One of the great pleasures of this job is visiting a restaurant I don’t know and discovering dining excellence in reaches of Maine far outside Portland. It’s like opening a gift, one that’s a wonderful surprise.

I’ve had that satisfaction a few times. Bandaloop and Earth in Kennebunkport come to mind, as do Apollo Bistro in Waterville, Fuel in Lewiston and Blair Hill Inn in Greenville, all of which have earned four to five stars. And I tend to be stingy.

In all instances, I visited without much in the way of preconceptions. In fact, as I try out new places for my twice-a-month installments of this column, I imagine myself Everyman (OK, woman). I mute any connection to the staff or kitchen (in most cases, I don’t have any), dropping in to see what any consumer would get for food and treatment on any given evening. I try to sample as much of the menu as the budget allows. The restaurant has one night to get it right.

Which is why, on any such occasion, it is a rare pleasure to find the dining experience flawless and the food magnificent. This was the case at Natalie’s, the restaurant of the Camden Harbour Inn, in late April.

That’s a big word, magnificent. And by it, I don’t mean the dishes are grandiose murals of color, splash and novelty. I mean that the art and execution of all of the dishes are as delightful as one can expect, down to the last detail — which might be those bright-green fava beans sharing a plate with perfectly seared monkfish.

The inn is perched on a hill overlooking Camden harbor. From the exterior, the 1874 Victorian appears traditionally appointed. But inside, in the dining room, the decor mixes the refinement of table linens and large vases of roses with riotously red fabric-covered pendant lamps and bright cushioned seats. A few Italian designer sofas adorn the adjoining lounge. It’s elegance with a European flair; dressy but not at all stuffy.

The service matches the restaurant’s style to a “T.” The staff members are polished professionals, but not so serious that they don’t allow a touch of fun. Suffice it to say, our server got my joke off the bat, responded with a one-liner of his own, and was then back to gracious business. He also allowed us to depart from the chef’s request that if one diner wanted to choose the tasting menu, the whole table partake. We appreciated that flexibility from the kitchen.

The date being late April, chef Geoffrey Deconinck, a Food and Wine magazine Best New Chef nominee and a devotee of local foods, focused on asparagus. Lucky us. A heavenly amuse bouche of chilled asparagus veloute, served in a shot glass and paired with gravlox over crostini, started us off.

An appetizer of sea scallops meuniere topped a white asparagus puree with shitake mushrooms, and was bathed in and enriched by a meat jus ($20). It came paired with a flute of festive and cleansing champagne.

A second starter, one that I might order for a light supper if I were to return solo, was asparagus gratinee. The vegetable was blanched to a just-right firmness, with comte cheese nestled around a slice of house-made brioche topped with a poached egg, the whole drizzled with black truffle sauce ($17).

Like jewels on a pin, a brochette of three deliciously cool, curried mussels embellished an excellent, fennel-tinged vichyssoise ($16). All three French-inspired appetizers had us swooning from their meticulous preparation and restrained, but inspired, flavor combinations.

Delicious roasted spinach dusted with cumin accompanied that flawlessly seared Gulf of Maine monkfish. Crispy, light and grainy falafel spheres gave the plate a Middle Eastern touch. The entree ($34) was a creative meld of familiar — or familiar enough — components.

Chicken breast with red wine sauce over tagliatelle was tender and rich, and the accompanying housemade, dark-meat sausage was on the mild side ($32). Medallions of succulent duck breast overlay a barley and garlic scape risotto, a satisfying pairing of texture and savoriness ($36). Rhubarb marmalade added a sweet note.

The sommelier chose a 2009 Copain Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley, north of Napa, to accompany this duck. It was the softest, silkiest pinot in my memory.

Each course came at once to the three of us, brought by a sous chef or wait staff, and each got a short summary upon presentation. Temperatures were just right.

We concluded with a plate of four cheeses, paired with a not-too-sweet Vin Santo. Fresh coffee came with a quartet of ginger and cocoa crisps — a very nice detail.

If you can swing it, dinner here is a top-drawer event, a worthy splurge. Untie the big red bow and see for yourself. 

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer. She can be reached at