There’s a rural aesthetic we’re enamored with in Maine. It’s a reason why we or our parents or ancestors moved or summer here, and why, if we leave, we come back. One version of this image looks a lot like pictures I’ve seen of full-moon dinners at Salt Water Farm’s candlelit communal table, with a view of the ocean and a menu foraged from the farm.

I’m sitting at the bar at Salt Water Farm Café in Rockport’s Union Hall talking with guest Scott DeSimon, deputy editor at Bon Appétit magazine and native of Cumberland Center, about our respective Maines. It’s the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend, and the bartender is warming a twist of orange rind for my Remember the Maine ($12) with vermouth and Cherry Heering as Scott nurses an Oxbow Farmhouse Pale Ale ($5). The crisply casual open-concept space, with its farmhouse-kitchen feeling, has us comfortable and curious to see where the menu will lead next.

Annemarie Ahearn, with her natural good looks and compelling Salt Water Farm cooking school in Lincolnville, is something of a poster child in local and national media for a new Maine “good life” image. When she opened the Salt Water Farm Café last year, the rarified niche of her classes and monthly full-moon dinners became available on a broader scale, with breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday.

We’ve heard there were hiccups last year with staffing and menu, but new chef Sam Richman, previously of Jean-Georges in New York City, The Fat Duck in London and 71 Clinton Fresh Food (also New York), general manager Andrew Kesselring (Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California; Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester, New York, and Frankies Spuntino in New York City) and manager Alexandra Ruhland-Syquia (also Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Frankies Spuntino) now appear to have things under control. And certainly, no shortage of top-notch mentors – Ahearn herself also worked with Dan Barber of Blue Hill. The questions for both of us are: “Will it be able to sustain in Rockport year-round?” And: “Will we buy someone else’s Maine aesthetic?”

We tuck ourselves into the padded benches of a back corner table as lights twinkle in darkened windows that look to the sea, and the faces of families and couples glow from the salty humidity and the last holiday of summer. Scott is decisive and opinionated about what he likes in a dish and a restaurant and has already decided exactly what we should order.

We pounce on our heirloom tomato salad ($13), and the Thai-inspired flavors of fish sauce and lime juice with the sweet of the tomato jump out immediately and distinctly next to grilled peppers, cashews and onions. I’m resistant, because local tomatoes are so ripe and fresh at the end of August that you really don’t need to mess with them, but I become excited with each successive bite by a totally different kind of tomato experience. It tells us that Richman isn’t afraid to take a risk and is talented enough to break through the resistance to altering expectations.


The same goes for the next dish. The steamer clams bagna cauda ($19) arrives on two plates, one a simple pile of clams with two dipping bowls on the side, and the other a simple pile of fresh cauliflower, sliced kohlrabi, bell pepper and zucchini. Traditionally made from garlic, anchovies, olive oil and butter, this version makes use of the clam broth in one bowl, with drawn butter in the other. The clams are dipped in the clam broth bagna cauda first, then the butter, and the same with the vegetables, which add a contrasting crunch to the richness of bivalves and butter.

“Raw vegetables at dinner may seem a little ascetic,” Scott says. “But there’s nothing more luxurious than peak-season vegetables. My grandfather used to drink clam broth right down to the grit. This is a clever use of a flavorful part of clams that usually gets thrown away.”

We also have a smoked swordfish starter ($13), with the fish shredded and mixed with cucumber and melon in a shellfish broth with basil. And there’s a side of New England brown bread ($6) with plump raisins, molasses and caraway seeds baked, as is traditional, in a can. As with the tomato salad, both are familiar yet original, with variables like the melon and caraway that make them distinctly the chef’s own.

Scott’s slow-roasted lamb ribs ($24) and my grilled pork loin and belly ($23) arrive, the lamb over broccoli, bok choy and green olives, and the pork with mustard greens, peaches and plum mustard. Both the lamb and pork belly are tender and fatty, and the lamb manages to get away with tasting very lamby because of the melt-in-the-mouth fat and green romesco rub. The loin from Buckspork (really, that’s the name of the farm) is as good as a loin gets and I don’t always love loin. Both are rich yet fresh, tempting us to eat every bite.

Scott’s only grumble is that our panna cotta ($8), while exhibiting a subtle lemon verbena essence and what turns out to be a hint of cardamom, is served with big high-bush blueberries instead of small. “I call BS on the berries,” he cries in fun. “Small low-bush berries are the true Maine berry.”

That aside, if I lived in the area, I imagine I’d find myself here for breakfast, lunch or dinner at least once a week, and I’m guessing there are some who go every day, as if Union Hall were the communal dining hall at an artist retreat. “I could see myself coming in regularly to sit at the bar and work my way through the bar menu,” Scott agrees. Already, Nathan Perkins, front-of-the-house manager and Ahearn’s significant other, bids us goodnight with the familiarity of an old friend.


I ask Scott if a place like Salt Water Farm Café in a small town like Rockport could make Bon Appétit’s Hot 10: Best New Restaurants list, compiled annually by editor Andrew Knowlton. “The question for places in rural areas is if they can become both a year-round part of the community and a destination the way Primo is, attracting people from all over,” he says.

For that, time will tell, but there is certainly the talent and experience to make it happen. Meanwhile, it’s both rarefied and real, at prices that make it accessible and frequent-able.

Salt Water Farm and the Café may be one specific take on the Maine aesthetic, but it leaves space for diners to bring their own versions and still feel right at home.

Melissa Coleman is interim restaurant reviewer for the Maine Sunday Telegram. Each week, she takes a writer or food expert to dinner with her to provide additional perspective. Coleman writes for national and local publications and can be found at Her memoir, “This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak,” is about coming of age during the 1970s back-to-the-land movement.

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