Maine chefs say it’s fairly impossible to open a new restaurant here and expect it to be successful without at least paying lip service to the whole idea of sourcing foods locally through connections with local farms.
When John Feingold’s new fine dining restaurant, Salt, has its soft opening this weekend on Vinalhaven (grand opening will be May 23), it will be serving local foods because it has to – the restaurant is 12 miles out to sea.
“We’re doing it for all the right reasons,” Feingold said, “but we’re also doing it out of necessity, because Vinalhaven is a remote place.”
Feingold has worked in Daniel Boulud’s three-star Michelin restaurant Daniel in New York and at Restaurant Spring in Paris. Salt will be his first restaurant.
The chef is hoping Salt will be open year-round – perhaps a couple of nights a week during the off season – and to better the odds of that, he has concentrated on hiring locals who won’t disappear after Labor Day. Chefs Ryan and Alyson Flemming, former owners of the Camden restaurant Fromviandoux, are moving to the island and are among his initial hires.
Ryan Flemming, who will lead the kitchen, has also worked at Portland’s Five Fifty-Five and Aspen’s Rustique Bistro. Alyson Flemming will join him as sous chef and head pastry chef, managing the restaurant’s bread, pastry and dessert programs.
Sarah Crossman, a native of Vinalhaven, will be the general manager.
Feingold says that initially he wanted Salt to be a seasonal business, “but I’ve gotten a tremendous outpouring of interest and demand: ‘Please be open one or two days a week off season,’ ” he said. “We’ve got a vibrant population of 1,200 people on Vinalhaven year-round, maybe a little more than half of whom are lobstermen and their families, and we’ve got retirees and an increasing number of young people, it seems.”
The only person on staff who won’t live there year-round will be Munah Gomes, who is coming from Los Angeles to set up Salt’s bar program and train the staff – and do double duty in the kitchen. Gomes, an old friend of Feingold’s from culinary school, has tended bar in Las Vegas and New York and most recently worked at the Food Network.
So how did a big-city chef find his way to Vinalhaven? Feingold and his wife have been summering on the island for years.
“After 15 or 16 summers,” Feingold said, “Vinalhaven really gets under your skin.”
But, he said, dining options are limited. There is the Harbor Gawker, popular for traditional Maine fare like chowder and crab rolls. And Feingold called Haven, with its in-demand harborside tables, an institution. “It’s a great place that’s always been hard to get into,” he said. “People have been hankering for choices.”
So, when Feingold got the opportunity a couple of years ago to purchase a small, 1880s-vintage building on Main Street that had previously housed restaurants, he jumped at it.
The old apothecary is full of original details, including cabinetry, embossed tin ceilings and walls, and detailed woodwork. “We’ve preserved that and are maintaining it, but have modernized the space as well, so it’s really a blend of the new and the old,” Feingold said.
Including bar stools, there will be 39 seats. Feingold completely gutted and rebuilt the kitchen with all new equipment and says he is looking forward to having “a very serious restaurant kitchen there.”
He describes the food as “contemporary coastal cuisine rooted in the classics, but benefiting from modern techniques and approaches.”
Ingredients will be sourced from the sea and from island farms such as Sparkplug Farm on Vinalhaven and Turner Farm on North Haven island, just a skiff ride away.
Turner Farm, a historic farm restored by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and her husband, S. Donald Sussman, also supplies Pingree’s Nebo Lodge on North Haven. Sussman is majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
“I really truly believe in the concept of terroir, that you can taste the place,” Feingold said. “So the carrots that are grown and the turnips that are grown at Sparkplug Farm on Vinalhaven are unlike any other that you can get anywhere. The history and the soil and the rainfall, the techniques that our farmers on Vinalhaven and Turner Farm farmers are using produce absolutely unique, place-specific tastes, and we’re very, very excited about working with those, not interfering with them and letting them speak for themselves as the flavor of our island.”
Salt and the restaurant at Nebo Lodge have discussed sharing some sort of water transport across the Fox Island Thoroughfare between the islands.
Tidewater Motel on Vinalhaven often sends guests to North Haven for meals, said Amanda Hallowell, Nebo Lodge’s operations manager. “I thought, I really want to do that back,” she said.
Hallowell said North Haven will be getting its own new dining option this summer when Cecily Pingree, daughter of the congresswoman, opens a new casual restaurant and market in Calderwood Hall, a building she owns and has been renovating for the past year.
The market will stock local vegetables and other products and the restaurant will offer casual fare, including pizza and salad. The restaurant will be open four nights a week, Thursday through Sunday, and the market will be open Tuesday through Saturday.
“Frankly, Nebo’s been too busy a lot of nights in the summer and it’s hard on everybody, including the people who want to come,” Hallowell said. “So we’re sincerely excited for there to be more places for people to go.”
And that includes Salt across the thoroughfare, where Fein-gold plans appetizers such as lamb merguez, a kale and spinach salad, lobster soup and house-smoked sturgeon rillettes. Entrees will include seared hake and steak frites.
A glance at the menu raises the question of whether islanders will be willing to pay what are basically Portland prices after summer visitors go home. Most entrees are more than $20, with prices ranging from $16 for an oxtail-stuffed burger to $26 for beef short ribs or a honey-basted duck breast.
Based on her own experience, Hallowell doubts that will be an issue for Feingold. Nebo, she said, is open only on intermittent nights in the off season. The restaurant sends out email alerts in advance to let customers know when they’ll be open. Out of 350 year-round North Haven residents, usually about 80 show up on a given Saturday night.
“That’s pretty great, but we would not get that if we were open every Friday and Saturday,” Hallowell said.
Vinalhaven has a larger year-round population from which to draw off-season customers, many of whom prefer to come in when the restaurant is less crowded and their lives are less busy – especially toward the end of a good lobster season, when they have more money in their pockets and want to relax with a good meal.
“My feeling about restaurants in general, whether they’re in Portland or on North Haven, is that if it’s good, people are going to go, and they’re going to pay your prices, within reason,” Hallowell said. “If it’s not that good, then they won’t. But I do think there’s a ton of enthusiasm for places to go out on (Vinalhaven), and I would say at least through December, I think, he could do a couple of nights a week and have a nice crowd in there.”
Feingold said he wants to do the best he can to keep the doors open year-round for locals interested in fine dining.
“We’re not just here for the summer season, Feingold said. “We’re here to serve the island population, and I think that’s a real important mission of the restaurant.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: