 tank to close the valve, the simple act fracturing the stillness with the grate of metal against metal. The corpsman who had been attending the child untied the strips of gauze that held the cradle to the bed frame and lifted it from the mattress. The grandmother crawled up onto the bed and lifted the dead child into her shallow lap. She rocked and wept, the aunt sharing the anguish, weeping with her, the older sisters, standing apart, gone mute with exhaustion and grief.
Finally, after the sun dropped abruptly behind the mountains, the women left, the grandmother carrying the dead girl. We watched them disappear into the relief of indigo shadow.Hot TipHog Heaven
For every vegetarian who doesn't touch the stuff, there is a carnivore with a deep and abiding love for pork products. (We're not kidding; hipster clothing companies across the country sell T-shirts with slogans like "Bacon is a Vegetable" and "Talk to the Ham.") If you're among them, you've got to know about Olde Sow Farm. The Lubec operation (207-733-2569, www.oldesowfarm.com
) raises organic Tamworth pigs, a heritage breed known for producing lean, fine-grained meat. In other words, it's perfect for bacon, which in the Olde Sow preparation is brined in Maine sea salt and organic Maine maple syrup. You can also get nitrate-free smoked hams, sausage (varieties include Dante's Hot Italian, Garlic, and Maine Maple Breakfast), crown roasts, and a variety of other fresh cuts. Our stomachs are rumbling just thinking about the possibilities.GetawayShop Until You Drop In HallowellEnticing shops and eclectic dining in a historic setting make for a good escape from mud season.
Neither shoppers nor history buffs can resist downtown Hallowell, a National Historic District filled with notable homes and specialty stores selling everything from collectible coins to contemporary jewelry, antiquarian books to fine crafts, cigars to dancewear.ShopsDavid-Brooks Goldsmiths
(190 Water St., 207-622-9895) sells contemporary, unique, and limited-production jewelry; for antique jewelry, visit Johnson-Marsano Antiques
(172 Water St., 207-623-6263). One of Maine's best sources for vintage lighting is Brass and Friends Antiques
(154 Water St., 207-626-3287). Goods ranging from antique china to felted bowls fill the appropriately named Potluck Shop
(109 Water St., 207-623-8992). Kennebec River Artisans (144 Water St., 207-623-2345, www.kennebecriverartisans.com
) shows and sells the wares of more than three-dozen craftspeople. Studio? Gallery? Hallowell Clay Works
(100 Water St., 207-626-7687, hallowellclayworks.com
) is both, featuring work from about a dozen potters.FoodSlates
(169 Water St., 207-622-9575, www.slatesrestaurant.com
) does funky proud, with its something-for-everyone menu, must-save-room-for desserts, and way-cool decor. Café de Bangkok
(272 Water St., 207-622-2638) deserves its reputation as one of Maine's best Thai restaurants. For pub-style fare accompanied by a fresh pint, step into Liberal Cup
(115 Water St., 207-623-2739).EntertainmentGaslight Theater
(1 Winthrop St., 207-626-3698, www.gaslighttheater.org
) stages productions in City Hall. Live-music venues include Slates
, Higher Grounds Coffeehouse and Tavern
(119 Water St., 207-621-1234), and Liberal Cup
Many of Hallowell's distinctive homes have stories to tell. Stop by Hallowell City Hall
(1 Winthrop St., 207-623-4021, hallowell.govoffice.com
) to purchase a copy of Historic Old Hallowell Walking Tour or to see the historic sites online. Available for free is The Maine of Martha Ballard: A self-guided tour, which details sites pertinent to famed midwife Martha Ballard's era. Deep Woods and River Roads: Voices from the Kennebec-Chaudiere Heritage Corridor (www.kennebec-chaudiere.com
), includes Hallowell and Gardiner.Recreation
Hike in the Vaughan Woods
(corner of Middle Street and Litchfield Road) or in the Jamies Pond Wildlife Management Area
(Jamies Pond Road). Walk or pedal the Kennebec River Rail Trail
, between Hallowell's Waterfront Park and Augusta or between Farmingdale and Gardiner.Lodging
Farm animals and 130 acres ensure country charm at Maple Hill Farm Bed and Breakfast Inn
(11 Inn Rd., 207-622-2708, www.maplebb.com
). The full-service Senator Inn and Spa
(284 Western Ave., Augusta, 207-622-5804, www.senatorinn.com
) delivers more citified pleasures. —Hilary Nangle