It’s not exactly hard to find a restaurant in Maine that sources ingredients from local farms. Still, a few places stand out for their commitment to local foods, either because they were among the first to embrace the philosophy or because they take things a step or two – or three, or four – beyond. If you’re looking for a farm-to-table experience that is, as Michelin says, worth the journey, here are a few suggestions (in no particular order) for restaurants that we think do it right.
The granddaddy of farm-to-table restaurants in Maine, the place that helped put the state on the national culinary map. Founded in 1996, Fore Street is legendary for its commitment to sourcing the best ingredients from local farmers, foragers and fishermen, and has been the trendsetter among Maine farm-to-table restaurants. (Fore Street was serving locally harvested, wood-roasted mussels long before they became a standard item on Portland restaurant menus. And it was the first restaurant in the city to build a wood-fired oven for its open kitchen.) Chef/co-owner Sam Hayward has encyclopedic knowledge of who-grows-what-and-how, and works closely with his purveyors to ensure that what ends up on the plate meets his high standards, whether it’s island-raised lamb or a selection of oysters grown in Maine’s frigid waters. Hayward, who was named best chef in the northeast by the James Beard Foundation in 2004, has been active in the effort to promote sustainable fisheries, so you might see under-appreciated but artfully prepared red fish or mackerel on the ever-changing menu. The preparations are often simple, a reflection of Hayward’s desire to let the natural flavors shine.
Chef Melissa Kelly, named best chef in the Northeast last year by the James Beard Foundation, likes to call what she has created in Rockland a “full-circle kitchen.” Her restaurant sits on a four-acre farm where she and her staff grow about 80 percent of the produce the restaurant uses in the summer. Food writers and chefs from all over the country flock to Rockland to eat at Primo today, but when the restaurant opened its doors 15 years ago, it had just 60 seats, a greenhouse, a small organic garden and a couple of pigs. Over the years, the restaurant has doubled in size and now has two greenhouses, acres of gardens and beehives for honey. The pasture-raised pigs – their population has swelled, too – have been joined by meat birds such as chickens, ducks and guinea hens, which also supply the kitchen with fresh eggs. Last year, Bon Appétit columnist Andrew Knowlton named Primo one of the 20 most important restaurants in the United States, noting that its charcuterie program “rivals any in the U.S.”
“What started as a humble country restaurant,” he wrote, “has grown to be one of the country’s most sincere and exciting expressions of farm to table.”
If you fancy adding a boat trip to your farm-to-table experience, catch a ferry at 4 p.m. in Rockland and head 12 miles out to sea, to North Haven Island. Island life makes farm-to-table fare more necessity than affectation. The restaurant at Nebo Lodge partners with Turner Farm, just three miles away, a historic farm restored by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and her husband, S. Donald Sussman. (Sussman is majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.) Turner Farm supplies the lodge with certified organic vegetables and pasture-raised meats, including island lamb. Dinner choices might include local lobster served with cognac cream sauce, or an organic boneless ribeye from Caldwell Farms, one of the restaurant’s many purveyors on the mainland. Every Thursday in July and August, Nebo Lodge and Turner Farm join forces for a barn supper during which guests dine on a prix fixe, family-style feast as the sun sets over Penobscot Bay. The dinner starts at 6 p.m.; get there an hour earlier for a pre-dinner walking tour of Turner Farm. The farm also offers walking tours for groups of 10 or more. To book a tour, call (207) 867-4962 or email [email protected]
EARTH AT HIDDEN POND
Earth, a collaboration between the Kennebunk Resort Collection and Boston chef Ken Oringer, has the rustic atmosphere to match its farm-to-table cuisine, with walls made of crosscut logs and an upside-down apple tree suspended from the ceiling that serves as a chandelier. Chef Justin Walker came to Earth after 15 years at another Maine restaurant famous for its farm-to-table ethic, Arrows in Ogunquit, where he rose to the position of chef de cuisine. Earth has its own organic garden it calls “The Farm,” tended by a gardener who keeps the kitchen well-stocked with fresh herbs and vegetables. It also buys ingredients from local farmers, fishermen and foragers. Walker sometimes incorporates foods from his own family’s 17-acre farm just down the road, including goat’s milk, duck and chicken eggs, and cranberries straight from his own bog.
Joshua Mather, the chef and namesake of Joshua’s, is the son of back-to-the-landers who were among the first certified organic gardeners in Maine. As a boy, Mather helped his father deliver crates of produce from their family farm, Easter Orchard Farm, to the farm’s customers around southern Maine. Today those organic vegetables are being delivered to Mather’s own restaurant, a 1774 seafarer’s home just six miles away from his parents’ farm. (In addition to providing fresh ingredients for Mather’s menus, his parents also help manage the restaurant.) Waste from the restaurant – vegetable skins, eggshells, etc. – goes back to the farm as compost, completing the circle. The restaurant bakes its own bread and makes its own desserts, including the popular fudge pie created by the chef’s mother 30 years ago. In 2011, Mather won the farm-to-table contest at Portland’s Harvest on the Harbor Festival.
THE PICKUP CAFE AND CSA
This little café cooks with ingredients from more than 40 central Maine farms and food producers. The pancakes are made with Maine-grown grains, and even the pasta used for the winter squash carbonara is locally made. A typical dinner: grass-fed beef, pork sausage and nitrate-free bacon meatloaf, topped with house-made blueberry barbecue sauce and served with mashed potatoes and roasted beets. Oh yes, The Pickup is also a CSA – a Community-Supported Agriculture site – where patrons can pick up their weekly shares of locally grown vegetables, meats and other Maine products from maple syrup to apple cider. They have an online store, too.