March 11, 2010

R

— OCKLAND — Kerry Altiero likes to say that when he opened Cafe Miranda in 1993, people in Rockland thought he was a little nuts.

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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Wednesday, June 3 , 2009: Kerry Altiero and his chef David Joseph, left, at work in Miranda's dating back to a time when Rockland was strickly a working fisherman's town. Their woodfired oven was a pioneer.

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Now, he jokes, they think he's some kind of genius.

Susanne Ward and Patrick Reilley opened up Rock City Books & Coffee -- a cafe, used bookstore and coffee shop -- at about the same time. Locals were skeptical that lattes and espressos would take hold here, and gave them six months. Within two years, the business had to move to a larger space.

Portlanders driving up the midcoast 15 or 20 years ago looking for a place to stop and eat probably would have sailed right through Rockland. The languid blue-collar fishing town, with its empty storefronts and funky smells lingering in the air, was on the wane -- and not exactly known for its great cuisine.

''If it wasn't frozen and breaded and deep-fried and before 5 o'clock, you didn't get it,'' Reilley said.

Then things began to happen. MBNA came to town, bringing with it more people and more money. The Farnsworth Art Museum decided to make itself more visible on Main Street. Downtown went from being a deserted, seasonal dead zone to a year-round place to be with lots of foot traffic.

''In 1998 and '99,'' Altiero said, ''when I saw 40-year-old guys in ponytails with guidebooks walking around, I started going, 'Uh-oh, they're coming.' It's happening, you know? In my vision, what I thought was that we were going to be like a little Portland and I think that's kind of come true.''

DINING OPTIONS ABOUND

Today, take a drive through Rockland and you're apt to stop there for a bite instead of watching the town disappear in your rearview mirror.

There's Suzuki's Sushi Bar right on Main Street. Next door is Lily Bistro, where even local lobstermen have been known to try the house-made pate and duck confit. Want a water view? Try Amalfi. For Italian, there's Rustica.

The choices range from a small diner frequented by locals to Primo, a shrine to fine dining owned and operated by Price Kushner and James Beard award-winning chef Melissa Kelly. Foodies and food writers make pilgrimages to Primo to check out its gardens (tended by two full-time gardeners), heritage pigs and -- the newest arrivals -- 100 laying hens.

It seems the ''EAT'' sculpture by Robert Indiana that was installed at the Farnsworth on Monday couldn't be more timely.

''It's exciting that there's this buzz about this town,'' Ward said. ''I mean, people don't talk about dinner in Camden. They talk about dinner in Rockland.''

In February, James Hatch opened Home Kitchen Cafe on Main Street, where his huevos rancheros and fish tacos -- assembled with house-made corn tortillas and served with a perfectly-spiced side of black beans -- have become local favorites.

Located in a converted gas station, the 38-seat restaurant's warm, rustic walls and the sound of the Grateful Dead playing in the background do, indeed, give this spot a homey feel. The average check here runs not much more than $10 per person, but the food is as fresh as it is at higher-end places.

Hatch, a former guitar maker who has also worked as a cook, says he wanted to provide the town with something he felt was missing -- homemade fare and ''the best quality for a reasonable price.''

''When I get something (at another restaurant) and it's not very good,'' Hatch said, ''I'm like, 'Where's the love?' ''

Joan LaChance of Warren, finishing up lunch at Home Kitchen Cafe last week, said she remembers when one of the few options in town was eating at the counter at J.J. Newberry's, a local department store.

''You'd go in to buy your clothes, and they'd all smell like grilled cheese,'' she said.

INVITED TO THE JAMES BEARD HOUSE

There's always been some great nosh in town, if you knew where to find it. For doughnuts, go to the Willow Bake Shop, which has been around since 1949. And locals still adore Wass's hot dog wagon. (A Wass's hot dog with caramelized onions is ''better than most meals I've gotten for $50,'' Altiero says.)

But who would have ever guessed that Rockland restaurants would be invited to prepare dinner at the James Beard House in New York City, as Lily Bistro and Suzuki's Sushi Bar did last February? Or that Rockland folks would embrace confit and pate and sweetbreads?

Robert Krajewski and Lynette Moser, chefs and co-owners of Lily Bistro, which serves casual French fare, used to work in Boston, but they say they have never sold so much of these gourmet specialties as they have in Rockland.

''Some stuff you wouldn't sell in the city sells here,'' Mosher said. ''It really surprises me.''

Mosher and Krajewski deliberately stayed away from linen tablecloths and expensive wines -- most of their bottles are priced between $27 and $33 -- when they opened their doors last year. But it turns out the locals are much more adventurous eaters than the couple expected.

''We have a lobsterman and his wife who started coming in because we buy his lobster, and now he comes in once a month, and it's an occasion,'' Mosher said. ''And he comes to all our special events.''

Ask Price Kushner where he and Melissa Kelly like to eat on their nights off, and he mentions Suzuki's Sushi Bar and Cafe Miranda. A lot of local chefs frequent Cafe Miranda; they consider Altiero a pioneer of the Rockland food scene, and they like the inventive dishes on his massive, multi-ethnic menu.

The cafe is located in a spot on Oak Street that was a gambling club from 1917 until 1993, when Altiero and his partner bought the building. ''The shades were stapled to the windows,'' Altiero recalled, ''and there were nicotine stains everywhere.''

Cafe Miranda is known for its brick oven, which was built by Washington mason Patrick Manley and was one of the first in the state. The restaurant is named after Altiero's dog, whose ashes are installed on a shelf in the dining room, along with her collar and food dish.

The decor includes diner-style tables, funky salt-and-pepper shakers and local art. There's a large outdoor patio, and music during dinner service is likely to be Led Zeppelin or Lou Reed.

''Our demographic that we try to go for is a guy with a pickup truck and a lobster boat, you know,'' Altiero said, ''or someone who owns an island, or a skate punk -- and we get them all.''

The dizzying menu includes items such as the ''I Dreamt of Jerry,'' a sort of blue-cheese burger turned inside out, named after a friend of Altiero's who liked blue cheese with his meat.

RAISING THE BAR FOR EVERYONE

What's still missing in town? Lynette Mosher would like to see an Indian restaurant move in. She and Krajewski also think a good steakhouse would go over well -- the kind with creamed spinach, two-pound potatoes and, Krajewski says, ''a porterhouse bigger than my head, and they dry-age everything.''

Local foodies also see something like Ethiopian food, although that still seems a bit of a stretch at this point.

''Everybody who talks about food wants something interesting like that,'' Krajewski said, ''something that's truly, truly 100 percent authentic.''

When a new place opens, no one worries too much about the competition, several restaurateurs said. While each new restaurant does take a slice of the pie away, so far each place has had its own individual style, and new blood in town simply raises the bar for everyone.

Or, as Altiero puts it, ''if you add more quality, it's the crap that suffers.''

Chefs tend to share ingredients and work together on projects for their common good.

''Rockland's not like any other restaurant towns that I've worked in,'' Krajewski said. ''There's so much more help and camaraderie here than I've seen anywhere. Nobody feels that we're in direct competition with anybody else.''

Last week, restaurateurs met to discuss how they could work together to develop some local food-related events in the coming year. One idea is pairing restaurants with local artists. Artists would hang their work in the restaurants, and the restaurants would provide food for arts events.

''It's art and food downtown now that, I think, is the draw,'' Hatch said. ''Soon it will be the waterfront when they get all that developed. But right now, (Rockland is) like an eastern Sante Fe.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

Doug Jones/staff photographer: Thursday, ,June 3, 2009: Lynette Mosher and Bob Krajewski owners of the Rock City Coffee Roasters, offer opinion and insight to the Rockland restaurant scene.

click image to enlarge

Doug Jones/staff photographer: Thursday ,June 4, 2008: Lily Bistro with its interesting decor is on the upscale dining end of Rockland's mutitude of Restaurants.

 


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