Friday August 30, 2013 | 06:30 AM

Few restaurants achieve that exalted state of excellence as world-class dining establishments where the food, service and ambiance are exquisite examples of the genre.  They are the four-star contenders in the true sense of the designation, luxuriously above the fray of ordinary fare.

Maine has its share of such high achievers. And one notable standout is Natalie’s, the stunning dining facility housed in the uber-elegant Camden Harbour Inn.

The dining terrace at Natalie's is a magical spot for dinner; even when the weather gets cooler there are heat lamps to take off the chill

My most recent dinner there earlier this week was even better than a memorable visit a year ago.  At the time I enjoyed a perfect meal on the terrace, a lushly landscaped outdoor dining space overlooking the harbor, mountains and scenic Camden village.

The flower-filled porch is another spot in which to enjoy al fresco dining

The bar is a popular spot, an elegant watering hole indeed where master mixologists do their magic
 
Natalie’s has always been about fine dining, but now with a new chef at the helm, John Gaboric, the food and presentation are like works of art on the plate. 

The menu respects the use of local ingredients from area farms and purveyors, and the chef has wrapped it all up in glorious ways to make it visually triumphant.

His approach is more about a European sensibility rather than country inn cooking; it’s a nice respite from the onslaught of down-home  grub that’s so pervasive in American bistros--a culinary patina that sometimes wears thin.

What also impressed me this time was the level of service at the restaurant.  The wait staff is an international mix from Eastern Europe and South America. And they tend to diners well,  intuitively knowing what you need.

Dinner service is either a three-course prix fixe or a multi-course tasting menu.  We chose the smaller menu. 

The main dining room is resplendent in red, a color theme that pervades the restaurant and inn

We ordered an excellent bottle of 2011 Sancerre Hippolyte Reverdy from the restaurant’s extensive wine list--bottlings from all the notable regions.

The dining room, with its signature oversized fixtures covered in bright red fabric,  is divided into several rooms: an elegant enclosed sun porch, the main dining room with banquettes and spacious tables joined by the wrap-around outdoor deck that’s lushly landscaped and perfect for starlight dining on balmy summer nights.

We started off with an amuse bouche of richly textured corn bisque with lobster that was so intense that the flavor of each component was distinctly savory. 

For  a first course we tried the squab braised with apricots.  Here was a delicately devised dish, enhanced with the sweetness of the braising fruit, garlic chips and frisee.

This savory first course of squab braised with apricots had incredible flavor and appeal

Another winning first course was butter-soft veal tenderloin atop a turnip puree, blueberries and pickled onions, a dish certainly reflective of nouvelle cuisine whimsy.

For main courses we chose the seared red snapper, the lamb and an inventive take on ricotta.  The fish was served over a mélange of split peas, a seasonal vegetable ragout and for contrast a fried local oyster in a shellfish jus.

Seared red snapper over split peas and vegetable ragout

The tournedo of local lamb was presented with braised carrots and cumin-scented eggplant brought together with a summer cous cous salad and purple potato chips.  The lamb was beautifully cooked.

Just rare in the middle and succulent within, the lamb over cous cous was a great dish

The ricotta cannelloni  was infused with herbs and lemon and served with fingerling potatoes, marinated baby tomatoes, roasted asparagus and sliced caper berries--a novel, creative dish.

"Cannelloni" of ricotta and parmesan in herbs and lemon

Desserts are under the direction of pastry chef Jason Sturdivant, who displays great finesse, reflective of the kitchen’s bravado style.  A vanilla parfait with peaches, whipped goat cheese with a cinnamon nutmeg crumble is a stellar confection that lingers on the palate. Another standout was a compressed melon and sorbet creation that was wholly original.

Peaches with a vanilla parfait, whipped goat cheese and nutmeg crumble

Compressed watermelon and cantaloupe, melon sorbet, maple oats and vodka infused honeydew

At this time of year Camden is still a bustling summer town, which has also benefitted from an influx of fine restaurants in contrast to the village’s past of generic local clam and lobster joints. Natalie’s is at the forefront as a haven for civility and stylish dining--in a coastal town where visitors now come not only for the scenery but for the delights of this region's  new culinary energy.


 

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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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