By the time servers arrived at our gazebo bearing billowy, sugar-tossed doughnuts beached on a dense daub of macerated rhubarb and strawberries – a mid-June version of chef Jason Williams’s signature dessert at The Well at Jordan’s Farm – my guests and I had nearly forgotten where we were.

Still smelling of woodsmoke from the crackling fire pit and laughing about how much we had eaten over the past 3 1/2 hours, the six of us felt comfortable, at home. Perhaps not our own home, but someplace snug and familiar – I came within a few seconds of asking if I could help with the dishes.

For Williams, creating an intimate atmosphere is an important part of his plan. “I want The Well to be a relaxing place where you can spend a night out with friends or your family,” he said. “You’re close to the city in Cape Elizabeth, but once you’re on the farm, inside one of the gazebos, you feel like you’re far away.”

Not that Portland generates much big-city bustle to escape, but The Well and its surroundings genuinely do feel like a remote getaway hundreds of miles away from the nearest traffic jam.

Now well into its tenth season of nearly sold-out dinners, The Well has instituted some changes since our then-critic awarded it 3.5 stars in 2012, alterations that should help ensure the restaurant’s long-term survival (as well as preserve Williams’s sanity). One took place in 2015, when the restaurant began serving a three-course, family-style meal ($75 per person, including tax and gratuity) for parties of six or more.

It’s true that these meals are less sexy than The Well’s soignée à la carte dishes or its plated, five-course chef’s menu ($85 per person). Those are the items you may be familiar with, because nearly every review of The Well focuses on its Instagram-ready tasting menu – which makes sense when your aim is to entice affluent diners from New York and Boston out for a bucolic evening on a working farm.

But those guests are missing out on the real heart of The Well.

Groups can settle into a gazebo for the evening at The Well at Jordan’s Farm. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“The gazebos are so nice for groups to get together. They’re a special spot for family vacations or big groups who know their plans in advance,” Williams said. “And they mean we can offer something for everyone from super high-end foodies to people who work in the field. At the end of the day, (the kitchen) is a trailer, so I try not to take it too seriously!”

So when you sit down for the family-style meal, servers top-heavy with shareable platters will nudge open the creaky screen door to your gazebo and leave behind dishes prepared from whatever is available at the William H. Jordan Farm and a half-dozen other local producers.

Many dishes make use of the wood-fired grill as well as The Well’s recently added outdoor smokehouses. Like simply seasoned, wood-roasted turnips, king oyster mushrooms and parsnips, or juicy slow-smoked ham from Breezy Hill Farm, butchered in-house and served with a tangy reduction made from balsamic vinegar and pork bones. So too, roasted chicken with a shrunken lattice of crisp skin and yielding, gorgeously smoked meat. I drizzled its accompaniment, a bone-and-broth reduction over a buttered slice of Williams’s sourdough-esque ciabatta and startled my neighbor with the volume of my “Mmmm.”

Just try to stop eating this potato gratin. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

She couldn’t complain; I caught her cradling the Le Creuset terrine pan in which our potato gratin was served, scraping all the crusty cheese from the walls with a fork. At one point, she asked her husband to take it away from her. “It’s so good. I can’t stop,” she said.

We all wished there had been more crusty soccarat (crunchy, over-toasted bomba rice) sizzling at the bottom of the colossal open-fire-cooked paella we were served, however. Full of peppery andouille, tender chunks of monkfish, Bangs Island mussels and littleneck clams, the dish was large enough to constitute a meal on its own. But it tasted a little flat – something a few more tomatoes or a squeeze of lemon might have remedied.

If you were to judge by the size of that dish alone, you’d peg The Well as a Spanish restaurant. On the other hand, the balanced, yet bizarrely stingy salad of North Spore mushrooms, foraged fiddleheads, Stilton cheese and lettuces picked a few feet away would never lead you to conclude that you were sitting on an arable plot of land. As one of my guests pointed out, the steep sloping sides of the salad bowl made the dish look much fuller than it was.

As missteps go, it’s a small one, but it added to another minor conceptual confusion that had a few of my party asking, “What’s the theme of this meal?” None of us could pinpoint it, but we all thought we were on the cusp of figuring it out – it seemed to be just out of our view, like the barely hidden image in a Magic Eye puzzle.

Instead, the family-style feast feels like something you’d imagine being served to weary travelers in “Game of Thrones” or “The Canterbury Tales” – gigantic platters of whatever is in the kitchen, with little thought to harmony or progression.

It wouldn’t be difficult to resolve the dinner into something that coalesces neatly. Take the roasted chicken, add it to the paella (as is traditional in many versions of the dish), and then play that off the ham to create a cohesive Iberian evening, perhaps side-stepping to finish with buñuelos in place of their doughnut cousins.

All of that said, even without a clearly articulated theme, the gazebo meal is still pretty wonderful, due in part to a controversial change instituted this year: the addition of The Well’s own wine, beer and cider list.

Williams and his team have eased the transition with affordable by-the-glass wine pours ($7-11) and by-the-can cider and beer ($2.50-$7) options, as well as a few extraordinary special importation wines by the bottle. My table couldn’t get enough of the quaffable 2018 Post-Flirtation Carignan-Zinfandel blend ($45) from Sebastopol, California – its mulberry and hibiscus flavors a perfect foil for woodsmoke.

According to Williams, not all repeat visitors have welcomed the elimination of the restaurant’s BYOB policy. “Yeah, that’s been a tricky one,” he said. “But in the past, sometimes people would show up with multiple bottles per person … and it could get a little out of control when people couldn’t police themselves, so we decided it was time to rein it in a little bit.”

In addition to keeping cockeyed customers from stumbling home (or worse, driving), the extra revenue from booze sales has allowed The Well to reduce its table turnover. This summer, the restaurant serves an average of 60 people a night – around 25 percent fewer diners than in previous years. And while the scarceness of seats might not sound like a plus, it means that a reserved gazebo is yours for the entire evening. You can dawdle to your heart’s content.

Being able to settle in to one of the remarkably warm, rough-hewn structures over the course of several hours also contributes to The Well’s hominess: a sensation that Williams prizes both at his summer restaurant and in his winter off-season gig. During the chilliest months of the year, rather than stick around Portland to work casual shifts at Back Bay Grill, where he once acted as sous chef, he follows the Red Bull Snowboarding Team on the road as their private chef.

“Hectic, but worth it. I’m lucky to have that balance of jobs,” he said. “Those professional athletes travel so much, they don’t get home-cooked meals. That’s what I give them, but a little bit elevated: fresh bread, fresh butter, no over-the-top ingredients. But in the end, I’m doing the same thing for them that I am at The Well. You know, I just try to invoke that feeling of home.”

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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