James Beard famously said that “a gourmet who thinks of calories is like a tart who looks at her watch.” Well, no one’s checking their watch at Thistle Pig, Ben Hasty and Jen Fecteau’s self-described “New England comfort food” restaurant on Main Street in South Berwick. The cuisine is too sumptuous and the atmosphere too relaxing to consider holding back or heading out. Even if you don’t order the foie gras mousse (and you should), an evening here is well worth the hour’s drive from Portland – and the hour on the treadmill after you get home.

It’s variety that captivates at this small restaurant – both on the menu and in the way the kitchen plays with flavors and textures: a sweet and creamy squash risotto paired with crunchy, salted pumpkin seeds; that velvety foie gras complemented by chunky cranberries; a bowl of lobster mac ‘n cheese studded with crispy bits of sauteed garlic. Not only does Hasty demonstrate culinary skill (he trained with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and at Hugo’s in Portland), he displays wit: When was the last time you saw smoked salmon on rye treated like sushi, each ribbon of Duck Trap salmon nestled in aioli and placed – not atop a mound of rice – but upon a perfectly symmetrical cube of dark brown bread?

“Jen and I get pleasure from serving comfort food and showing attention to detail,” Hasty says. (He’s in charge of the kitchen. She gets credits for the flawless service and the desserts. The two are partners in business and in life.) “And we can tell you where every ingredient in our restaurant comes from. That rye bread, for example, comes from When Pigs Fly in Kittery, where I worked as executive chef for three years. Our pork comes from my parents’ place, Breezy Hill Farm, right here in South Berwick. We decided to open a restaurant in my home town and serve so much local fare because we think this community knows the value of good food. This is our opportunity to show the neighbors how much we appreciate that.”

And they do. Thistle Pig is thriving as a neighborhood restaurant. There’s a community table built from salvaged barn planks, and a few smaller tables with plain metal chairs on one side of the dining room, along with a long bar attracting a steady stream of locals on the other. Kids are welcome, too; a kids menu, posted on the website, features scrambled eggs ($3), grilled cheese sandwiches ($5) and pasta ($5). I heeded a friend’s advice and went early because the restaurant takes no reservations. By 7 p.m. the place was buzzing.

No need to dress for dinner, the ambiance is laid back, from the open archway that invites views of the kitchen, to the wall of mason jars showcasing scores of spices and herbs, which are much in use. (“I call that Spice World,” Hasty says.) Mason jars show up again as water glasses and old-fashioned glass milk bottles stand in for pitchers. Even the blue-and-white serving plates are mismatched.

But there’s nothing misaligned about the food. A mackerel salad speaks again to Hasty’s gifts for contrasting flavors and textures. Simple greens in a mustardy vinaigrette, morsels of smoky mackerel, rings of pickled onions and a fried egg (sunny side up) that oozes over the salad when pierced, enrobing everything in a thick, rich golden dressing. A hunk of that When Pigs Fly bread on the table allowed me to hog every last drop. And while I’m singing the praises of egg yolks, I want to give a shout-out to sodium. Thistle Pig showcases this chef’s confidence with salt. It’s a pleasure to tuck into an entire meal where the balance of salt and spice is spot on.


Hasty’s foie gras mousse – the duck liver sourced from Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Sullivan County, New York – is another celebration of fat and flavor. It’s intensely buttery, subtly seasoned with ginger and nutmeg and served just cold enough to set up while still spreading beautifully on slices of egg-rich challah. It doesn’t get any better than this, I was thinking – or maybe it does: I drizzled on a ribbon of gastrique – the accompanying jam-like reduction of red wine vinegar and sugar – for a delicate, meltingly good sweet-and-sour complement.

Hasty says that French luxuries appear on his menu “because my formal training was French, and I think French techniques do well with New England ingredients.” Take lobster mac ‘n cheese, a quintessentially American dish that won me over with its rich blend of cavatappi, lobster, cheddar and Parmesan (and salt!), but left me wondering about one tantalizing flavor. Tarragon? Chervil? No, it turns out that the kitchen finishes the dish with a blend of butter, garlic, parsley – and Pernod, the aromatic anise-flavored liqueur from France. Hasty said he uses it often for a “surprising herbaceous kick.”

The menu at Thistle Pig (named for the flowering plant that sprouts everywhere on the Hasty family farm) offers plenty of more workaday choices. You can order a simple but satisfying fish stew filled with hake and mussels, or a spicy meat cake made from pork shoulder that’s cooked low and slow, shredded, breaded and fried. A shower of Hasty’s favorite Maldon sea salt makes the crunchy panko coating irresistible.

Hasty prides himself not on luxe, but on freshness. The restaurant prints a new menu every day so that, Hasty says, it can reflect what’s in the market and give the cooks some creative play.

Occasionally, the kitchen delivers too much of a good thing. A fried egg was delicious atop mackerel salad, but why serve another one with the pork, which is already paired with a substantial side order of grits and buffalo sauce? As an erstwhile French student once told me, “one egg is en-oeuf.”

Happily, over-reaching is rare. The dinner menu is concise and the list of desserts short and sweet: panna cotta, chocolate cake, sticky toffee pudding that lives up to its name, plus a cheese plate that’s another paean to Franco-American friendship. Last week, it included Plymouth Cheddar and Great Hill Blue from New England, and d’Affinois, a double cream from France that tastes like Brie’s more seductive (and richer) older sister. The cheeses appeared, unadorned, on a wooden board with a spoonful of date jam and a few slices of apple.

You see, despite the foie gras, Thistle Pig isn’t about extravagance. It’s about excellence: the freshest ingredients, the most satisfying dishes, the finest service. Hasty may have trained at some very haute restaurants, but he’s on a quest for something entirely different: “I’ve been chasing a way to prepare reliably good meals in an unpretentious way,” he says.

Lucky for us, he succeeded.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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