August 14, 2011

Dine Out Maine: Earth to diner: Come experience an out-of-this-world meal

By NANCY HEISER

Travel a speck of this planet, drive into an exclusive resort called Hidden Pond, and end up at Earth, a new restaurant. The name may seem a bit grandiose, but you'll want to enter its orbit.

click image to enlarge

Earth’s surroundings say rustic, chic and lively; the service is skilled, and the food exceptional. A visit to the Kennebunkport restaurant, which is open evenings, can include a stroll among the vegetable gardens, where nary a weed is to be seen.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

EARTH (at Hidden Pond resort), 354 Goose Rocks Road, Kennebunkport. 967-9050; hiddenpondmaine.com

*****

HOURS: 5:30 to 9:45 p.m. (last reservation taken)

CREDIT CARDS: All major

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $10 to $18; entrees, $18 to $39; $45 for wood oven roasted lobster

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes. Will accommodate any dietary restrictions.

KIDS: Welcome

RESERVATIONS: Highly recommended

BAR: Full. Includes specialty cocktails and mocktails, three single-malt scotches and four beers on tap. Sommelier selects wines, an international and distinctive list of about 75 bottles ($30 to $630); half are under $100. About 20 choices by the glass, $9 to $17.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Earth, which opened in June, brings an exhilarating flair and sophistication to Maine. Prepare to be blown away by the food -- its creativity, artistry and depth. All senses are involved in this dining experience. Dishes are expensive, but the food is exceptional. The service is skilled and unstuffy. The atmosphere of Earth's spacious dark wood building with vaulted ceilings, a massive fireplace, porch and gardens is at once rustic, chic and lively.

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.

At 8 p.m., the free-standing building that houses the eatery -- it resembles an immaculate barn -- pulses with energy. The bar is draped with people. The leather couch holds cocktail sippers enjoying the fire in the massive hearth. They wait for space to open up in the main section, on the porch or in the private dining shed out back.

Uber-chef Ken Oringer -- a James Beard award winner and founder of five acclaimed Boston restaurants -- is the man behind this exciting and secluded spot. Co-chefs Kevin Walsh and Meghann Ward work under his direction.

The natural world inspires the restaurant's decor. Guests enter to an aroma of fresh-cut wood, which comes from the "wallpaper" of cross-sectioned logs. Tables are made of rough-hewn timber. Branches hang from the ceiling, sprinkled with tiny lights.

A wall of liquor bottles extends up to the vaulted ceiling over the bar, adding color to the dark barn's aura. Chic pendant lights illuminate. Staff in snug black T-shirts ably guide us through everything we want to know about the menu, wine, the resort. The soundtrack carries an up-tempo beat.

Step outside the rear screen door (I didn't check to see if the sound of a good country slam followed), and stroll the winding path through the vegetable gardens. There's not a weed in sight.

Much of what gets on the plate comes from here. Call it hyper-local. Home gardeners know about produce from soil right outside their door, but they live with a few weeds. The food at Earth is as flawless as the garden.

Cucumber melon gazpacho ($15) is a work of art. Foam circles of yogurt are arranged on a pale green palate of soup speckled with borage blooms and chili oil. Ground Marcona almonds, cracked coriander and basil seeds that have been marinated in water with lemon verbena, salt and sugar add surprising and subtle new flavors and texture to this slightly grainy and refreshingly cool -- not cold -- potage.

The kitchen's peekytoe crab toasts with avocado and French cocktail sauce ($18) demonstrate how a standard appetizer becomes sublime. To deconstruct: the bread is grilled, the avocado perfectly ripe, the crab abundant and fresh, the piquant sauce an enhancement as opposed to its own feature. The appetizer is served slightly warm. The composition becomes greater than its components.

All dishes that follow are similarly executed to near perfection and delight. Temperature is considered a seasoning in the minds of excellent cooks, and Earth has it nailed. Pairings and preparations go well beyond appropriate. They are novel and masterful.

Take Toro corn, for example, an appetizer Oringer created for his tapas restaurant by that name (Toro) in Boston. It comes as three half ears rolled in grated cotija, garlic aioli and pimento ($10). Pricey this may be, but the sweet corn mingled with salt/garlic/smoke flavors is ridiculously good.

A creamy dish of handmade cavatelli with English peas, guanciale and pecorino ($16/$32) shows that the kitchen knows pasta. The peas are bright green and slightly crisp with just-picked freshness from the garden.

For seafood paella, the chefs mostly use whatever is fresh and nearby. This time, it's butter clams -- available for about three weeks, says our server -- along with mussels, calamari, Maine shrimp, lobster, Manila clams and a tiny, whole braised octopus that's almost too attractive to eat.

Saffron, sofrito and confit onions season this cornucopia of seafood served with heirloom Bomba rice from Valencia. Sea beans -- those ocean-dwelling spears that look like skinny asparagus -- brightly garnish and intensify the briny flavor. It is $35. (For the record, while he relishes this all-seafood paella, my companion misses the traditional chorizo of the standard preparation.)

Lamb chops are slow roasted and tender, and come with a delicious and novel sidebar: artichoke hearts filled with braised, ground lamb shoulder. A gorgeous ricotta-stuffed squash blossom adds color and buoyancy to the plate ($39).

Grilled skirt steak with wild mushrooms is richly flavored, chimichurri adding an exotic note ($39).

Buttermilk fried chicken, deboned and juicy, is served over bacon-braised Swiss chard. Add sweet potato corn bread and pickled watermelon rind, and you've got a divine Southern alchemy ($30).

The kitchen assembles a strawberry shortcake like none other. Dabs of whipped cream flavored with lemon verbena nestle next to three buttons of warm biscuit, underscored by fruit and candied fennel. It's spread on a large plate with swirls of connecting sauce and white space. It's kind of like an Alexander Calder mobile.

Do I exaggerate? Maybe. But the flavor meld surpasses any strawberry shortcake I remember. A rectangle of an intensely dark chocolate cremeux, topped with banana ice cream shaped like an egg, is another luscious finish.

Oh my.

Looking for a destination meal? Head for the barn, the gardens, the fire. Savor an extraordinary dinner. You've found heaven. At Earth.

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer who lives near Portland. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications.

 

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