Saturday, December 7, 2013
Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: The Farmer's Table restaurant for Taste and Tell Friday, May 22, 2009.
Surely just about anyone with some time in the kitchen can whip them up, you might think. But I can assure you -- just about anyone cannot.
After more bowls of long-past-fresh mussels than my body cares to recollect, after plate upon plate of tasteless, dry chicken and a river of oversweet chocolate desserts, after encountering espresso imposters all over the map of Maine, I know that folks cannot in fact easily whip this stuff up.
The Farmer's Table can, and it's willing to shoulder the basics we love to order over and over again. It isn't striving to wow with novelties or gimmicks. And that crunchy potato cake, tender baby Swiss chard and new carrots -- not the lathe-made ersatz ''baby'' carrots sold by the truckload, but actual young carrots -- were infused with the bitter and sweet presence of the dirt in which they grew.
Jeff Landry, former executive chef of Eve's at the Portland Harbor Hotel who also presided at Portland's Cinque Terre when it first opened, owns this restaurant, set in an odd space best enjoyed on sunny days on its outside terrace and upstairs balcony. On a cold spring night, I was grateful to be offered an inside table for four by the window. An upholstered bench with cushions provided domestic comfort. But there are less hospitable spots to sit, and on a more crowded evening, the host might be less generous to a party of two.
White tablecloths and pretty touches grace the interior with its curved bank of windows, such as a sheaf of metal wheat around the center stem of the hanging lights and stained-glass shades on the lights over the bar with leaves and corn motifs.
A generous pour in the stemmed wine glasses might be Spanish Vina Borgia Garnacha ($5), a lively, fruity red wine with just enough bite for balance. Terrazas Malbec ($7) from Argentina is deeper and darker with a heavier body, and Lyeth Cabernet Sauvignon ($8) from California, with the classic tang of black cherries and a smooth texture, made a lovely partner to beef short ribs. The good wines are well chosen from a range of varietals and origins.
Also well chosen were the three sardines ($8) caught off the coast of Portugal, delivered to this restaurant kitchen and deeply browned on the outside, tender in their pale flesh. Fresh sardines like these, nicely finished with sauted arugula from Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport and lemon chili oil, are a joy.
The Maine mussels were from Clark's Cove, glossy and plump with immaculate freshness (they might also come from Bang's Island). Cooked in Shipyard beer and rather mild green chilies and garlic, they stood out from the crowd.
A plate of exceptionally tender green lettuces ($6), slightly overweighted with a mild dressing, was augmented by the familiar pair of glazed pecans and crumbled Great Hill Blue -- which really do work well together.
Fritters of Silvery Moon Creamery brie ($8) served with strawberry mustard and grilled vegetables with goat cheese ($7) are more starters.
A special of sauted soft-shell crabs, another of skate, and a third of brined pork tenderloin were passed over in favor of the regular menu's braised Caldwell Farm short ribs. That luscious meat made two splendid meals -- one at the Farmer's Table and another at the home table, after it was boxed up to go.
A straightforward presentation with just a splash of reduced balsamic vinegar let the meat shine. A big golden-brown flattened cake of creamy potatoes, crunchy on the exterior and smooth and rich inside, held its own attractions.
A roasted half chicken made do, with lemon, thyme and pan juices, which were terrific all together and admirable with a mouthful of mashed potatoes heavily spiced with black pepper. If black pepper isn't your thing, request a light hand with it, but otherwise enjoy it all the more. It's the real stuff for certain, biting and hot.
The kitchen was out of the menu's vegetarian entree, fettuccine ($14) with goat cheese cream and local shitake and blue oyster mushrooms from local forager Rick Tibbets. But the server suggested a talk with the chef if anyone wanted another meatless choice.
Scottish salmon and a rib eye steak with onion rings were also ready for dinner. A wider choice of entrees will be on the June menu, Landry said, with more from farms and local businesses.
Thankfully, when it came time for dessert, there were pleasing in-house choices, such as blueberry cobbler and creme brulee. Later this year, Beal's ice cream will be part of a root beer float made with Sea Dog Old Style Root Beer, Landry said.
Semifreddo chocolate terrine came adorned with candied orange peel and toasted, sliced almonds. With a sip of good espresso ($2) and a bite of cool, creamy chocolate, a bite of the bittersweet orange rind and the crunch of almonds, we lingered over the end of the meal, too well-pleased with ourselves and this restaurant to want to be done with dinner.
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, www.chowmaineguide.com.