Chase’s Daily, even with the bustle of those who join me from Belfast’s Main Street, has a Zen peacefulness that reminds me of the iconic vegetarian restaurant, Greens. This family restaurant and farm run by Addison and Penny Chase, with their daughters, Phoebe and Meg, and Meg’s husband, Freddy Lafage, is a place people travel long distances, as if in pilgrimage, to visit. I’m here to find out why.
My guest told me the secret to lunch at Chase’s is to arrive early and claim a table before the 11 a.m. rush, so I lay my umbrella on one and wander back to find the daily farmers market being set up like a giant painter’s palette with buckets full of flowers and vegetables of all types and color glistening with droplets of dew.
“All the produce for the market and kitchen comes directly from the Chase family farm in Freedom,” the cashier tells me. “That’s the key.”
The dining area begins to fill up, and my guest joins me, a Chase’s Daily pilgrim as well as a man who happens to be fanatical about hamburgers. There are no burgers on the menu at Chase’s Daily, as it’s a vegetarian restaurant. He is here for the Banh Mi.
“This sandwich is the bomb,” he says. “It always lifts me up and makes me feel happy and satisfied, yet never overfull.”
His face falls momentarily when our waitress tells us there’s no Banh Mi on the menu today. “It’ll be back,” she assures him. In place of the happiness sandwich he orders us an array of dishes, and suggests we start with a lemonade ($3.25) to prepare for the meal to come.
The first dish arrives alone, a bowl of borscht ($7). It’s not chunky the way you might expect the Russian soup to be, but pureed to the texture of a bisque. The beet-red circle of color is enhanced by a center of crème fraîche and green strands of dill. My first spoonful is a burst of earthy and sweet beet essence with the tingle of the dill and cream behind it. It’s a taste I don’t grow bored of, I only want more.
Vegetarian fare is limited by the very constraints of its nature, so a chef must reconstruct standard dishes in ways that surprise us with the delicious flavor of the vegetables themselves. Such is the case with this borscht.
As the rest of our order arrives on the arms of our friendly waitress, the space fills to capacity with people seated or waiting for a seat, but it never feels overly loud or frenetic at our table. Everything is laid out before us, and after the borscht, we’re stupefied by the choices. I take a swig of lemonade and start with the tender lettuce salad ($11), the lettuce fresh from the farm with ample avocado and a piquant Dijon vinaigrette.
My guest is making do with his spicy grilled tofu sandwich on buckwheat sourdough ($10) in place of the Banh Mi, but is truly savoring the pizza special ($12), which has a perfect paper-thin crust, whole basil leaves and knobs of roasted summer squash.
The omelet ($11) filled with warm goat cheese adds protein and warmth to my salad and a side of buttery broccoli raab.
Nothing quite captures the perfection of that borscht, but I keep coming back to the yellow curry fried rice ($13) with new potatoes, fresh summer beans, scallions and a cilantro garnish. It’s one of those vegetarian standards that, when prepared well, is the ultimate comfort food. My only wish is that the curry were a little stronger and – I know this is bad – that it had shrimp.
After the Banh Mi, the cherry tarts are what keep my guest coming back to Chase’s.
“Let me check,” the waitress says. “They may be all gone.”
We wait with exaggerated hope and are rewarded – three remain. My guest takes two to go for his family and presents the third to me like an offering.
It’s the size of a bread plate with a crinkled crust surrounding softened whole cherries in a filling that is my exact favorite shade of deep red, that of a Tibetan monk’s robes.
It seems sacrilegious to actually eat the pastry at this point, but I can’t resist just one bite. The crust gives way to a warm explosion of tart and sweet. It’s just the right amount of tart without overpowering the sweet, and the crumbly nature of the crust allows the profusion of cherries to take center stage. Before I know it, I’ve eaten the whole thing.
My vision rises so I see us from above, talking into the afternoon over a Spanish cortado ($2.75), the faded brick walls beneath the 14-foot tin ceilings illuminated by the glow from the front wall of windows.
Chase’s Daily may not be for everyone, even great vegetarian food can seem bland and unexciting to some, but those who love it will be rewarded. In coming here to find out why people make pilgrimages to Chase’s Daily, I’ve given up the search and instead found the meaning. It looks something like that lunch.
Melissa Coleman is interim restaurant reviewer for the Maine Sunday Telegram. 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.