March 13, 2010

Below deck or topside, classy York Harbor Inn satisfies

— YORK HARBOR — Slipping into the Ship's Cellar Pub on a damp night full of the noise of crashing waves feels just like going below decks at sea. But thankfully the handholds on the stair treads will not prove necessary -- unless of course the swaying is internal.

The popular pub is efficiently run, with a taut crew serving dishes almost as soon as they're ordered. The menu, served both in the pub and in the more formal 1637 Restaurant upstairs, is a study in crowd pleasing, indulging pasta lovers with an appetizer of spaghetti carbonara, and presenting a spectrum from veggie burgers to T-bone steaks.

In between there are chowders, oysters, crab cakes, sandwiches and lobster, fish and flatbreads. On my short voyage in this pub we took in the sweet but good onion soup, fresh arugula salad, tender planked salmon and wild mushroom pasta.

The last might be a bit of a misnomer -- since most of what was identifiable appeared to be crimini mushrooms, a thoroughly domestic fungus. But the concoction made a fine meal just the same.

According to assistant manager Alice Balkin, the present menu was put together in the summer of 2007 from an earlier fine dining menu served upstairs and a more casual menu served downstairs. ''We took the best of our fine dining menu, like Yorkshire lobster supreme and lobster-stuffed breast of chicken with boursin sauce, and added the casual dishes,'' she said.

The menu's boast about Wolfe's Neck beef deserves some deconstruction too. About Wolfe's Neck, the menu reads, ''The farm has been marketing organic natural beef longer than any farm in America.''

First, no organic beef is on this menu. Second, there is no longer a single ''farm'' source for this meat, but rather a Northeast and Midwest consortium of about 150 farmers that raises this natural beef for Pineland Farms Natural Meats, without using growth hormones or antibiotics. Erick Jensen, president of Pineland Farms Natural Meats, said ''We still do business as Wolfe's Neck.'' The same beef is sold at Hannaford supermarkets as Nature's Place beef and at Whole Foods Markets under its own label.

House-made bratwurst and French garlic sausage served with fresh cheeses are a new item, and New Hampshire pork is made into pancetta in the kitchen for the carbonara.

Executive chef Gerald Bonsey, CEC (certified executive chef in the American Culinary Federation) has been offering lobster specials for the last two months -- ''from truffled lobster to lobster egg rolls.'' Some meals, like twin lobsters ($19.95), are offered only upstairs -- because the pub's ship interior has proved so popular few want to dine elsewhere and he wishes to draw them away.

In 2002 to 2003 a two-year renovation by Pride Farm Furniture Maker, owned by Ron Bracy of Falmouth, built the custom interior of the pub with paneling on the walls, tiger maple cabinets, and a bowed ceiling. Etched glass with a ship scene divides the bar area from the eating area.

Upstairs a newly renovated dining room now has more windows and a more casual decor, with a tiger maple bar and ocean view.

Four Vines Old Cuvee Zinfandel ($7.95) and Hey Mambo, a blend of Syrah, Zinfandel and Malbec ($7.75 a glass) were two choices among the red wines. A to Z Pinot Gris from Oregon ($6.95 a glass) is a rich, golden-hued white wine.

Over-sweet onion soup ($6.95) was best served by its browned and crisped melted Swiss cheese, but the use of croutons under the cheese was no improvement over toasted bread.

A salad of arugula ($5.95 for a petite version, $9.95 for large) with creamy goat cheese from Heart Song Farm was almost perfect, the small arugula leaves fresh, toasted slivered almonds crunchy, and goat cheese smooth and tangy, but unripe slices of pear could not deliver any sweet contrast.

Organic Scottish farmed salmon ($19.95) came roasted on a small slab of sugar maple, with sugar so prominent in the glaze it even crunched during the first few bites. The fish was moist and good on its own, however much I would prefer the wild version from the Pacific. Wild rice pilaf was made up of mostly overcooked white rice, and unfortunately a side of Brussels sprouts with bacon was rock hard and uncooked.

Wild mushroom pasta ($16.95) is made with pappardelle, the big wide toothsome noodles so easy to love, especially with all the creamy sauce and cheese in this dish, and the fine flavors of the mushrooms. Oyster, crimini and button mushrooms are the trio of farmed mushrooms served in this comfort food, according to chef Bonsey.

Apple crisp ($6.95) turned out to be a small tart, with tender apple folded inside a buttery crust. Strawberry shortcake ($6.95) was made with a crunchy ginger scone and previously frozen strawberries. Despite the berries, that dessert delighted one of us at the table. A good, strong cup of coffee made an admirable finish.

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of ''Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.'' Visit English's Web site,

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