A few hours before noon, my 6:30 p.m. dinner reservation at The Nightingale became unmoored.

I had booked a table nearly four weeks earlier – as always, under a fake name to try to ensure that my experience is no different from that of any other customer’s.

Yet on the morning of my meal at the upscale-casual Vinalhaven fish shack, my pseudonym received a voicemail confirming the reservation for four people … for 6:15.

Strange. I double-checked the online reservation and called the restaurant to let them know they had made an error. “Oh, I’m glad you called back. There’s no mistake,” the general manager said. “In order to give you great service, we have to get you out of the busiest time for us. 6:30 is right in the middle of that. So we changed it for you.”

Thanks?

This isn’t really how reservations work, I thought to myself. People book tables so that they can plan their days, schedule appointments, arrange baby sitters. Mine was made long in advance for that very reason. Plus, shuffling reservations willy-nilly without even bothering to ask is a recipe for disaster, especially ones that have been in the books for close to a month.

Something else was afoot, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then, as we were speaking, my mouth dropped as it happened again. “Well, actually it’s not really 6:15 anymore, sir. Now we need you to come in at 6,” she said.

We bargained a bit, eventually compromising on a much later table. Two of my dinner guests – summer residents of the island for decades – just stared at me, stunned, when I explained that our plans had unexpectedly changed. “That’s a first!” one exclaimed.

The sleek, minimalist dining room at The Nightingale in Vinalhaven. Photo courtesy of The Nightingale

At 8 that night, we sat in the sleek, neutral-white dining room of the harbor-front restaurant, nibbling on our first bites of chef/co-owner Lauren Weisenthal’s delightfully oniony, dill-forward Green Goddess salad ($9/$15), watching the still-roaring space heave and pulse as new visitors stopped by for a drink.

Despite the presence of two new cocktail-and-wine venues on the island, The Nightingale remains among the top spots for a glass of wine, thanks to certified sommelier Weisenthal’s keen nose (and palate) for seasonally appropriate wines. She is especially fond of Rieslings and pinot noirs, including offbeat subvarietals like Andreas Diehl’s barnyardy, dark-berry-flavored Spätburgunder ($35/bottle). In the cool, cool, cool of a July evening, it’s pure liquid contentment.

A few late arrivals also showed up for something else: a serving of that evening’s dessert special, a strawberry-and-vanilla-pudding pavlova ($10). Weisenthal intentionally overbakes her meringue, making her version tawnier and crisper than most. And as much as I love a fragile meringue that shatters when you stick a fork into it, this version lacked a chewy, marshmallow-esque center – the hallmark of the best pavlovas.

If a meringue-based dessert sounds out of place in a fish shack, that’s because, in its second season, The Nightingale is undergoing a significant evolution. “Last year, we were sensitive that people here had lost the counter-service restaurant they loved,” Weisenthal said. “We felt pressure to continue a lot of what The Harbor Gawker was doing. So it was fast-casual, but I think still a good restaurant. This year, it is much more natural. We’re making most things from scratch, using local ingredients, and we are also starting to cook experimental foods and the foods we (Lauren Weisenthal and her husband, co-owner/cook-and-builder Brian Weisenthal) really miss eating.”

Among those dishes: a lush lobe of Vermont burrata ($14) bathing in a tart green-garlic pesto alongside a handful of raw, starchy English peas that begged for a quick blanching to sweeten them up; an iceberg wedge salad ($9) drizzled with a too-savory, bleu-cheese-and-buttermilk dressing and served without a sharp knife to cut it cleanly; and decent, if imperviously beer-battered fish-and-chips ($21) featuring fat, juicy cubes of haddock. Slathered in tangy lime crema and garnished with red cabbage, that very same haddock also make its way into bland flour tortillas as part of the fish tacos ($16).

While the iffiness of these dishes signal the slow, incremental progress of The Nightingale’s evolution, others suggest the restaurant’s promise, like deep-fried green tomatoes ($14) dredged in corn starch, cornmeal and flour, and topped with fresh-picked Vinalhaven crabmeat so delicately dressed, I suspect the staff only murmured the word, “mayonnaise” to it as it was being spooned onto the plate.

I chose the naked, homegrown version of this dish as one of my favorite dishes of 2018, and I’d wager that when local tomatoes start sagging languidly from their vines, it will be even better than it was last year, especially since Vinalhaven crab improves just about anything.

The fried chicken sandwich “strikes a gorgeous balance between the feral funk of dark meat and snappy tang of McClure’s dill pickles.” Photo by Bank Buranastidporn

Improbably for a restaurant moving away from fast-casual roots toward life as a table-service business, The Nightingale’s best offerings may be its sandwiches. The lamb burger ($14) is a good example. On a juicy, grill-seared ground lamb patty, the kitchen mounds a thick plank of feta, slices of pickled red onion and a bright, dill-scented tzatziki. It’s more savory than most other lamb burgers, and with a glass of red wine, it’s exactly what a summer evening demands.

For the fried chicken sandwich ($12), the kitchen batters a boneless thigh with the same beer batter it uses on its haddock, then runs it through a crunch-generating dusting of seasoned flour to produce a constellation of crags and ridges that crackle with every bite. The sandwich strikes a gorgeous balance between the feral funk of dark meat and snappy tang of McClure’s dill pickles.

If the bun used for both sandwiches – a potato roll Weisenthal herself called “not very interesting”– got an upgrade, they’d go from great to knockout.

As our meal wound down, one of my guests confessed that the GM had pulled her aside when we walked in, apologizing when she realized that our previously anonymous party actually consisted of two longtime islanders. “If I had known it was you, I would have done something,” she apparently told my friend.

Suddenly, we all understood what caused my original reservation to drift like an unanchored skiff.

My pseudonym had worked exactly as intended – and perhaps too well. I had been treated just like any other diner. Maybe more to the point: any other diner “from away.”

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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