December 23, 2012

Dine Out Maine: Flaky Tart's once-a-month prix fixe is outstanding fare

By NANCY HEISER

There's nothing like stumbling across good food where you least expect it. The small village center of Winthrop, far from big city lights, indie films and Manhattans on the rocks, offered up a delightful surprise.

click image to enlarge

The Flaky Tart Cafe in Winthrop specializes in baked goods, sandwiches and soups, but once a month, co-owner and executive chef Rosa Stratton hosts a prix fixe dinner as she transforms the cafe into an elegant bistro.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

DINING REVIEW

THE FLAKY TART, 130 Main St., Winthrop. 377-8278; facebook.com/TheFlakyTartCafe

***

HOURS: Dinners offered once a month, usually on the third Saturday, with two seatings. Cafe open 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

PRICE RANGE: Soups, $4 to $4.50; lunch items, $7.50 to $9.50; prix fixe dinners, $32 to $35, depending on menu

BAR: None. BYOB; no corking fee.

CREDIT CARDS: Mastercard, Visa, Discover

KIDS: Welcome at cafe. Children would be less interested in the prix fixe dinner, but the restaurant will cook a child’s portion if requested.

VEGETARIAN-FRIENDLY: Yes. Lunch options include hummus, vegetarian quiche, Thai noodle salad and homemade vegetable stock. Request ahead for monthly dinner.

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

RESERVATIONS: Essential for dinner. Not taken for regular cafe hours.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: There is a step to enter.

BOTTOM LINE: At its once-a-month prix fixe dinners, The Flaky Tart combines homestyle elegance and delicious upscale comfort food in a fashionable atmosphere that melds the vintage and contemporary. During the day, the bakery and cafe offers homemade soups, sandwiches on homemade bread, quiches, wraps, espresso drinks and baked goods. Dinner service may become more frequent next summer.

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.

In October, Maine artist Amy Stacey Curtis exhibited her massive work, "Space," across the street from The Flaky Tart in the upper floors of a former mill that is now the Winthrop Commerce Center. The art is what brought us to the town of Winthrop, about 10 miles west of Augusta, in the first place.

After participating in the exhibit, we crossed the street to get coffee. There, we met Rosa Stratton, co-owner and executive chef of The Flaky Tart, which has been open since September 2011.

We learned that in addition to baked goods, soups and sandwiches, the cafe serves a prix fixe dinner one night a month. While sipping a latte and cappuccino and surrounded by tempting savory aromas, we decided to come back and give it a try.

One month later, Kim Cognata, the other owner and front-of-the-house manager, welcomed us like friends. The 18-seat cafe is already appealing in the daylight with vintage hutches, walls painted rose and pumpkin colors, dark wood tables of various sizes, and a funky outdoor sign with a three-dimensional pie. With the addition of a few white tablecloths and votive candles, it was transformed into a spot of home-style elegance.

Four of us sat at a roomy high-top table. Silverware came folded into cream-colored dish towels that served as napkins; dishes were contemporary white rectangles. Later, coffee came in grandma's Limoges china. The style attractively mixed contemporary lines with an accent of vintage frilliness.

Although its once-a-month dinner menu is seasonal and new each time, The Flaky Tart only serves one choice for each course. Diners must be content with that.

Lentil terrine started our evening. While the texture was a close approximation to pate, there was no doubt it was a dish of legumes. Homemade sweet potato chips accompanied, and they were soggy. Put that acceptable but undistinguished appetizer aside in your mind, because everything that followed it was a real pleasure.

Not often do you think of a salad as notable (maybe even the best dish of the evening), but here it was: A large curl of golden Parmesan tuile, crunchy and savory, holding ruffles of frisee as a visual and delicate contrast. The greens were dotted with pomegranates, cranberries and pistachios, and a Champagne vinaigrette dressing added a delightful tang to the whole.

Homemade garlic twists were soft and warm, and joined the flavor party with seasoned olive oil served alongside for dipping. We were well into our first BYOB bottle and feeling quite merry by the time the entree arrived.

Roast pork represented the best a talented home cook might serve, but plated with more flair and without giving parsimony the slightest thought. Several ¾-inch-thick, overlapping medallions of tenderloin were crusted with herbes de provence and black pepper. A very satisfying and savory dish.

Satisfying too was the side of braised red cabbage with apples -- coarsely chopped, vinegary, not too soft and ample; not the token tablespoon you get at some restaurants. Mashed potatoes had some welcome chunks, like grandma's, but the preparation wasn't as fluffy as it could be, perhaps because it was made with a waxier red potato. Flavor-wise, the two sides were just the right accompaniments to the central protein.

Dessert was a walnut tart that closely resembled pecan pie but with walnuts, and I kept expecting to taste the pecans. The addition of a bourbon caramel sauce gave the dessert cachet and novelty. Vanilla bean ice cream was the customary and perfect topping.

With a friendly ease and an unpretentious flourish, Cognata delivered each course to our table, describing each in a few sentences as she set them at our places. The whole spread cost $34, not including tip. Hot beverages were the only items on which we spent a few extra dollars.

Espresso was deep and delicious. Capuccino came with an uncustomary light and towering snowball of foam that you have to negotiate with a spoon before getting to the coffee -- unless, of course, you want to head out of this notable, occasional-dinner spot with a Got Milk? mustache.

Stratton told us she has tentative plans for a Mexican meal on Jan. 15, "to spice things up after the holiday blues. I like to keep it fun and interesting."

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

nancyheiser.com

 

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