Saturday, March 8, 2014
It’s not the same as getting a cut and style at a school for student barbers where a bad haircut is not easy to fix. A meal, however, by chefs in training can have its finer and lesser moments.
This is what we discovered at the dining room of the SMCC Culinary Arts Center, which offers a somewhat idiosyncratic—but wonderful—learning restaurant created as an ongoing lab for the students to cook while they practice in a real-life professional setting.
The restaurant is open to the public for lunch only from Wednesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., reservations required. On Friday a buffet lunch is served.
What’s extraordinary about the dining room is the setting. It commands views of the ocean as good as the most sprawling estate along the nearby Cape Elizabeth shoreline. In fact, the entire campus is ringed by Casco Bay with phenomenal vistas of Bug Light, Cushing, House and Peak’s islands.
The Culinary Arts dining room enjoys panoramic ocean views
The students get involved in every aspect of restaurant work — busing, waiting, cooking, administrative details and hosting.
Waiters and waitresses don black pants, white shirts and black bow ties. They may seem somewhat timid at table in dealing with diners, but, after all, they’re learning.
The room was packed this past Wednesday at noon. Diners included local business people, senior ladies out for good food and fun and area residents.
The menu offers a 4 course meal for $14 with the suggestion that diners leave a $2 to $3 cash tip (what a bargain!). Credit cards are not accepted.
The table is nicely set, and the bread service is brought out right away. The rolls, however, were not hot, though they’re made in the school’s student kitchen. The butter plate was filled with packets of gold-foiled industrial butter from Sysco.
The choice of starter offerings included either clam chowder or house-cured gravlax. My guest chose the soup and I opted for the salmon. The chowder was too thick for his tastes, without much clam flavor. My salmon, however, was beautifully cured (nicely citrusy) and accompanied by perfectly diced egg yolk, onions and capers. There was herbed cream cheese (very tasty) to spread on crostini. This was a good dish.
A nicely turned out serving of gravlax with all the trimmings
The salad course offerings were either a Waldorf salad or Caesar. Both were very well done, especially the Waldorf with little bits of apple and walnuts neatly diced and laced in a good mayonnaise dressing.
A good rendition of Waldorf salad
The entrée selection was varied to include beef stew, turkey dinner, chicken breast, grilled sirloin and filo dough filled with spinach and feta.
I chose the chicken Chardonnay, a breast of chicken in a perky mushroom wine sauce. I marveled, however, at how the miniature mushrooms were cut so precisely, as though they were rendered by machine. The chicken was served with an absolutely delicious potato gratin and fresh boiled green beans that were not overcooked.
Sauteed breast of chicken Chardonnay
My friend’s turkey dinner was less successful. The stuffing was a murky mess of dried bread that had congealed badly into a sorry mass. The turkey breast was very good, though, as was the same potato gratin and cranberry sauce made in-house.
Though the dressing was not up to snuff, the turkey dinner was well prepared
For dessert the waitress came around with the day’s offerings. These included panna cotta with lime, flourless chocolate cake, a blueberry mousse (local, I hoped) and a variation on pound cake that was called Court Cake. I asked what that was and the answer that came back from the kitchen was that it was served at court in England.
This was really a kind of pound cake with dried fruits, and somehow proper name, the quatre quarts cake, got lost in translation. Nonetheless,it was very good, the other desserts less so.
The "court" cake with caramel sauce and candied orange
While we were there the chair of the Culinary Arts Department, Geoffrey Boardman, came over to us because he knew my friend, Christopher Papagni, who joined me for lunch; he had just moved to Portland from New York where he was the executive vice president of the International Culinary Center. They talked shop a bit.
When I asked Boardman what percentage of the students graduated to work in Maine restaurants his answer was a resounding “90 to 100 percent.”
The school's training kitchen
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.