Thursday, December 5, 2013
By Meredith Goad email@example.com
PORTLAND — New York City chef Carmen Gonzalez is a Puerto Rico native who owned her own restaurant in Miami, competed on season two of "Top Chef Masters," and now hosts a new Spanish-language cooking show that reaches food lovers in 18 million Latin American households.
Chef Carmen Gonzalez, above, in the kitchen at The Danforth Inn in Portland, where she is busily preparing for the planned May opening of Carmen at The Danforth. Gonzalez’s plans for the summer menu emphasize seafood with a Latin twist.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer
The Danforth Inn owner, Kimberly Swan, with dog Ava, in the “salon,” where guests are served cocktails and hors d’oeuvres before dinner.
Gordon Chibroski/ Staff Photographer
After doing all of that, her next gig is a little unexpected: Gonzalez is moving to Portland to open a new restaurant at The Danforth Inn, a luxury inn owned by her good friend, Kimberly Swan.
"Carmen at The Danforth," scheduled to open in mid- to late May, will be something really different for Portland – a small, 40-seat boutique restaurant inside an historic inn that has a celebrity chef in command of the kitchen full-time.
The summer menu has just been completed, and is heavy on Maine seafood served with a Latin twist.
Appetizers, ordered for the table, include lobster fritters with Key lime mayo, empanadas de pescado, and crispy pork shoulder bites with chunky chimichurri.
First plates include black sea bass ceviche and crispy fried oysters, followed by second plates of roast monkfish casserole with yuca mash a la Criolla, or arroz con mariscos with a side of crispy plantains.
One menu item, roasted Lola duck with corn flan and late vintage port sauce, is one of Gonzalez's favorites. It features a heritage breed of duck that is a cross between a Pekin and a male heirloom mallard, and has been described as a leaner bird with more robust flavor.
"To be honest with you, I wasn't thinking about opening another restaurant," Gonzalez said. "I had just taken that out of my mind. I had said, 'I don't think I want to do this again.' "
"I'll tell you what it is," she said. "I'm kind of old-fashioned in everything I do. I like to do everything as close to perfection as I can. I always try to be very sure before I agree to do anything, because I become so neurotic about what it is that I'm doing."
But then she met Kim Swan, a perfectionist after her own heart.
'YOU NEED TO OPEN A RESTAURANT'
The two women met through a mutual friend. They tell the same story about walking into the 19th-century Federal-style mansion a day or two after Swan bought it in April 2009. The first words out of Gonzalez's mouth when she walked through the door were, "You need to open a restaurant here."
"When I went to The Danforth and I just saw the charm and the elegance, I just fell in love with it," Gonzalez said. "Kim has such taste. That place is beautiful."
Swan's first reaction was thanks, but no thanks: "I said, 'Oh, I don't do restaurants.' "
But when Gonzalez returned that fall to participate in Harvest on the Harbor, the subject came up again. And it kept coming up.
Finally, last fall, Swan started to entertain the idea seriously, and by January, she and Gonzalez were furiously planning their joint endeavor and negotiating details.
"Mostly, my concern was that I didn't want to affect the overnight guest experience," Swan said. "I was concerned about noise. But we've taken care of all of that. It's not going to be a late-night thing at all."
Gonzalez also convinced her there would not be a lot of clanging of pots and loud music coming from the kitchen.
"She runs a tight ship," Swan said, "and that's why I'm cool with it, because I know she'll make sure it's done right."
Dinner hours at Carmen at The Danforth will be 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Gonzalez also plans to serve Sunday brunch.
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Carmen Gonzalez grew up in a small fishing village in Puerto Rico. She opened her first restaurant at 19 in San Juan and has since worked at highly regarded restaurants in Miami and New York.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer