When Bresca, Portland’s 18-seat foodie alcove on Middle Street, shuttered suddenly in 2013, fans mourned the loss of James-Beard-nominee Krista Kern Desjarlais’ creative small bites, inspired wine list and unique desserts (chocolate soup). Her partner, Erik Desjarlais, also closed Evangeline in 2010 and as far as anyone knew, Portland’s royal couple of restaurants had vanished into the wilds of New Gloucester to raise their daughter and make knife rolls.
There were reports of a hot dog stand on a beach, but hot dogs? And a beach in New Gloucester? It sounded like the makings of a good story, so my intrepid writers’ group and I decided to get the scoop. I was also curious to track a hopeful trend – that of the burger joint, diner and snack shack sourcing quality local and organic ingredients and making them affordable for all.
Managing to get seven of us in one place is no easy task. When we first came together in 2006, we’d meet every Friday morning at the Starbucks in Freeport to remind us through the fog of busy lives and motherhood that we were writers. The rule was always: “Show up if you can, don’t apologize if you can’t, and if you’re the only one there? Take the time to write.”
When I arrive at Outlet Beach on Sabbathday Lake, I find Bresca & the Honey Bee housed in a small yellow cook shack without a sign, but see no familiar faces. I think it might be one of those days when I get to write alone. The swimming area is populated by children on floats and parents lounging on a mussel-shaped curve of sand. I’m wondering why I’ve never been here before – this bucolic inland beach on Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community land is a mere 30 minutes from Freeport and 45 from Portland.
All at once, I see Cathy waving and my phone starts pinging. Only four of the seven of us can make it, but that’s pretty good for the week of July 4th. “I’m at a shoot but go ahead, will be there ASAP,” Kathleen Shannon texts from her next-to-last week on the TV news show, “207.” Victoria arrives, and her boys, Owen (11) and Caleb (8), run for the water.
“Let’s order!” we three agree. The teenager at the window writes furiously on a pad as we roll off our choices. We claim a picnic table by the water to watch Owen and Caleb doing 360s off the float as we update each other on our various writing projects. Victoria Stefanakos, who freelances for national magazines, is taking a wine sommelier class in the fall with her husband, and plans to do a story on it. Cathy Holley and her husband, Lex, have recently purchased the magazine she’s edited for years, Flavor & The Menu, an industry authority on flavor trends for chefs and menu developers.
The food begins to arrive in red-checked paper dishes on the arms of our young server. We exclaim over the unexpectedly lovely presentation (for a snack shack). A set of pork ribs ($10) from D’Ameri Acres in Gray, blackened and glazed with a miso and beer marinade, is laid over an Asian-inspired salad of nearby Farmers’ Eight Daughters greens, toasted peanuts and sweet citrus chili dressing. Five fat, grilled asparagus ($10) are crossed over the same salad mix and topped by a golden dollop of egg salad sprinkled with bright green scallions and red pepper flakes.
“I’m surprised by the egg salad,” Cathy says, as we all dig right in. “I was expecting a poached or soft-boiled egg to go with the Asian flavors, but this is a clever and delicious nod to the picnic setting.”
“You don’t want it to feel too gourmet,” Victoria adds. “You want a place like this to be homey.”
The pièce de résistance is indisputably the D’Ameri Acres pork belly – blackened on the grill with crispy crevices full of maple glaze. It comes in three generous chunks over the Asian salad ($10), or as a two-piece add-on to the chilled rice noodle dish ($9). We agree we prefer the rice noodle base to the Asian salad as the greens are too wilted by the dressing on a hot day, and we’re wanting something with more substance to soak up the delectable fat of the pork belly. Maybe kale, cabbage or a creative riff on beans could work here?
“You can never have too much pork belly,” Victoria summarizes, as the morsels of maple-sweetened fat melt in our mouths and make our eyes roll back.
There’s a side dish we recognize from the old Bresca, shaved Brussels sprouts with toasted walnuts, though we find the walnut dressing a little strong for this setting. We wish missing member Lindsay Sterling, who blogs at Immigrant Kitchens (immigrantkitchens.com) and once shadowed Desjarlais at Bresca for a week, were here to comment. However, the special of warm goat cheese on whole carrots charred and crossed seductively under a bed of fresh non-Asian salad hits just the right note – the carrots sweet as apple pie.
The boys come in from the water to find not your average hot dog, but the Hot Dog Indochine ($5), with cucumber, pickled radishes and carrots, mayo and hoisin. The Honey Bee Burger ($8) towers with fillings of house-made kettle chips, lettuce and tomato and a creamy “special sauce.” They split the two and decide they like the burger best. “It has an Asian-slash-burger flavor,” Owen says. “I like the crispy chips,” Caleb adds.
Another of our missing members, Caroline Kurrus, visited earlier in the week and said it was the perfect place to go after an outdoor workout. She overheard a family in line complaining about the lack of fries and the prices, perhaps because the shack is cash-only and they’d run out of change. “Fries or not, I can’t think of a summer shack with a better local Angus beef burger for $4.75 and local beef/no-nitrate hot dog for $3.75,” she said.
When we go up to order ice cream, we find Desjarlais herself at the window. With her bright blue eyes, white-toothed smile, and blonde ponytail, she looks like the teenagers on staff. She’s talkative and friendly, but when we say we’ve been to the old Bresca, she brightens noticeably. “Everyone was scratching their heads when we closed,” she explains. “The restaurant was in good shape, but I needed a change.”
She tells us she has a location lined up in Lewiston-Auburn, but needs to decide if she’s ready to get back into the scene. “It’s been nice to spend time with my child,” she says, and we all commiserate. (Speaking of dedication to a demanding job, just then Kathleen texts to say she had a tight deadline and won’t be able to make it after all.)
The homemade ice cream ($3.75) is, frankly, the best I can remember eating. Another missing member, Jen Hazard, who blogs at Cute Potato (cutepotato.com), emailed to say she once thought Bresca’s chocolate soup was her favorite dessert – until she tried this ice cream. “You’ll be dreaming about (it) long after you leave,” she wrote. It’s made daily from local cream with flavors including Crème Fraîche Key Lime Pie, Root Beer and Darkest Chocolate – need we say more?
I’ll add only that while the former Bresca may have been a rarefied foodie treat, the new venue is one anyone can appreciate and afford. Not to mention, with ingredients of this quality and price, you can eat all the pork belly you like.
Up Next: In search of a uniquely Maine cuisine with Don Lindgren.
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.