Down East 2013 ©
The bartender offers you a seat on a stunning red cushioned bar chair. The room is a reproduction of a 1900s Rive Gauche Paris bistro, and the gleaming bar is accented with hundred-year-old French tiles. You’re wondering what the perfect drink would be for this setting when the bartender passionately begins telling you about his specialty, Prohibition-style drinks — the Kentucky Speedbump, the Jamaican Daisy. Your companion offers a challenge: can he make a Negroni? No problem. He produces the perfect combination of icy-cold Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth, served with a thick slice of orange hanging on the rim of the glass. You choose a glass of white Burgundy. The red-fringed lamps overhead, the good drinks, the friendly bartender, and the enticing scents coming from the kitchen lead you to believe you are in for a good night.
Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest have owned Natalie’s (which was previously located in the Knox Mill across town) and the Camden Harbour Inn only since February 2007. The two partners discovered this old, “falling apart Edwardian” when they first visited the town on a foliage trip from their native Netherlands. They fell in love with the area and the former pharmacist (Oscar) and entertainment and hotel consultant (Raymond) decided to take a chance and try to build a world-class inn and restaurant. They gutted most of the building and renovated all the rooms so that each one offers a water view. Eventually they found Lawrence Klang, a thirty-seven-year-old from Texas who shared their vision of creating world-class food. And now this classy joint is one of Maine’s finest dining rooms and Camden’s only inn and restaurant to be awarded AAA’s coveted four diamonds.
White lights twinkle on the trees outside the dining room, framing Camden harbor as it slips away with the sunset. The waiter brings an amuse bouche, a tiny shot glass of lobster soup with saffron aioli. Your mouth fills with the essence of the sea. The sourdough is crunchy and warm. You begin with a salad. The greens are piled high, served with a local goat cheese panna cotta and a blueberry vinaigrette. The Miller Point oysters are fresh and briny, served Parisian-style on a two-tiered silver tray with a piquant mignonette sauce.
You notice that the lipstick-red upholstered chairs are the most comfortable dining room chairs you’ve ever sat in. “Natalie’s is like fine European dining,” explains Brunyanszki. “We want people to sit for as long as they like, enjoy their meal, and be truly comfortable.” You could sit in the chair forever, attended by your waiter, a true professional. You immediately like him and wonder why there are so few waiters left in the world that truly seem to enjoy their job.
The best dish of the night is gnocchi, small pillows of soft potato with a lemon nage and freshly harvested wild mushrooms. The dish is rich, earthy, and perfectly cooked. It tastes like autumn in a bowl. For an entrée you choose the halibut, and when it arrives you feel at first disappointed. It’s served in a small oval gratin dish, surrounded by roasted local cherry tomatoes. The dish looks like something you’d find in a diner, but then you taste it and it may just be the most expertly cooked piece of halibut you’ve ever had. The Chocolate Molten Cake, served with a homemade caramel ice cream, is a wonderful contrast of bitter and sweet, hot and icy cold.
It’s late and the bottle of white Burgundy is empty. But a walk down the street to take in Camden’s snug harbor is a must. The rooms at the Camden Harbour Inn aren’t gigantic (except for one huge suite), but there is a deep level of comfort. The beds are enormous, with several fluffy European comforters and oversized pillows. It’s time to get some sleep. You’ve heard breakfast is fabulous.
Natalie’s and the Camden Harbour Inn, 83 Bayview Street, Camden. 207-236-7008. www.camdenharbourinn.com . A five-course tasting menu is $65. The eighteen rooms range from $175 to $700 per night. Chef Klang will cook a special French-style “Maine Noel” Christmas dinner at the James Beard House in New York City this December. The five-course dinner will also be offered at Natalie’s beginning on December 15 and running through Christmas Eve.