March 10, 2010

Old resort hotel boasts superb modern cuisine

— SOUTHWEST HARBOR -- The Claremont Hotel's restaurant is called Xanthus after Xanthus Smith, who painted the 1885 portrait of the inn displayed in the dining room.

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The Xanthus Restaurant in the Claremont in Southwest Harbor on July 23, 2009.

Tim Greenway

Flanked by sun-washed spruce trees and sloping lawn, the austere lines of the inn in the portrait are the same a visitor sees today.

The color of the inn, a pale olive in the painting, is now soft yellow. Massive hanging planters dripping with red tuberose begonias line the encircling porch with its green rocking chairs.

Croquet lawns spread out below were a playground, on the night I dined, for teenagers and children who played the game, as guests likely have for the 125 years the hotel has been in business. Inside the dining room, time has marched on.

Jewel-toned cushions back a black-upholstered wall bench, and vases filled with fresh flowers are set in wall brackets. The minimalist modern feeling of the room, formal with white tablecloths, hints that the food could be exciting. And indeed, after a meandering start, the food shifted into high gear for the main course -- and a sensational dessert achieved orbit.

Aia dei Colombi Falanghina 2007 ($8), from Guardia Sanframondi, Campania, Italy, is a light, elegant white wine made with an indigenous Italian grape. The 2003 Chateau Greysac ($10 a glass, $20 a half carafe, $38 a bottle), a French wine from Medoc, is a moderately priced Bordeaux that holds complexity and balance.

Manager John Madeira focuses his good wine list on smaller producers who make wines without a lot of additives or coloring.

Chef Daniel Sweimler worked at the ambitious Thrumcap, a now closed Bar Harbor restaurant, and before that was executive chef at Quatorze and Pisces in New York City.

This is his third year at Xanthus. ''I'm trying to do good, Mediterranean-based food. I don't get too weird and fusiony -- it's pretty by the book,'' he said.

Shrimp spring rolls ($10), fragrant with cilantro and crunchy with thinly sliced red pepper and celery, went perfectly with a light and savory dipping sauce.

A crisp phyllo cup of beets and fried Manchego ($9) with pomegranate sauce flecked with black vanilla seeds came off like a daydream fueled by a color wheel. Its pretty colors didn't make amends for an incoherent collection of flavors.

On a recent menu, other appetizers included straightforward grilled octopus salad ($9) and roasted tomato soup ($6).

Grilled rib eye ($27), with juicy, perfectly cooked meat enriched by a border of fat, paired up with its classic partner, fried potatoes, and for once the spears of dark-brown potatoes proved excellent, crisp outside and tender within and worth every calorie.

The beef, dry-aged and wonderfully tender and savory because of it, had been sauced with a reduction of burgundy, port, cinnamon, clove and juniper berries.

Sweimler ages the beef, from Kinnealy Quality Meats in Boston, a week and a half on a rack in his refrigerator. ''It's a little bit of a pain to do if you don't have the right refrigerator, but it's worth it,'' he said, especially for cuts like sirloin and rib eye.

Spinach, carrots, small white turnips and a charred onion with sweet roasted flavors rounded out the plate and showed off the reliance the kitchen has on local farms.

Sweimler's mother's farm, 14 Angels Farm in Cherryfield, and Crossroads Farm in Jonesport are suppliers of most of the produce.

Organic salmon ($23) from a Scottish co-op, served with the same array of vegetables, came with saffron rice and a vibrant and sweet, ripe mango salsa. The fish was tender to a fault, mild and fresh.

Cod, halibut and monkfish are from Port Clyde Co-op, with one featured each night on the changing menu, perhaps pan-seared halibut ($26), served with caramelized pineapple salsa, purple fingerling potatoes and avocado vinaigrette.

Grilled rack of lamb ($29) with ratatouille and local scallops ($24) with succotash are also from another night's menu. Grilled venison chop ($30) from a breed called Cervena raised in New Zealand is planned for the menu for the rest of the summer.

Monday nights the restaurant offers a simpler menu, while Sweimler takes a day off.

The burgundy reduction on the rib eye displayed the kitchen's knack at concentrated flavors, but the dessert of pear claflouti ($7) with a port reduction revealed the sublime soul of wine. Thinly sliced pear cooked in an eggy pancake seemed immortalized by the ruby red, intense and sensual liquid. Creamy whipped cream washed the palette for another taste, and another, until all that was left was the residue on the plate -- but at formal Xanthus, I didn't grab it for a few last licks.

A dessert of fresh berries with ice cream ($6) also gets the blue ribbon -- since it is berry season after all and a fruit dessert is the perfect end of a summer meal. Blackberries, raspberries and Maine strawberries were all fresh and immaculate.

Josiah Bray-marks, the pastry chef, makes the sorbets and ice creams and picks rosehips, raspberries and blueberries for dessert along with the rest of the kitchen staff. ''We are all foragers,'' Sweimler said.

Decaf looked pretty in a white china cup with a green and gold band, but it should have been stronger.

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.

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