September 16, 2013

Dine Out Maine: At Seabright, celebrated chef elevates the humble pizza pie

By NANCY HEISER

The blue awning shelters outdoor tables along Camden's waterfront walk, just down the hill from Main Street. Stenciled on this covering is the restaurant's name, Seabright, suggesting that this may be a good place to duck in for seafood, right?

click image to enlarge

Chloe Squibb chops scallions in the kitchen as she prepares for the dinner hour at Seabright in Camden, where the staff creates an imaginative array of wood-fired pizzas.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

SEABRIGHT

Seven Public Landing, Camden

230-1414; seabrightcamden.com

****

HOURS: 5 p.m. to close daily

CREDIT CARDS: No; cash or check only

PRICE RANGE: $4.99 to $21.99

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes, but not pizzas

KIDS: Yes

RESERVATIONS: No

BAR: Full. Special cocktails, homemade sangria, small selection of distinctive Italian wines by the glass, carafe or bottle; four beer taps

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Exceptionally good, creative wood-fired pizzas using local ingredients and served in a casual, subterranean setting along Camden's harbor.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

* Poor

**Fair 

***Good

****Excellent

***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

Wrong. This, the former home of beloved pizza purveyor Paolina's Way, is still primarily pies.

But not just the red-sauce-and-mozzarella standard -- although you can get that too, and with house-made cheese, for $12.99. This one offers unusual wood-fired beauties created by or under the tutelage of Brian Hill, the chef/owner of two highly regarded Maine restaurants, Francine Bistro and Shepherd's Pie.

The latter garnered a James Beard award nomination for best new restaurant in 2010, and Hill himself was nominated this year for the foundation's Best Chef Northeast for his work at Francine.

If you don't know of Hill's reputation and you stumble across Seabright, open since April, unexpected bliss awaits. Hand-tossed and formed 10-by-14 rectangles of dough, a mottle of char underneath and slightly bubbled edges -- these are exceptionally good pizzas. And I haven't even mentioned the toppings yet.

The first composition: Sweet corn puree, gruyere and caramelized leeks, with black trumpet mushrooms adding a delicate flavor and dark accent to this golden sweet-and-savory topping. It was love at first bite that has not waned; this pie continues to haunt my memory. But the mushrooms and cave-aged cheese don't come cheap. The pie's price tag is $21.99.

A pizza decked out with hearty chunks of house-made sausage, further energized with more fennel then topped with Romano and, get this -- whipped lemon cream -- was a remarkable mix.

The airy, just barely sweetened topping similar to creme fraiche added an unexpected twist that I found delightful. But my two friends thought it distracting. You have the opportunity to test it yourself, as it's a regular menu item ($15.99).

There was unanimous acclaim for an appetizer of house-made capicola served with light, thinly sliced, house-made focaccia with whipped, herb-flecked lardo that added a savory and creamy touch to the cool and spicy meat slices. This substantial appetizer also struts the kitchen's skills ($12.99).

If only we had room to try other pizzas. Squash blossoms, roasted mushrooms, prosciutto with fig jam, crab with fiery chilies and more are among the options. No pepperoni in sight, folks.

If, longing for lobster, you order the white bean and lobster salad appetizer, you may be disappointed. The white beans were nicely firm and carried a char (perhaps they were finished in the wood oven), the greens and cherry tomatoes were fresh and crisp, and the lobster amounted to about six bite-sized chunks.

But the whole was heavily doused with a balsamic vinaigrette that unforgivably disguised the seafood (and at $16.99, it was no bargain). It may satisfy tourists who are squeamish and want to say they tried lobster, but I thought this dish dispensable.

We did not try the wood-roasted mussels, but they are a regular menu item and probably the better seafood choice. And, significantly, they are served with that excellent focaccia.

That salad was the only culinary misstep we encountered on a Sunday evening's supper.

Our one dessert, a white chocolate tiramisu, was deeply flavored with a dark roast amidst delicate cake layers and dusted with a banana-and-curry-flavored topping -- a fabulous finish ($6).

Nonfood quibbles to management: Please provide a spatula for diners to negotiate the slices from pizza stand to plate. Two forks don't do the job. And how about a plate that can accommodate those wonderful hearty slabs without their corners hanging over the edge, instead of tiny dessert rounds?

Even a casual eatery should concern itself with this kind of customer ease. Service was appropriately informal, but a quick table swipe between main and dessert course would have kept our elbows clean of stray white beans and toppings.

Seabright's setting is cave-like, as the restaurant is below street level on one side where the stone foundation takes up a wall. The entrance at the other end fronts the restaurant's outdoor seating and the harbor-side walk. The interior walls are painted bright blue, the tables and booths are basic wood, and the busy wood-fired oven and surrounding workspace is central to the action.

Choose between the dark recesses at the back or brighter tables and bar at the front, or sit outside next to the tidy woodpile and enjoy a cool evening breeze.

Wherever you settle, be sure to bring a check or plenty of cash, as the restaurant does not take credit cards. And you can run up quite a bill if you opt for a few courses, like we did. Our two appetizers, two pizzas, three drinks and one dessert came to $120 with tip.

On this Sunday night in late August, the restaurant was half-full and seemed to be still undiscovered. But now you know. If you're a pizza gourmand, a visit to Seabright is a must for your shortlist.

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at:

nancyheiser.com

 

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