CAMDEN — Francine Bistro, which opened in summer 2003, has entered the luxurious mature phase of an excellent restaurant, where exceptional dishes are put together by a skilled kitchen staff as a matter of course.

”We try to be really unpretentious, ” said chef/owner Brian Hill. ”I love to just take these little tricks and apply them to simple, comforting food, and hopefully that comes across as providing a really extraordinary experience.”

Some tricks include buying squid uncleaned to retain freshness, and picking up vegetables in person to keep them out of the refrigerator.

Hill’s restaurant can be subject to some of the discontent that dogs success. But the flavor of the meat at Francine, with its flowing juices – bursting out of both a beef steak and a venison chop – were prime examples of the perfection of good things done well.

It looks simple – the way an exceptional athlete makes a race look easy.

”We haven’t had a slow night in six months, ” said Hill, marveling at his good fortune.


A delicious drink special ($10) combined Three Crow Rum from Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery in Union with ginger beer and apple cider, mixing that new, buttery rum with spice and sweetness.

Francine’s wine list is just as good. A blend from Foris Vineyards Winery ($8) called Fly Over Red, made with merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc grapes, was dark red, bitter, strong and jammy – a terrific red wine. The list changes month to month, holding about 17 wines by the glass, like a Berger Gruner Veltliner ($9) from Austria.

The short menu has five appetizers, including one simple salad of lettuce, herbs and vinaigrette, and four entrees. Sweet corn soup with basil and black trumpet mushrooms ($9) and barbecued shrimp with black butter, Pabst Blue Ribbon, lime and pretzel bread ($13) were recent starters.

In another, Vermont quail ($15) had been fried with a crunchy coating. Cooked just right, its meat was tender and succulent, and the lively seasoned crust accompanied every mouthful. Chicken liver mousse oozed out under the hot quail pieces, ready to be scooped up on forks and slices of Francine’s fabulous bread. Limp, dark green arugula contributed metallic bitterness, and shards of green apple scattered on top added their sweetness to the intense and savory Calvados glaze.

The bread at Francine is dense, chewy and full of complex, sour umami. I love that stuff, spread with butter served in a little white metal cup.

Venison au poivre ($28) came with local porcinis, lots of peas, some green beans and smooth root vegetable puree. The venison loin chop was so deeply flavored and rich, it felt like a feast to eat it, although according to Hill, this serving isn’t large at 8 ounces of meat.


Our excellent waiter, Jim Haines, said the puree held turnips and rutabaga, which gave it a light texture. Potato predominated, and this puree, silky and smooth, was a perfect backdrop for all the hot peppery flavors of the meat, which was raised at a Pennsylvania farm.

Steak frites brought another experience of astonishing full flavor. The tender, very juicy beef was highlighted by its own peppery dark-brown crust. The meat is dry aged for three weeks (an exceptionally long time), transforming it into something far better tasting than most meat and exceptionally satisfying.

But the frites, deep brown and very crunchy, were too salty for me, the one flaw among all the dishes. The waiter asked if they were too salty, and was perfectly ready to replace them, but I didn’t speak for my companion, who had ordered the dish.

”Sometimes too much salt can get on there, and it’s better to fix it right away, ” he said when reached on the phone.

At the restaurant that night, he said the fried potatoes are tossed in a combination of pulverized herbs de Provence and garlic butter after they are fried, which gave them a rich wonderful tang.

Roasted cod ($29) with tender white beans and squid Basquaise was perfect. This time, vibrant saltiness highlighted the sweet cod, its flesh still juicy under a crisp brown skin. The line-caught Chatham cod is sprinkled with Maine sea salt a few hours before it is cooked and served, giving it a great meaty texture, Hill said.


His version of Basquaise sauce involves Serrano ham, hot and sweet green peppers, cherry tomatoes and celery leaf; the tender, sweet squid fit in that mix perfectly.

Tea-brined chicken ($24) – the tea is Lapsang Souchong – with greens, farro, pumpkin and wild mushroom was the fourth entrée that night.

The dishes the next night were likely all different, although there is always steak frites, a simple salad and soup on the changing menu. Hill promised an inexpensive gnocchi and house pasta dish later this year, and Caldwell Farms short ribs will likely be on a future menu as well. Francine buys all they have and, according to both Hill and Haines, they are incredible. After tasting the steak, I believe it.

Chocolate torte ($8), a bittersweet chocolate cake neither too moist nor too dry, was served with smoked almond ice cream, great whipped cream, small balls of pear and tiny slices of kiwi in a smooth, vanilla-scented custard sauce. My friends had sworn off sugar, and I enjoyed every bit of it myself.

Big mugs of coffee, dark and full-flavored in both regular and decaffeinated versions, completed a wonderful dinner.

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of ”Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s Web site,

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