Aragosta, or “lobster” in Italian, is perched on the sea at the southern tip of Deer Isle, 45 minutes from where I grew up at what is now Four Season Farm. I’m here with that farm’s current owners, who happen to be my dad, Eliot Coleman, and stepmom, Barbara Damrosch, to sample the evolution of the local-food movement from the 1970s to today at chef Devin Finigan’s new farm-and-sea-to-fork eatery.
In line with this garden-to-mouth theme of the evening, my dad brought some mint from the land he bought from Helen and Scott Nearing in 1968 to give to the bartender. “For mojitos,” he winked, and we’re now enjoying the refreshing leaves mixed with lime and rum in Aragosta’s cozy 50-seat dining room and bar overlooking the harbor, the midsummer day reaching as deep into night as this island into the sea.
“Local food is nothing new – it’s how most people used to eat centuries ago when everyone farmed and foraged for food,” my dad says over a medley of grilled, baked and raw oysters ($17) served on a bed of olive rockweed. Raised and harvested around North Haven, an island just beyond view of our windows, as well as in the nearby Bagaduce River and Blue Hill Salt Pond, the oysters taste the way the view out the windows might if it were reduced and chilled on ice. “Perhaps today’s trend is a hunger for the world we’ve lost,” he adds.
When my siblings and I were kids we used to sigh over our dad’s embarrassing passion for growing quality organic food, but have since realized, despite junk-food rebellions in our teens, that he was onto something good. After Barbara (whose son suffered a similar comeuppance) married my dad, they were dubbed the “Brangelina” of the organic world by The New York Times, with six books between them, including one together, “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
“Back in the ’70s when everyone was eating processed foods, pioneers like Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Odessa Piper at L’Etoile in Madison started seeking out local and fresh ingredients like the French chefs,” Barbara says. “Then it became hip in the ’90s and later at places like Savoy and Bouley in New York, and in Maine at Portland’s Fore Street and Primo in Rockland.”
My dad’s Morgan Bay Farm golden beet soup ($9) arrives, artfully topped by a drizzle of chive oil and pickled Chioggia beet, and my farmer’s salad ($12), which would have been from Four Season Farm greens, except my dad is currently focusing on an eight-month market season extending from October to May, which excludes summer. Carding Brook Farm, Finigan’s neighbor in Brooklin, makes a good replacement, the leaves vibrant with just a touch of bitter to contrast with the sweet candied walnuts, salty Sunset Acres feta and sour aged white balsamic.
Chef Finigan, who grew up on a farm in Vermont and moved to Maine to marry a lobsterman-turned-jewelry-maker, gained her stripes and loyal following at the Blue Hill Inn, but it’s Stonington’s Island Culinary and Ecological Center (ICEC) that’s had the biggest influence on Aragosta’s internationally inspired, locally sourced menu.
Through the center, Finigan has shared kitchens with a Who’s Who of the food world, including Thomas Keller, the culinary mastermind behind Napa Valley’s The French Laundry and Per Se in New York, prolifically James Beard Award-winning Jean-Georges Vongerichten and New York Times food guru Mark Bittman. This year, ICEC’s fundraiser on Aug. 10 features a dinner at Aragosta with Ross Florance of Per Se as guest chef.
Our waitress, Brighid, brings by a clever tapas plate showcasing two pickled and smoked Little Neck clams. The amuse-bouches that arrive between each course reflect Finigan’s stagiaire (French for apprenticeship) with Dan Barber, the chef behind the Blue Hill restaurants in New York City and at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit educational farm in the Hudson Valley, which my dad and Barbara helped to plan. A single leaf of arugula topped by a square of rhubarb gelée is reminiscent of Barber’s signature vegetable amuse-bouches and later, a miniature scoop of blueberry prosecco sorbet served in a champagne glass arrives to cleanse the palette for the richer flavors of the entrées.
They also make you feel as if the chef were sending out a little something just for you – even though everyone gets one.
I’m so busy savoring Barbara’s house-made ravioli ($30) stuffed with lobster and swimming in citrus beurre blanc that my dad’s peekytoe crab dumplings ($12) are gone before I can get my fork on one – though he assures me with a cat-ate-the-canary grin that they’re rich with garlic and lemon. Both the lobster and crab are harvested in Stonington, as is the halibut dish served with Blue Hill mussels and Franklin clams.
The turf on the menu also hails from Maine, with Aroostook County lamb chops and steak, and my Common Wealth Farm duck trio ($29) from Unity. The duck breast is tender and crisp-skinned with duck prosciutto and a leg confit over risotto and Hakurei turnips, topped with a bourbon barbecue sauce. It’s earthy and nourishing, reminding me of eating a carrot from the earth when I was a kid. Barber’s mentorship of Finigan comes through again here. “The experience of a well-prepared meal can make these connections (between the earth and the meal) clear in powerful ways,” Barber says in his new book, “The Third Plate.”
We find our stomachs are satisfied and happy in a way that doesn’t need something sweet, but we order a full serving of the blueberry prosecco sorbet ($7) just because.
The house-made limoncello provides a shot of sour and sweet to finish. Perhaps what makes the entire menu so good is the careful orchestration of all five tastes – bitter, sour, sweet and umami, plus the salt of sea and earth. My only wish is that everyone could afford to eat so well.
“Maybe,” says Barbara, “in less elaborate ways we can – whether by making homemade bread or growing our own vegetables. It takes a while for a burger joint to catch on and source locally, but it’s starting to happen, which is great for everyone.”
As the sun closes out the day, boats and islands disappear into the ocean until all we can see is a canvas canopy, the color and shape of sunset on water, stretched over the large wrap-around deck below the windows. Our waitress takes our empty plates and reminds us we must come back for lunch on the deck, as well as a tapas happy hour with live music on Friday and Saturdays.
“What Devin does best is continually improve,” my dad says. “She’s a natural talent, but every winter she works with great chefs to learn more.” Barbara agrees. “Her cooking is sophisticated without a lot of trendy silliness. I like eating something I could aspire to make in my home kitchen without specialized equipment.”
As my dad suggested earlier, eating local and fresh harkens back to the most ancient of human impulses – the drive to use our hands and brains to satisfy the need for nourishment. It may be trendy, but I’m not immune to this nostalgia for my (and humanity’s) childhood on the farm – when, if we didn’t grow it, we wouldn’t have anything to eat, yet somehow we always managed to eat well.
That’s the magic of Aragosta, too. Maine’s hardscrabble environment has more than enough bounty to feed us as well as a fine New York restaurant – especially when you have a chef with the willingness and creativity of Devin Finigan.
Up next: On the trail of one well-missed Portland chef with a Freeport writers’ group.
Melissa Coleman is interim restaurant reviewer for the Maine Sunday Telegram. Each week, she takes a writer or food expert to dinner with her to provide additional perspective. Coleman writes for national and local publications and can be found at melissacoleman.com. Her memoir, “This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak,” is about coming of age during the 1970s back-to-the-land movement.