Visit Yarmouth a dozen, even two dozen times, and you’re still unlikely to stumble upon The Garrison.

Down a lazily sloping side-street, on the banks of the Royal River, just past a one-way bridge crossing, you’ll find chef Christian Hayes’ restaurant inside the old Sparhawk Mill — where chuffing, hydro-powered wheels once spun miles of cord and braided twine for lobstering.

When I tried to describe The Garrison’s location to a Yarmouth-based friend, even she couldn’t quite place it. “Is it near the park off Main Street?” Sort of. “What about the waterfall?” Not really. “Well, thank god for GPS,” she huffed in frustration, terminating our guessing game by pulling out her smartphone. “Oh wow,” she said, looking up from her screen. “Yeah, it’s in the middle of nothing.”

Hayes wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m inspired by restaurants like The Lost Kitchen, where the chefs are out in their own little world, doing their own thing,” he said. “This is where we (Hayes and his wife, General Manager Christine Hayes) started Dandelion Catering, and we just love it here with water on both sides and a garden, so we rented another 2,000 square feet of space in the mill and moved the catering business to make room for The Garrison. But even for Yarmouth, we’re a little bit off the beaten path.”

The restaurant’s semi-isolation translates into a sense of intimacy that the interior amplifies, but not through rough-hewn woods and Scandinavian hygge. Instead arriving guests are shunted, heels clacking, down a brick-and-concrete corridor: a design red herring that misleads you into thinking the dining room must be similarly impersonal.

Surprise. It’s not. Leather bar stools, diffuse overhead light from wire-clad pendants that bulge geometrically from their centers and vivid abstract mixed-media canvases commissioned from local painter Jenny Prinn humanize and soften the space beautifully.

Look carefully and you’ll spot another clever bit of coziness-building trickery – ceilings appear to be a few feet lower than they actually are, thanks to a dark gray paint job that extends a few feet down the walls.

Co-owner and chef Christian Hayes holds up a plate of harissa carrots. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Christian Hayes unveils a little legerdemain of his own with the menu. Dish names and descriptions are intentionally understated, promising little, then overdelivering when they appear at the table.

Take “Scallops” ($21), which turns out to be a large starter of three caramelized, chili-oil-slicked Harbor Fish Market scallops arranged around a tart, crunchy tarragon-apple relish like campers warming themselves at a crackling fire. But here, what appear to be licking flames are roughly torn slices of fire-curled Spanish Serrano ham.

Or the “Lamb” ($13), an appetizer special that looks as minimalistic on the plate as it sounds. But tasting exposes origami folds of scents and flavors: honey bubbled just to the point of scorching, then quelled with Cara Cara orange segments and apple cider vinegar; toasted salty pistachios blitzed into a ragged puree; runny yogurt jolted awake by preserved lemon and piney thyme leaves.

Ask him to describe his style of cooking, and Christian Hayes first dodges the question (charmingly). “I like leading with ‘thoughtful food,’ ” he says with a laugh, before copping to an allegiance to a mostly Mediterranean style, but one that allows for occasional references to Asian dishes he prepared while building dim sum boards as part of the unusually eccentric menu at Natasha’s in Portland.

With about a decade’s worth of hindsight, those Asian-inspired nods to his culinary past have evolved into miniature experiments in technique and flavor. Crispy skin dumplings ($13) are a paleo diner’s dream: chicken-skin-wrapped bundles of hoisin-dressed ground pork that are first poached, then deep-fried and dunked in a sticky soy-citrus glaze. The pork filling probably could do without the extra cooking step — it gets a little rubbery — but texture barely dims the appeal of this dish.

The ghee-poached lobster. “I haven’t eaten a better lobster dish all year,” our critic wrote. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Better still is lobster (claws and tail) unzipped from its shell and marinated in a rough-pounded paste of lemongrass, ginger, cilantro and garlic, then eased into bubbling ghee ($35). As orders come in, chunks of the wildly aromatic meat are slipped onto a sweet potato hash ladled with coconut curry broth that erupts in flares of fish sauce and bruised makrut lime leaf. I haven’t eaten a better lobster dish all year.

Elsewhere, The Garrison’s menu leans into Mediterranean approaches, especially with its braised dishes (of which there are several).

For its pappardelle ($28), the kitchen breaks down and slow-braises North Star Sheep Farm rabbit in a Spanish style, using half sherry vinegar and half stock, then blunts the acidic bite of the liquid by cooking it down risotto-style with successive ladlefuls of stock. When added to thick ribbons of pasta alongside crisp cubes of pancetta, chopped olives, caraway-toasted breadcrumbs and Madeira wine, the rabbit and its juices create a terrifically appealing, sweet-savory sauce.

And as much as I adore the stock-braised pork shoulder with classic French pommes puree and a nostril-tickling, pink-peppercorn-strewn slaw of parsnip, apple and fennel ($26), I prefer The Garrison’s wine-braised short rib sandwich ($16), a riff on a fast-food burger. Tender shreds of slow-cooked beef, iceberg lettuce, a gauzy slice of melting American cheese, and a burnished, house-made brioche bun dark enough to masquerade as a pretzel roll – what’s not to love?

You might even think you’ve wandered into a child’s birthday party if you start with the sandwich and finish with the “Chocolate” dessert ($12) — a warm, fudgy brownie plated with a weirdly disconnected (but nonetheless appetizing) scoop of ganache-like mousse.

Harissa carrots with hummus and pomegranate molasses. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Like many dishes on The Garrison’s menu, including all of its desserts, the brownie is gluten-free. But according to Christian Hayes, that status is secondary to taste, just as it is with vegan dishes like harissa carrots plated like spokes around a nest of homemade hummus dribbling with tahini and pomegranate molasses ($12).

“A lot of dishes we do are gluten-free. And with the carrots, we wanted a nice vegan dish that somebody who isn’t vegan would enjoy,” he said. “So I did what I do when I have an idea; I’m very impulsive, so I have to get out a piece of paper and create a map to find my way through it.”

Whether on a piece of paper or through GPS, you too will need a map to find your way to The Garrison. But once you’ve found it, you won’t forget the way.

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 three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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