February 3, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Food surprises at comfortable, fun Montsweag Roadhouse

By NANCY HEISER

About a year ago, a friend pulled me aside and claimed that Montsweag Roadhouse served the best fish tacos anywhere. This kind of comment requires investigation. And so my frequent drive-bys finally became a stop-in-and-dine.

click image to enlarge

The bar at the Montsweag Roadhouse is a popular gathering spot featuring 14 taps and a wine list of about 20 bottles.

Courtesy photos

DINING REVIEW

MONTSWEAG ROADHOUSE 942 U.S. Route 1, Woolwich. 443-6563; montsweagroadhouse.com

***1/2

HOURS: Serves food 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Bar open until 11 p.m.; until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday

CREDIT CARDS: All major

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $5 to $11; burgers and sandwiches, $8 to $10; entrees, $12 to $21

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes, a few choices

KIDS: Welcome; separate menu

RESERVATIONS: Yes

BAR: Full. This is a large and popular watering hole. Fourteen taps and a descriptive wine list of about 20 bottles, most available by the glass, $5 to $8. Entree specials on the menu are listed with suggested wine pairing.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Montsweag Roadhouse's funky red exterior suggests strictly pub fare, but there's more. While burgers and sandwiches bear customary prices, you'll find some delicious and ample main dishes for well under $20 in a casual and unpretentious atmosphere. Big groups as well as locals seem to flock here, as there are menu choices for many tastes, large spaces to spread out and a high-spirited vibe.

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.

From the outside, Montsweag Roadhouse looks the same as it did 30 or so years ago, when it was Montsweag Farm Restaurant. Since the late 1980s, it's gone through a few changes and owners, said Chris Johnston, who has co-owned the eatery since 2006.

But out front, it's still a wobbly red farmhouse set close to the road with a billboard-sized sign, lest you miss it as you tool along this undeveloped stretch of Route 1 north of Bath.

Inside, it seems more spacious and lighter. The front room has a large circular bar, hanging numbered mugs for the mug club, and a few tables. Live music happens here three or four nights a week.

In the big adjacent room, seating can be arranged to accommodate groups of all sizes. And there were some very large contingents on the Saturday night we visited.

We settled into a booth. Its lumpy bench suggested it hadn't been updated in some years. Yes, this is a roadhouse -- a down-home, come-as-you-are, laid-back and friendly place where you could put your feet on the furniture, if it had low furniture. In this respect, Montsweag is not unlike its earlier incarnations.

But something has happened here food-wise. While pub grub predominates -- steak, pizza, turkey club, fried pickles, taco salad -- other features have been added as part of a weekly specials rotation. And for the most part, they are very good.

A delicious arancini appetizer was one, its crunchy, deep-fried crust yielding to a sphere of delicate risotto flavored with Maine shrimp and studded with corn kernels ($8).

The Thai curry chicken special ($18) delighted from visual presentation -- sliced, moist grilled chicken overlaying fresh vegetables and jasmine rice, the whole not too soupy -- to the last bite of its well-balanced, zesty sauce.

Haddock puttanesca, served with linguine, had a fiery quality too, but not so much that the olives and capers were camouflaged by the red sauce. This basic, flavorful and ample entree rang up at $18.

From the regular menu, steak tips were a bit chewy, yet grilled just right to the requested rare. The flavor-rich burgundy reduction with onion, green pepper and mushroom made the dish, along with the garlic mashed potato side -- a wintry pleasure, especially coming in at $15. Bargain hunters, take note.

Those fish tacos ($10) were very good too, even if they didn't quite reach my friend's hyperbolic assessment. Three flour tortillas held a moderate portion of grilled fish (you can have it fried instead, or get salmon) and avocado slices.

Add some of the chunky pico de gallo or the vibrant cilantro mayonnaise, a house specialty -- both are served alongside -- to make them as pungent as you want. A mess of excellent sweet potato fries came with the tacos for an additional $2.

Don't bother ordering the straight house salad -- iceberg lettuce, a single too-thick slice of cucumber, quarters of orange tomato and rings of red onion ($3 and $6). What are they thinking, putting this feeble item out? The kitchen is much better than this.

A different species entirely is the Roadhouse salad (you'll pay more -- $8), with mixed baby greens, slices of roasted red pepper and candied pecans, served with a balsamic vinaigrette. Although not an unusual combination, this one is the much better choice for the greens alone. Cobb, Caesar, steak, taco and Greek are other salad options ($6 to $12).

Service was efficient, ultra-friendly and consistent with the atmosphere; this is not high tea at Downton Abbey. One particularly nice feature? Entrees were delivered all at once by two servers. This small but significant gesture was the case at all the tables we spied. No guest sat waiting for other dishes to arrive.

The list of homemade desserts caught our attention, and we devoured a delicious, warmed-up eggnog bread pudding with bread cubes intact but soft and vanilla ice cream atop.

Cheesecake du jour was grasshopper -- a chocolate crumb crust, creme de menthe cheesy part, and a slate of firm dark chocolate above -- an excellent mixture of textures and flavors (both $6).

Skip the ubiquitous chocolate lava cake -- it's the only dessert not made in-house -- and try something new, yet still comfortable and fun.

In essence, that's the spirit of Montsweag Roadhouse.

This eatery, which in some respects resembles a long-ago roadside inn (notably the basic, rustic wood decor and the potbellied stove), has cultivated a niche as a good-times spot, but it has also evolved with the changing food scene. The regulars keep coming, but food lovers in the area are making it their own too.

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

nancyheiser.com

 

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