May 6, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Shepherd's Pie: Terrific food, range of prices and great service

By Shonna Milliken Humphrey

When Shepherd's Pie opened in Rockport Harbor, it received a near-immediate "Best New Restaurant" nomination from the James Beard Foundation.

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Shepherd’s Pie opened with a splash – a James Beard nomination – and now appears to have settled in for the long haul as a leader on the Camden-Rockport restaurant scene.

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18 Central St., Rockport


HOURS: 5 p.m. to close daily


PRICE RANGE: $4 to market price, with most items in the $15 to $20 range. Plan on $8 to $12 for each glass of wine; $30 to $40 for a bottle.

BAR: Full bar


VEGETARIAN: Yes, but limited to smaller selections. That noted, those willing to assemble from side dishes or make small adjustments will eat very well.


KIDS: No children's menu



BOTTOM LINE: Broody interior serving upscale pub food with a flair for international influence. The former "it" restaurant, Shepherd's Pie seems to have outlasted its new kid reputation and is settling in for the long haul. If you are in Rockport, check it out. The service -- attentive, engaging and keenly aware of the products and process -- is among the best in Maine.

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.

With all the speedy attention, this location became the area's "it" place, and the menu -- a peculiar blend of Asian-inspired traditional pub fare and upscale comfort food -- represented yet another kitchen capitalizing on the gastro pub trend.

But while this "gastro pub" designation applies to Shepherd's Pie, it does not encompass it.

We know chef/owner Brian Hill creates excellent cuisine, and we know manager Jim Haines is that rare find of career front-of-the-house professional -- equal parts aware, attuned and attentive. The bigger question, it seems, is whether a restaurant bestowed with immediate "it" status can sustain itself over time. My answer is, "I hope so."

Ornate metal ceilings and dark wood accents give the space a broody, masculine sensibility. (Arguably, the rainy day and gray harbor view assisted this assessment.) The physical menu, with the night's specials listed on a torn-in-half piece of paper, feels casual, if not indifferent.

And, for a location whose eponym includes cultural variants from across the world -- cottage pie, hachis Parmentier, Cumberland Pie, pastel de papa -- it evokes a much simpler sort of cuisine than it offers.

Even with a humble name and a "no reservations" policy, Shepherd's Pie is not necessarily meant for the working class. With a menu divided by "Bar Snacks," "Plates," "From the Grill" and "Sides," Hill has established a variety of options at a variety of (somewhat confusing) price points.

For instance, the Chicken Liver Toast and its very generous serving of pate is priced at just $7. The Macaroni and Cheese, billed as a $10 side, contained enough for a full meal. But the five nickel-sized wood roast oysters? No matter how aromatic the chimi churri, $17 seemed excessive.

This fluid sort of identity is the restaurant's biggest issue, because even if it's a little randomly inspired, the food itself is terrific.

I asked our server for a Bar Snack recommendation on the adventure level somewhere between the Spicy Peanuts ($4) and the Curried Pickled Eggs ($5). He suggested the above-mentioned Chicken Liver Toast.

This pate is meant to seduce pate haters and inspire pate lovers. With a creme brulee-style torching of the top, the large ramekin is served alongside three spoonfuls of housemade mustard: Purple, Red Pepper and Apple Rosemary. Spread the smooth pate along the oblong crispy bread, dip into the mustard and enjoy. At just $7, it's also one of the menu's best value propositions. There was plenty to share.

Nick, the server, was engaging and aware of the menu. He made the people at my table laugh, and his wine recommendations (the Pinot Project's 2011 Pinot Noir and a 2011 Tomero Malbec, each $12 per glass and $44 per bottle) were satisfying -- not exciting, but fine.

Nick also suggested the apparently wildly popular Fried Clam Tacos (market price). In addition to lightly breaded and crispy-fried whole clams, these three soft corn tortillas overflowed with avocado, cabbage and green tomato. We toasted Nick's suggestion.

From the grill, it was a battle between the pork belly sandwich with apple rosemary mustard ($14) or Grilled Duck PB&J ($18). The grilled duck peanut butter and jelly sandwich won, mostly from a curiosity standpoint. (Duck in peanut butter?)

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