May 6, 2013

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

By Shonna Milliken Humphrey

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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.

Once I thought about the flavor profile, it made sense. This spicy peanut butter -- layered with sweet chili jelly, grilled onion and cilantro, and augmented by the texture of duck -- seems like a PB&J sandwich meant for Asian flavor-loving grown-ups.

And the side of fries served with the sandwich? If there was a trophy for fries, Shepherd's Pie would win. Petite shoestrings are impossibly crisp because they are narrow in circumference, and this allows for maximum "crisp to soft" ratio.

"Smoked Alewives in Grass" Caesar ($9), with garlic croutons and fried capers, can be misleading. Those expecting a traditional Caesar salad will have expectations redefined -- and not just redefined, but blown away.

There is no dairy in this salad, and the flavor originates from the smoked alewives themselves. Add massive fried capers and some cucumber crunch to the large bowl of finely shredded lettuce, and the experience is more Caesar-inspired than strictly interpreted.

Most food historians agree that the "Caesar" in question was Italian restaurateur Caesar Cardini in the 1920s, not B.C.'s Julius, so inspiration is a pretty relative concept. If you enjoy big, smoky, briny flavors, I suspect you will embrace this dish. If you are expecting a more traditional, sedate approach, perhaps not.

The Wood Roast Oysters ($17) from the Plate section were my least-favorite item because, as noted earlier, even with the chimi churri butter, $17 seemed like a lot to pay for five nickel-sized oysters, no matter how aromatic and flavorful. But I will allow for the law of diminishing returns and suggest that my palate might not be attuned enough to taste the subtleties.

Shepherd's Pie ($21) came next because, really, how could I not order it? Made with braised lamb (cooked in chicken stock, I was told) and buttermilk mashed potatoes, there are no surprises here. Meat and vegetables, topped with mashed potatoes. It is as tender, as layered with subtle and simple flavors, and as rainy-day satisfying as comfort food should be.

The Broccoli Rabe ($7), billed as a side, was plenty for two to share, and this should be highlighted on the menu more prominently. This vegetable dish balanced tender and crisp, and the color of the tomato, olives and sheep's milk feta brightened the dull day.

For dessert, the Lime Tart ($7) arrived, and its purple-pink color confused me. Turns out, the lime tart has a grapefruit cream topping. This is not a bad thing, but because grapefruit is among the few flavors I avoid, I had to trust my tablemate, who described the dish as "smooth, light and refreshing."

I gobbled up the almond shortbread crust, however. The crust showed a skilled pastry hand, and I would have happily eaten just that had it been offered in cookie form.

Overall, I think Shepherd's Pie is a great spot for Rockport, but I wish it was more descriptive in its labeling. That noted, I am imagining one of those times when mental algebra is needed to accommodate, say, vegetarian, homestyle, haute cuisine and gluten-free sensibilities in a mid-coast area that also has a variety of price ranges, a full bar and availability on a Monday night.

Or a place to stop for a drink and feel like the food is worth the money spent. Or just to try something new, like duck in a spicy PB&J.

When asked to recommend a restaurant in the Rockport area, I find myself suggesting Shepherd's Pie to all manner of diners, over and over again. That, I think, helps define a restaurant's long-range success.

At least, I hope so.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel "Show Me Good Land."


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