With our relentless idealization of local food, where foraging is akin to godliness and artisanal delirium rules the day, a chef like Mitchell Kaldrovich is a relief from the culinary frenzy.
In case you’re not familiar with his name, this affable Argentinian is the executive chef at the highly proficient kitchen of Sea Glass restaurant, the signature dining venue housed at the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth.
Sea Glass is a far cry from what this space used to be when it was the Audubon Room, a deadly dining facility where I once had a roast beef sandwich no better than shoe leather on rye.
That was before the inn underwent its astonishing facelift in 2008, which turned dowdy guest rooms into sleek accommodations as homage to quasi-mid-century modern decor.
To Cape residents, Sea Glass must feel like the culinary gods have descended because fine-dining options are otherwise slim in this neck of the woods. And for hotel guests it provides very decent dining without having to travel to Portland’s worldly-wise eateries.
But I must beg this question: For those who live on the other side of the Casco Bay Bridge, is Sea Glass a destination worth the crossing to rumble down the dark passages of Route 77 on a blustery night? For the most part it is.
My guest and I did just that and arrived on a busy Friday night for dinner. Upon entering the inn’s attractive lobby you’re immediately drawn to the striking cocktail lounge at the far end. It’s a stylish space with tables, banquettes and bar seating. That night it hosted a soigné group of diners at a table for 10, with others holding court at banquettes against the wall.
We went straight to the main dining room for our 7:15 reservation. The hostess told us that our table wasn’t ready (but the room was only half full). We repaired to the bar.
We barely had time for a few sips of our well-made drinks when the hostess told us that our table was now ready. I paid the bar bill, a whopping $25 (before tip) for two drinks.
We were shown to a spacious table for two. I looked around the room to take in the scene. Why is it, I wondered, do hotels resort to installing these faux-formal dining rooms in lieu of more relaxed, contemporary décor? Unless the walls are sheathed in boisserie, the furnishings 18th-century and minstrels are in the wings, a stage set of Ethan Allen reproductions is such decorative tomfoolery.
At the table, we were presented with the impressive wine list. It’s a huge collection that is catalogued in a leather-bound volume with compelling choices in a wide range of price points. These included a $30 bottle of malbec (Argentina) to a $700 bottle of Chateau Haut Brion, the legendary Bordeaux.
It’s a great wine list. We, however, chose from a good selection of wines by the glass. My earthy, herbaceous malbec (Crios de Susana Balbo, Argentina, $12) was excellent, and my dinner partner’s chardonnay from A to Z Vineyards (Willamette, Oregon, $10) was a good choice, too, though it’s a thin chardonnay.
Kaldrovich’s menu won’t offend or shock the average diner. Nor will it tickle your culinary itch beyond getting good solid cooking in the American bistro style. But there are dishes worth contemplating, which I’ve had in past visits. His grilled gaucho steak ($26), for instance, is succulent and gutsy; the roast chicken under a brick ($22) is juicy and flavorful, and a starter on the menu, mushroom tart ($12), holds bold flavors.
But you can’t equate a few dishes as the whole sum of its parts. And since I was there to assess its current state of affairs, here’s how our dinner unfolded.
For my first course I chose a cup of lobster bisque ($7 or $11 for a bowl). I think it’s a good test dish to judge how a Maine chef handles a regional staple. Other choices like pan roasted mussels ($11) and ricotta gnocchi in a roasted mushroom pan sauce ($11) are worthy dishes that I’ve had on prior visits.
The bisque was spiked with extra virgin olive oil, creating pools of oil floating over the broth in a striking visual. It’s not my favorite style for this core Maine soup. I much prefer a classic creamy lobster base fortified with butter, cream and sherry.
For a first course my dinner guest ordered the gorgonzola-
stuffed baked dates ($13) served over arugula. Unfortunately she wasn’t crazy about the dish, likening it to “candy out of a box.” Since I have a sweet tooth I didn’t mind it one bit, even if it wouldn’t play well in a gourmand’s stomping grounds.
There were a few special entrees that evening, which our very capable waitress explained clearly. I chose the pork three ways. These “trio” preparations are still popular amongst chefs. For me they’re as old-hat as tuna tartare or flourless chocolate cake.
This rendition was a fairly imaginative assemblage, though, of contrasting flavors. The grilled medallion of tenderloin – not as tender as it should have been – sat on a sweet potato puree splashed with a red-wine reduction; alongside were deep-fried pork belly over shaved Brussels sprouts, and pulled pork with chipotle and orange zest resting on a pita round. I liked it well enough, but it was hardly riveting.
My guest had pan-roasted salmon ($25) over a hash of baked winter squash and bacon, fried Brussels sprouts with a pine nut relish and Sangria gastrique. The fish was moist and flakey and made a pleasingly tasty dish.
For dessert we shared a pair of ice cream sandwiches. These were a highlight of the meal. Intense peanut butter ice cream was sandwiched between chocolate cookies (gluten-free) with a side serving of freshly roasted salted peanuts. We polished these off easily, leaving us well fortified for the drive back to town.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: