Down East 2013 ©
Nancy Gray oversees one of New England’s finest lodging and dining experiences at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, yet her roots are in an altogether different hospitality tradition.
As a teenager in the forties, Gray waited tables at her family’s sporting lodge, a no-electricity affair on a remote pond island in northwest Maine. Every day she and her sister, armed with a rifle in case of an encounter with an overly protective mother bear, rowed across the pond and walked a mile to a one-room schoolhouse.
There’s no such roughing it at the Harraseeket Inn, but the hotel’s cozy brick-oven pub, the Broad Arrow Tavern, owes its atmosphere to Gray’s years in the North Woods. Diners enjoy fresh seafood, buffalo burgers, and wood-fired pizzas under the cool gaze of a stuffed deer, moose, and bear mounted to hunter green walls. Gray collected the animals — the brood includes a raccoon, beaver, and fisher — along with an old birch canoe, oak-and-rawhide snowshoes, and other backwoods relics when she opened the inn in 1984. “One of the funniest things I ever bought for the tavern was a deer’s rear end,” the easygoing innkeeper says, smiling broadly. “Damned if someone didn’t come along and offer me big money for it.”
Like its elegant sister down the hall, the Maine Dining Room, the Broad Arrow Tavern emphasized high quality Maine produce, seafood, and game long before farm-to-table became a movement. “I spent part of my childhood in South Portland on a farm that is now a tank farm,” explains Gray, a longtime advocate of land conservation issues. “That made an impression on me.” Supporting local purveyors, she believes, keeps Maine independent and preserves its rural beauty. “If we don’t keep the farmers working the land, we will not only lose the farms, but we’ll lose that talent,” she says. “You have to have the ability to feed your people.”
Executive chef Theda Lyden works with nearly forty area producers, from microbrewers and coffee roasters to lobstermen and elk herders. Harraseeket’s network of farmers coordinate their crops and growing seasons to ensure that the inn has a diverse selection of local, organic vegetables, including greens, year-round. “It tastes better than anything coming from across the U.S. possibly could. Plus we’ve been integral to some farmers being able to keep their farms,” Lyden says proudly, “and our customers like it because we can tell them exactly where our ingredients come from.”
Lyden, who grew up in a Midwest farming family watching her grandmother cook meals for thirty hungry farmhands, was running her own small organic farm when the inn’s first chef, Sam Hayward (now chef-owner of the renowned Fore Street in Portland), hired her eighteen years ago. Her long tenure is rare in the restaurant business, she says, but not at the Harraseeket Inn. “I have a lot of talented staff people who have been here eight, ten, twelve years. A lot of our people weren’t trained in a culinary environment. They’re artists. When I hire people, I try to get a feel for what excites them about food.”
The Broad Arrow Tavern has an open kitchen, where the cooks load pizzas, prosciutto-wrapped scallops, and serving-sized skillets of New England paella (any combination of mussels, steamers, shrimp, scallops, smoked chicken, and chorizo atop a savory saffron-tomato-flavored pilaf) into a glowing wood-fired brick oven. During the popular lunchtime buffet, whose offerings change daily, guests take in the action while they mosey down the bar, spooning comestibles from gleaming copper dishes and plucking ripe seasonal fruit and cheese from beautifully arranged overflowing baskets. (One recent afternoon’s entrees included flank steak marinated in onions, garlic, and fresh herbs, breaded sweet and sour chicken, and sushi rice with scrambled eggs, snap peas, and soy sauce.) The dining room has a lively buzz, and the wait staff is friendly and unpretentious.
Taking its name from the eighteenth-century British government mark carved onto trees to be cut for masts, Broad Arrow serves the traditional shore meals that travelers want when they come Down East — lobster, steamed, stewed, or stuffed in a roll with just a touch of mayonnaise, and fried, steamed, or chowdered clams — but they are decidedly prettier than their lobster shack counterparts. Haddock, which arrives at the restaurant fresh daily, can be ordered fried with chips and coleslaw or roasted to moist, smoky results in the wood-oven. The mussels, also oven-roasted and served with a grilled baguette for soaking up the hazelnut and garlic butter, are a customer favorite. Other dishes adhere to the theme of hearty, fresh food, simply prepared. Meat lovers choose from a variety of steaks served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables, barbecue pork ribs hot off the wood-fired rotisserie, and a grilled pork loin with peach salsa. Comfort foods, like macaroni and cheese and chicken pot pie, assorted sandwiches and burgers, and a few vegetarian dishes, like the tomato and goat cheese tart and a grilled portabella sandwich, make the tavern a good choice for groups with diverse tastes.
Broad Arrow draws from the same wine list as the Maine Dining Room, which has earned the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for each of the past fifteen years.
“The tavern, with its fireplaces and warm lighting, is a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere, and that’s reflected in the food,” Lyden says. Virginia Wright
Broad Arrow Tavern is located in the Harraseeket Inn, 162 Main Street, Freeport. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. Luncheon buffet is served Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sandwiches $10–$13. Pizza $12–$17. Entrees $14–$28. Luncheon buffet $16.95. 207-865-9377. www.harraseeketinn.com