March 26, 2013

Ventilation issues shut down Carmen at the Danforth

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Carmen at the Danforth, the critically acclaimed Latin-inspired restaurant in The Danforth Inn, will not reopen because of problems with the kitchen's ventilation system and other issues.

click image to enlarge

Chef Carmen Gonzalez is pictured at the Danforth Inn in this April 11, 2012 file photo.

Photo by John Ewing/staff photographer

The 40-seat restaurant was open for only eight months but got stellar reviews and hosted dinners with guest chefs Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia in Chicago and Barbara Lynch, a well-known restaurateur in Boston.

Carmen opened in May after the inn's owner, Kim Swan, remodeled the kitchen and added equipment, including a fryolator, to turn the downstairs of the bed-and-breakfast into a full-service restaurant for her friend, New York chef Carmen Gonzalez.

"Once you go from a bed-and-breakfast to a full-service restaurant, you just go into a different part of the fire code," Swan said.

The main problem, revealed during a business license inspection in December, is that the kitchen's HVAC hood system was being ventilated out the side of the building. The system carries out food odors and gas-laden vapors that eventually could combust.

"We had that on the side of the building, and we were wrong," Swan said. "The fire department wants it to come out of the building and go up to the roof."

Capt. Chris Pirone of the Portland Fire Department's Fire Prevention Bureau said grease can accumulate in a restaurant's hood system, and fires can start there.

"If you have a fire in a hood system that's ventilating just on the side of the building," he said, "then it will catch the next building on fire or the outside of that building."

The system had already caught the eye of the city's Historic Preservation Program, which didn't like its location.

"Initially, we had approved -- even though the vent was installed without prior approval -- we could approve the vent as it was and they were going to introduce some landscaping to obscure it," said Deb Andrews, the Historic Preservation Program's manager.

"Then the fire department said that direct venting from that window opening was not going to meet fire safety codes and it would have to have duct work leading to the roof, where it would be even more visible and, I think, a fairly costly proposition."

Swan and Gonzalez said that addressing the issue would have cost "tens of thousands" of dollars, which couldn't be justified with the limited amount of seating in the restaurant.

"When we closed in December, we were just trying to find a solution and were thinking this was just going to be a few months and we were going to be able to reopen for the season and be fine," Gonzalez said from her home in New York. "And, unfortunately, for what has been checked and quoted, it's just way too expensive."

Gonzalez was a contestant on the second season of the reality TV show "Top Chef Masters" and has her own Spanish-language TV show, "La Chispa de Chef Carmen Gonzalez."

The Danforth Inn is a Federal-era residence that was built in 1823. Calling the building "a very significant structure," Andrews said, "I think everyone was trying to figure out a way to make it work, but it was not an easy fit."

Swan said other problems contributed to the restaurant's closure, which was "just a business decision."

She said she and Gonzalez are still good friends, and she has "no issue with the fire department and the historical society."

The inn can still serve breakfast. Baking and catering are still allowed. It just can't be a full-service restaurant unless the venting is fixed.

Gonzalez called it a "very sad situation," and said she would consider coming back to Portland if the right opportunity presented itself.

"I absolutely loved my time there," she said. "I loved my restaurant. I loved my clients. I think that we were able to create something that was really magical and really special because of the inn."

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

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