November 18, 2012

Dine Out Maine: Go west to 91 South to be wined and dined to perfection

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

The plotline is familiar: After much seeking, the girl falls deeply in love with the boy who lives next door. Except in this case, the boy next door is the restaurant around the corner -- and the "restaurant" is actually 91 South, a wine club tucked inside Gorham's Pine Crest Inn.

click image to enlarge

In the kitchen at 91 South in Gorham, chef Noah Gaston applies the flame to a Greek cheese appetizer called saganaki.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

91 SOUTH AT PINE CREST INN

91 South St., Gorham

839-2495; pinecrestmaine.com

****1/2

HOURS: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday to Saturday

PRICE RANGE: $6 to $28

BAR: Full bar and impressive cellar with 65 wines, each bottle priced no more than $10 above retail cost

CREDIT CARDS: All major

KIDS: No children's menu

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

RESERVATIONS: Expected

BOTTOM LINE: For a customized, private, romantic (or just friendly) evening, 91 South at the Pine Crest Inn showcases chef Noah Gaston's thoughtfully prepared and delicately presented creations. With wine bottles priced no more than $10 over retail cost, the wine club concept feels like a locals-only secret -- friendly and unfussy, with extraordinarily well-attuned food.

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.

What is a wine club? Well, 91 South is a private food and wine establishment with membership open to the public for a dollar annual fee. Sound cool? It is.

Like a speakeasy, the dining room is accessed by the Pine Crest Inn's side door, and this side door opened directly to the small kitchen where chef Noah Gaston was hefting a cookie sheet loaded with roasted lobster shells. At first I thought I had misdirected and moved to apologize, but before I could speak, jovial innkeeper Matt Mattingly appeared, double-checked his reservation list and welcomed us by name.

He led us to the dining room, situated about five steps to the left of the kitchen. Small and dimly lit by suspended mini fixtures and table votives, I counted seven tables and an L-shaped, two-toned wooden corner bar. The overall decorative effect was tired but undeniably cozy, and the padded seats were comfortable.

On this Thursday night there was just one other patron. Angelo, we learned, owns the Gorham House of Pizza just down the street, and caught between Matt and Angelo's friendly banter, my husband Trav and I felt immediately like regulars.

Matt personally hand-selects each bottle of wine -- and, oh, the wine! According to the website, bottles at 91 South are never priced more than $10 above retail cost, and with 65 by-the-glass options, we placed ourselves in his expertise. I requested an accessible red wine that, if I loved, I could afford to regularly buy and drink in my living room, and Matt brought a 2008 Bogle Vineyards Phantom ($13 a glass; $30 a bottle) blend.

In my experience, people either love or hate blends. I love them, believing the excitement of the mix can be part of a wine's anticipation. This wine, a Zinfandel, Petite Syrah and Mourvedre combination, was super-smooth, and I did, indeed, seek it out later that week.

Not a wine drinker? No problem. The bar is fully stocked, and Trav worked his way through a tasting flight of Johnny Walker Blue, Gold and Black. Interestingly (and proving my cheap date status), I preferred the Black's smoky taste (and much lower-price) to both the peaty Gold and even the ridiculously mellow, high-end Blue.

As cool as the wine concept is, the star at 91 South is the food. I do not know how Noah Gaston came to 91 South, but his culinary vision is, well, visionary, and he prepared a memorable meal worthy of any fine dining kitchen.

That sounds like inflated praise, but I do not exaggerate. We started with the Fall Harvest Salad ($9) -- golden and red beets, spinach, cabernet cranberries, roasted squash, toasted pumpkin seeds and aged gouda, with additional flavors of maple, balsamic and onion. This complex salad is made simple with its unified autumn theme, and the flavors -- each distinct -- combined to create an orchestral feast. (Yes, I just typed "orchestral feast." It was that good.)

The Shaved Brussels Salad ($9) with toasted walnuts, local honey and pancetta mixed with pecorino and parmesan cheese felt inspired. Presented in a narrow, rectangular-shaped dish, this cured meat-lover's salad balanced salty and sweet in perfect proportion.

Next, the appetizer. I learned that a saganaki is basically a small Greek frying pan. Similar to how "casserole" signifies both the dish itself and the food it contains, saganaki usually refers to some form of fried cheese. At 91 South, the Saganaki ($9) is Ouzo-flamed Greek cheese with tomato, onion and olives.

(Continued on page 2)

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