Down East 2013 ©
Got the blues? Need connection? In the mood for an upscale meal you can actually afford? Why not gas up the car and head for downtown Rumford?
That’s right: Rumford. A struggling paper-mill town in the western foothills of Maine, where the economic downturn has left a sobering chain of “Closed” signs along much of Congress Street.
Two years ago, Brian and Jess Nichols seized an iffy opportunity to open their own restaurant in the erstwhile lobby of the old Hotel Harris — also known as the Strathglass block — the architectural jewel of the business district. This Beaux-Arts-style building recalls Rumford’s boomtown heyday, when the Oxford Paper Company ran the whole show and store windows glittered with merchandise.
The renovated interior is the handi-work of Jess, a graduate of the textile-design program at Syracuse. She’s re-cast the capacious room in homey, pleasing shades of yellow, terra cotta, and purple that pick up the striated hues of the original oak floor. In the daytime, natural light carpets in through the grand, floor-to-ceiling windows; the same room at night feels lush and warm and tucked away.
On any given night, the restaurant bustles with chatty diners; on weekends the place is positively jumping. If you’re back for a visit after growing up here, you’ll run into your fifth-grade teacher, or the guy who rebuilt your mother’s porch. If you’re a stranger, the hometown vibe will make you wish you lived here, or somewhere like it.
Oh, and you’ll love the food.
“Fine dining without pretentions” is how Brian describes his Italian-influenced menu that includes a truly memorable tiramisu. The fried calamari, served with a chipotle-marinara sauce, also rivals any in the business, and the pizzas come with thin crusts and generous toppings that hold together beautifully with just the right amount of cheese. Among the entrées and pastas, you’ll find Bourbon sirloin, chicken saltimbocca, and Amore made with reduction sauces, balsamic drizzles, aiolis, demi-glaces, and pestos. These sophisticated dishes are served up like comfort food in liberal, piping-hot portions with grandma-style sides.
The Nicholses, who met while working at a brewpub in Bethel, have been in the restaurant business since they were old enough to work. Brian graduated from the New England Culinary Institute and did time in countless kitchens while waiting for a chance to strike out on his own.