I knew there was something unusual about The Carriage House Restaurant in East Boothbay when my dinner guest looked up from his menu and asked me, “What’s gribiche?”

The only reason I knew gribiche was because I had made it once, in a maudlin period several years ago, after a few weeks left to fend for myself in a tiny city apartment. Whenever I got hungry and didn’t want to face solo restaurant dining, I would dip into “The Pleasures of Cooking for One,” a guide that Judith Jones, Julia Child’s long-time friend and editor, wrote after becoming a widow. In it, she describes the chunky, herbal French sauce, made by mixing parsley, tiny French pickles (cornichons), mustard and capers along with chopped hard-boiled eggs as one of her favorite ways of perking up plain meats and fish. It’s full of recognizable flavors, but it somehow feels a little exotic – half sauce, half distraction from the world around you.

Chef/owner Kelly Farrin’s use of gribiche as the dressing for his fried haddock sandwich ($13) echoes this sense of the slightly unconventional, adding tangy brightness to a familiar dish. “For me, being a Mainer, tartar sauce is a big thing. So I just make a tartar sauce, but with capers and shallot and lemon zest, and grate hard-boiled eggs into it. I like the consistency of an egg salad, and that’s what gribiche reminds me of,” said Farrin, formerly of Primo in Rockland.

Another benefit: The gribiche cut some of the excess salt in the crunchy, peppery batter coating a fillet of beautifully fried fish. And if a haddock sandwich doesn’t appeal, you’ll find the same gribiche and a rice wine vinaigrette served with the restaurant’s crispy calamari ($14) appetizer.

Experimenting with unexpected flavors is not something you probably would have associated with The Carriage House during its first incarnation as a restaurant from 1986 to 2001 (and then in fits and starts until last year). Even today, looking at the dining room, with its high-gloss whole-log posts, checkerboard linoleum floor and walk-in fridge clad in wood, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the restaurant is a bit of a throwback. But Farrin, who was raised in the area, is aware of the disconnect and thinks a lot about how to bridge his style of cooking with food that will appeal to the community – particularly in a space that has such a long local history. “I used to eat here as a kid. Now, I want to keep a home-cooking feel without cutting corners, and with some upgrades,” he said.

One of those upgrades comes in the form of a short but memorable cocktail list that includes drinks made with fresh fruit, such as the Indian Summer ($11), sorbet-like in flavor, with muddled strawberries, elderflower liqueur, mint and gin. There are also half-a-dozen New England beers on tap (four of them from Maine), and a brief but comprehensive, reasonably priced New and Old World wine list that offers bottles that top out at $37 and plenty of by-the-glass pours. There is something here that matches up well with everything on the menu, whether it is an updated recipe or a dependable classic.

One of the unashamedly traditional dishes is the Linekin Bay fish chowder ($12), made with a white roux, cooked with leeks, celery and house-made fish stock, as well as generous chunks of potato, bacon and lots of cream. It’s a craveable concoction that works as well in the early days of autumn as it might when there’s frost in the forecast.

Not all the menu’s old-faithful dishes are quite as successful, although none is anything less than decent, like a utilitarian mixed greens salad ($12) with a dressing that would have been a standout on a more interesting bed of greens. Similarly, we loved the lush, sweet-and-salty peanut butter icing on the chocolate cake ($8) made on Tuesday by the restaurant’s visiting baker, but were disappointed that, by Friday, the cake itself was a little dry. We probably should have listened when our server told us, “I love cake, but you can’t ever go wrong with pie.”

It’s almost exactly what she told us about the ribeye with mashed potatoes and roasted onions ($32), and luckily, we heeded her recommendation. We were rewarded with a perfectly pink, medium-rare steak, rubbed with Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper. Better than the excellent beef though, were the Brussels sprouts, softened and charred, then tossed in something out of left field: a tart, sweet and gently fiery jelly that Farrin makes from poblano, jalapeño and bell peppers.

A warmly lit nook on the restaurant's second floor.

A warmly lit nook on the restaurant’s second floor.

If it seems like a lot of work to put into one small element of a substantial plate of food, it is. But there’s a strategy at work here, one that encapsulates Farrin’s culinary philosophy: “I think about the whole bite: Take a slice of the steak, the potatoes, the cast iron onions on top. And I wanted people who didn’t like Brussels sprouts to respect them. I just think it’s kind of neat when people say it’s good,” he said.

It’s no easy feat to take home-cooking classics and inject them with exactly the right amount of personality to stay true to your passions for flavor, while still appealing to diners who want something comforting and familiar. Farrin does so by using an almost surgical approach to surprise – an unexpected sauce here, a fresh Vermont burrata there (in the roasted beet salad, $14). And, by and large, he pulls it off, transforming The Carriage House into the kind of place I might be willing to drive an hour to visit, the next time I’m home alone, feeling too lazy to cook for myself, but still in need of a few joyful distractions.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME