Bluefish is the way to my heart. Or mackerel, sardines, even whitebait — all the fish that a good friend describes lovingly as “smelling like the bottom of an aquarium.”

In part, I love them for their brazen, unblushing fishiness. They are proud to be precisely what they are and don’t make Tiliapian efforts to mask their identity. It is impossible to eat a piece of mackerel without knowing it.

But I also love these fish because they get so little affection elsewhere, especially in big cities. Fifteen years ago, at my favorite fish market in Manhattan, I saw fillets of bruise-colored bluefish piled on ice and ordered two or three for that night’s dinner.

“I’ll give you the whole stack for a dollar if you just take them away,” the fishmonger said, exasperated. “Nobody buys them. Restaurants don’t want ‘em. They’re garbage fish.” I understood that afternoon, lugging a seven-and-a-half-pound bag of fillets back to my apartment, that I would never be a New Yorker.

Last weekend while walking past Nina June in Rockport, I caught a glimpse of the evening’s menu taped to the glass-paneled front door, and I had a flashback to that day. “I don’t know what you’re going to have tonight,” I announced to my dinner guest. “But I’m getting the bluefish.”

Sara Jenkins, chef/proprietor of Nina June in Rockport. Photo by Hannah Patterson

Owner Sara Jenkins, a celebrated New York chef (Porchetta, Porsena) and native Mainer who spent most of her childhood in Italy, knows how to handle oily fish, pan-frying it in juniper-berry-infused butter, then setting the crisp bluefish alight in a gin-catalyzed fireball. Once the flambé sputters out, she nestles the fillets onto a “risotto” of fiddleheads and barley, then crowns the plate with a verdant snarl of pea shoots, dill and ribbons of cucumber ($26).

“Sometimes I complain about how many things I can sell in New York but not here,” she said. “But oily fish is not one of those things. I get bluefish now, and then mackerel all summer. I think that’s where all the flavor is. And people really just eat it up. It fits here.”

Another easy sell is the braised, coriander-spiced Guini Ridge Farm lamb rib and chop that Jenkins glazes with a Floyd Cardozo-inspired plum, ginger and tamarind chutney ($28). It is a phenomenal dish that splices together fresh spring protein with culinary shout-outs to last autumn — puréed golden turnips and sticky-sweet charred carrots that I watched the back-of-house staff grill over a mammoth, open-flame stove at the center of the room.

Nina June in Rockport. Photo by Hannah Patterson

When I first sat down, my back to the windows overlooking the 26-seat patio, Rockport Harbor and Marine Park, I figured I had drawn the short stick by sacrificing gorgeous scenery for the ability to take a few notes as I ate. But at Nina June, the Colosseum-like kitchen and its full exposure of everyone from line cooks to Jenkins herself ensures that there is no such thing as a bad view.

“It’s really kind of a stage, and you have to go into service like it’s a little performance,” Jenkins told me. “If I had my druthers, I’d be hidden away in a closet somewhere, but people love to sit at the bar and watch us work. They really seem to dig it, even if we’re a little grumpy.”

On my recent visit, a little grumpiness was going around, but it wasn’t coming from the kitchen. Rather, each of the three tables around me expressed exasperations large and small about that evening’s service. One couple sat for 10 minutes before their server delivered menus. Another sat discussing their dessert choices for so long, they eventually gave up and sniped, “I don’t think we can really afford to wait for it,” when their server eventually arrived.

My own server ignored my guest’s empty cocktail (and later, wine) glass, forcing us to flag down a different front-of-house staffer for another of the tart and extra-high-octane French 75s that the bar fortifies with cognac and Cointreau ($14).

This happened again with water glasses, except this time, we were teased first. “Would you like more water?” our server inquired. Having sat with empty glasses for 30 minutes, we certainly did. A few minutes later, she returned to deposit a full carafe of water on an empty table just out of reach, then retreated to the kitchen, reappearing to spirit away the jug without pouring a drop.

I’ll admit to a smidgen of grumpiness myself over the miserly portion of sautéed, locally foraged ramps and a single crostino so thin it was translucent ($14). Dip what the menu calls “shaved bread” into the excellent, peppery aioli that Jenkins buzzes together with the oil from last year’s preserved cherry hots; snag a fork-tender ramp bulb, and — poof! — it’s gone. Even one more of the vanishingly thin crostini would have made this dish feel more like an appetizer and less like a subliminal message.

Yet, if the worst thing I can say about what I ate at Nina June is that I wish I had more of it, Jenkins and her team are on the right track with their mostly Italian, entirely Mediterranean menu. And to be clear: I absolutely did not leave hungry. A shared slice of the dense, peppery olive oil cake ($10) served with a generous and jiggly spoonful of house-made lemon curd was ample for two, especially if one of you has ordered her superlative (and sizable) pasta al limone ($25).

Incorporating a chive-and-egg-yolk emulsion into the dough, Jenkins fashions supple, radiantly aromatic strands of rough-cut spaghetti that she dresses in sunny lemon butter and finishes with scoops of Maine crab meat. Pure pleasure from the first to last forkful, it is obvious why this has become Nina June’s signature dish.

“That’s a pasta that some Italian guy I was sitting next to at a wine dinner was telling me about. Except his was just lemon and bottarga (salt-cured fish roe),” Jenkins said. “I thought I should do it with lemon butter instead, and then I stuck crab meat into it. Now, I can change the menu left, right and center, but I can’t ever take that off. People identify that dish with Nina June.”

During one of her increasingly rare trips back to her lone remaining New York restaurant, Porsena, you might find Jenkins making pasta, but you won’t find that exact dish on the menu. It belongs to Nina June, to Maine; it fits here.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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