Chef Jack Neal in his new Camden restaurant, Franny’s Bistro. His wife, Jennifer, is co-owner and manager. Photo by Jennifer Neal

Chef Jack Neal spent 20 years cooking in Portland’s crazy summer restaurant scene, so he’s looking forward to a quieter pace at his new bistro in Camden. Summer in Portland restaurants, he said, was “just constant (activity), an ungodly amount of traffic through. It’s nice to be amongst the things that are going on, but not right in it. It’s a little more relaxed.”

Neal and his wife, Jennifer, opened Franny’s Bistro in Camden over the winter in the space formerly occupied by the well-regarded Francine Bistro, which closed in November 2018. Yes, the name of the Neals’ new place pays homage to both Francine and former chef Brian Hill, whose name was perennially tossed into the ring for a James Beard award and who now lives and works in California.

“It’s our way of paying tribute to what’s gone before, but saying we’re different,” Jack Neal said. “We’re not trying to be Francine. We’re Franny’s.”

Neal’s Portland-area roots go all the way back to the beloved Alberta’s Cafe. He worked with Walter Loeman and Mark Loring at Walter’s Cafe (when it was on Exchange Street) at Perfetto (also on Exchange Street) in Portland, and at Joe’s Boathouse in South Portland. He also served as chef at the Blair Hill Inn in Greenville, overlooking Moosehead Lake, and as chef de cuisine at the Hartstone Inn in Camden.

The restaurant has been completely redesigned and redecorated. All the light fixtures have been switched out, and carpeting laid down. (The owner of the building also made structural improvements and redid the plumbing and wiring, Neal said.) A wood-burning grill was installed in the kitchen. There are 40 table seats, eight seats at the bar and the patio seats 16.

As for the menu, look for grilled lobster and other fresh, local seafood to play a major role this summer. Generally, Neal said, “we’re staying with the bistro theme because a bistro allows me to play around with the cuisines a bit. Right now, we’re kind of like an American-French fusion.”

The menu also includes shrimp dumplings, calamari, and even a Southern-influenced dish – scallops and mussels over cheddar grits with a bacon and creamed corn sauce.

Scallops and mussels over cheddar grits with a bacon and creamed corn sauce, served at Franny’s Bistro in Camden. Photo by Jennifer Neal

Prices range in the low-to mid-teens for appetizers and salads, and mid- to upper-20s for entrees.

“Our location is in a neighborhood, and we like having the neighbors come and eat with us,” Neal said. “We like to say we’re accessible gourmet.”

You’ll find Franny’s at 55 Chestnut St. The restaurant is open Wednesday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to close.

Luke loves his lobster

The new Luke’s Lobster restaurant on Portland Pier opens for dinner Wednesday at 5 p.m. The company considers this location its flagship restaurant. It seats almost eight times as many diners as most of its other restaurants.

Don’t we already know this?

Portland has landed on top in yet another survey showing that it is “a mecca of craft brewing.”

Chicago-based C+R Research looked at data from more than 500 U.S. cities to find out which has the most breweries per 50,000 people. Portland ranked No. 1, followed by Asheville,  North Carolina, and Bend, Oregon. The city of Portland and the state of Maine regularly land on these national lists, which I always imagine are compiled by some guy in his pajamas sitting in a basement drinking a beer.

The research firm also determined that the most popular brewery in the city is Bissell Brothers, based on search volume in Google. No offense, Bissell Brothers, but just because people are searching for a business online doesn’t mean they are buying beers in their tasting room or going there to pick up a 4-pack. Bissell Brothers does have a big advantage though, in that its Thompson Point tasting room sits just off I-295. The brewers there have told me that many visitors from Massachusetts stop in to stock up on beer on their way upta camp.

Ask him about his avgolemono

Bill Doukas of Portland, winner of the Create It recipe contest, with a plate of his Aegean Spinach-Beet Triangles with Parsnip-Tzatziki Sauce. Photo courtesy of Broadreach PR

When I saw that Portland resident Bill Doukas was a finalist in the third annual Create It recipe contest, I knew from personal experience watching him cook his family’s favorite Greek dishes in his home kitchen that he had a good shot at winning the live cook-off, which was held Saturday at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. My hunch was right: Doukas won the contest with his Aegean Spinach-Beet Triangles with Parsnip-Tzatziki Sauce. His prize was a $250 gift certificate from Now You’re Cooking in Bath.

Create it – sponsored by the college; the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; the Maine Dairy and Nutrition Council; and Maine Public – requires contestants to use Maine ingredients in original recipes. Doukas’ appetizer featured five Maine-sourced ingredients: Swiss chard, yogurt, parsnip, butter and garlic. He also used Aleppo pepper, shallots and French feta.

More than 30 Mainers submitted recipes to the contest. The five other finalists made dishes such as yogurt alfredo and power greens pesto panna cotta.

Ketchup on the news

Joe Fournier, the owner of A&C Grocery, has just launched a food cart. A&C Food Factory, as it’s called, will serve sandwiches and other casual fare like that sold at A&C Grocery’s luncheonette at 131 Washington Ave. The cart will frequent breweries and other popular destinations in Maine, said Fournier, who is partnering with his brother and another entrepreneur on the project; you can follow the cart’s travels on Instagram.

It’s getting to be that time of year when we take road trips up U.S. Route 1: to go antiquing; bike or camp at Acadia National Park; treat ourselves to dinner on the new deck at Primo (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year); or buy enough roadside blueberries to make a million pies to stash in our freezer for the winter. A lot of weekend joy riders enjoy a stop at the outdoor Montsweag Flea Market in Woolwich.

This year, the market, which runs from May through October, features a new food stand run by Daisy Cunningham of Wiscasset and her finance, Alex Echevarria. Maritza’s place, named after Echevarria’s late mother, is serving Puerto Rican food alongside food stand staples such as hamburgers and hot dogs. The stand will open at 5 a.m. Wednesdays and at 6 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closing time will vary, but will probably be between 1 and 3 p.m. The address is 6 Hunnewell Lane, but you can easily spot the flea market from U.S. Route 1.

Bostonians get a taste of Maine

If you happen to be in Boston Friday, drop into the kitchen at the Boston Public Market, 100 Hanover St., from noon to 2 p.m. to watch demos of Maine foods gathered through fishing, farming and foraging. The event is free and open to the public, and each demo comes with a small sample of food.

The demos are part of the Maine Tastemakers Initiative organized by Coastal Enterprises Inc., which is working to find new markets for Maine foods. Chef Cleo Bell will prepare the all-Maine menu, which will begin with American Unagi brand eel with kelp butter and Thirty Acre Farm gingered carrots. Those dishes will be followed at 1 p.m. by a Thai Heiwa tofu salad with crispy Mousam Valley mushrooms and herbs. At 2 p.m., the demo will feature Maine Grain biscuits and Commonwealth Farm chicken confit.

 


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