I am perusing the menu at M.C. Spiedo, celebrated Maine chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier’s new(ish) venture in the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, and I am confused. Do I order the steak, the pizza or the Salt-Crusted Dorade Royale with Lemon, Shallot and Sage? Am I in 2014, in a large, flamboyant hotel restaurant with conventioneers to the left of me and tourists to the right, or in 1533, eating a … what? A Leonardo Burger? Did they have burgers in 1533? No matter. As a fallback, I can always order the Leonardo Pizza.
I suggest to my date that we check the authenticity of these items on my iPhone. I type in “Renaissance.”
“Kind of a lot to cover before the pasta,” he says.
The restaurant has a Renaissance-period theme. I get it. One wall is lined with plush banquettes, each curtained off in vermillion tasseled velvet. The cut-glass goblets call to mind the Renaissance and the speckled earthenware plates a tasteful potter’s studio somewhere near Damariscotta. But, I just make out the Red Sox game on a big flat-screen TV by a bar in a far-off corner, and the driving beat of the music is certainly more bar than milords and miladies.
It’s awfully hard to figure out the point of view of this place, which seems to want to be all things to all diners: The obligatory open kitchen, the requisite burrata small plate, the pizzas, burger, handmade pastas, roasted chicken, steak and salmon – something to please every 21st-century American eater.
In fairness, a hotel restaurant needs to be all things to all diners. Co-owners and James Beard Foundation award-winning chefs Gaier and Frasier opened it in February, several months after putting their beloved Arrows in Ogunquit up for sale. They are not in the house the evening I am. (They check in every other week, a waiter tells me, and make the rounds of the room.)
The name M.C. Spiedo derives from “Mark,” “Clark” and the Italian word for “spit,” a cooking tool and technique favored by Renaissance hosts with money; at the restaurant, a rotating list of chicken and pork dishes is spit-roasted.
The chefs say they have long been interested in the Renaissance, which also shows up at M.C. Spiedo in dishes that combine sweet, savory and spiced (chicken with figs and apricots) or vinegar, raisins and pine nuts (a sauce for fish); in the use of veal (see burger, and others), apparently the pork belly of Renaissance “haves”; and in a 1500s Firenze Cheesecake, excellent if nothing like New York-style cheesecake – not as sweet or creamy and using dried fruit instead of cherry pie filling.
Several of the dishes I order arrive on plates dressed up with artfully arranged napkins. Maybe it’s just how they do things at M.C. Spiedo, but later I read that napkin folding was high art during (and just after) the Renaissance, with elaborate animals and flowers fashioned from napkins, itinerant napkin-folding artists selling their services, and an entire school devoted to teaching the skill.
Incidentally, I am not the only one who is confused. Our waiter brings us a (nice-looking) watercress salad that we never ordered. The bus boy fills our water glasses once, twice, five times, six – we lose count, even when we haven’t taken a sip. He’s trying to be attentive but ends up being intrusive. On the other hand, he may be looking for something to do. On a Saturday evening in early June, M.C. Spiedo is only about half-full. For a few eventful minutes during dinner, the lights go up, down, up, down, before settling on a (slightly too bright) setting. Is this meant to emulate Renaissance candlelight? But, if muddled, the service is well-meaning and friendly.
A huge sketch of a doe-eyed, pensive-looking girl is drawn on one wall and dominates the room – as much as anything can. The hostess identifies her as Catherine de Medici, adding that the family was “very popular” during the Renaissance, clearly a rehearsed bit, but they may want to change the script to “very powerful.” Catherine was married to the king of France and was mother to three kings. Maybe more to the point here, she has been described as both a gourmet and a glutton. As a young bride, Catherine brought Florentine cooks with her to France, an occurrence that some historians credit with sparking the creation of modern French cuisine.
One day, many hundreds of years later, modern French cuisine would greatly influence a generation of ambitious chefs experimenting with the development of a modern American cuisine. Among them was Jeremiah Towers, who ran a raucous, celebrated California restaurant called Stars, where two young cooks by the names of Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier met, then moved to Maine and became famous in their own right. Some three decades later, they opened a restaurant called M.C. Spiedo.
Peggy Grodinsky is the Portland Press Herald food editor. Contact her at 791-6453 or: