As you step through the bar on your way into The Lost Fire’s dining room, it is impossible to ignore what’s happening in the kitchen. Framed by the pass in elongated letterbox, you’ll catch the clack and glint of tongs that spark from every direction at once. They chatter as they seize wire racks of blistered sausages and noisily mound embers in the tray of the gigantic charcoal grill. Every action seems to involve a metallic collision of steel against steel.

There, surrounded by his smoldering machinery, one person conducts every turn of the rotisserie spit, every eyebrow-singing blast of heat. Meet your asador, chef Germán Lucarelli.

For Lucarelli, also the restaurant’s co-owner, The Lost Fire represents an opportunity to introduce Maine to asado, traditional Argentinian barbecue grilling, as well as a way to preserve food traditions from his homeland.

“I was doing a steak night at Ports of Italy (in Kennebunk) that became very successful, but at that time it was with a propane grill. I hoped one day to do the real thing with real wood and charcoal,” Lucarelli said. “So I decided to open up an Argentinian grill restaurant where people can get together for an asado, just like every Sunday in Argentina. It’s like you’re invited to my house where I’d watch my uncle in front of the grill.”

German Lucarelli, chef and co-owner of The Lost Fire Grill. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The “lost fire” in the Cape Porpoise restaurant’s name is an allusion to the rituals of slow, open-flame cooking. Until two years ago, they persisted for Lucarelli only in memories of his early training, when he peeled potatoes and worked as a line cook in the Mendozan foothills of Argentina’s Malbec country. And as satisfying as his adventures running kitchens in Spain, Turkey, Florida and New York were, Lucarelli always understood that he’d eventually take another turn as an asador.

It’s a safe bet that almost nobody expected it would happen here, in Southern Maine, in a space that, before a gut renovation, boasted taupe wall-to-wall carpet and drop ceilings.

Today, The Lost Fire is broken into three distinct dining areas. The bar space follows a neat, open horseshoe shape that offers sports fans a clear view of at least one of the four mammoth widescreen televisions twitching frenetically overhead. An adjacent addition named “The Gallery,” all funky curtains and corrugated iron, runs alongside and provides up to 50 guests a private, outdoorsy-feeling space for parties and events. But the real story is the main dining room. Stylish, with dusty periwinkle walls and ruddy-stained beams that arch overhead like the ribs of a whale, the space successfully straddles the line between upscale and casual.

The semiprivate “cabins” at The Lost Fire Grill. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Larger parties can even opt to dine in one of two semiprivate “cabins” that offer banquette seating, impressionistic ink drawings of herds of cattle, and two sliding barn doors that can be pulled closed for privacy. On my recent visit, one group of diners did just that when noise in the eruptively loud restaurant went from tolerable to Tylenol.

“Good lord,” one of them shouted as she hauled the door into place, “I can’t hear anything but that man bragging about his boat!”

I sympathized; he was seated at the table next to mine. But I was able to tune him out, focusing instead on the eclectic mixed grill for two ($68) that he and his date were sharing. Served on an enamel replica of a parilla grill, the dish provides an enormous serving of whatever Lucarelli feels like sending the table – everything from rotisserie chicken to sweetbreads, steaks and sausages.

What did we tell you? The Mixed Grill for two could easily feed four – or more. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

My three guests and I ordered one ourselves and immediately realized that we ought to have stopped the flow of food there; the mixed grill is large enough to serve four people, maybe even five or six. Unsurprisingly, the dish’s pivot point is Black Angus beef, every cut of which Lucarelli seasons twice: once with a diluted, parsley-and-oregano chimichurri sauce immediately before the meat is dropped onto the smoking parilla, and then again after it has cooked through – this time finished with Maldon salt and pulverized rosemary and sage that the kitchen dries in house.

On the rosy New York strip and juicy (if rather tiny) filet mignon, the seasoning seemed calibrated nicely. The same held true for the short rib, whose tender shreds fainted off the bone. But on the dry, overcooked skirt steak, it overwhelmed what was left of the meat’s original flavor.

The seasoning blend on the golden-skinned rotisserie chicken offered a similar gradient of success: On pieces that were overdone (leg and wing), the meat was too salty, but the well-cooked thigh was one of the best things I ate in January.

Sausages – preseasoned at the Boston butchery that supplies them – are immune to the kitchen’s heavy hand with spicing. They also made up most of my favorite elements of the mixed grill. In particular, the chubby link of crisp-skinned pork blood sausage that kept me going back for another bite to excavate its tiny whispers of nutmeg, and a lollipop-like coil of skinny, fennel-scented Italian sausage that the kitchen skewers through its center and grills until browned and perspiring with garlicky oil.

But the best part of the mixed grill was also its most unexpected component: grilled sweetbreads, marinated simply in lemon juice and salt, oiled to keep them from sticking on the parilla, then crisped and basted with more lemon juice and another sprinkle of Maldon salt. Soft and custardy inside, the sweetbreads had an understated flavor that seemed to intertwine bone marrow, oyster and sous-vided chicken breast.

“That really does taste like chicken to me,” one of my guests said, when I offered him a piece of the sweetbreads. Then, pointing at the hulking, breadcrumb-and-egg-dredged Milanesa Parmigiana ($28) on the plate before him, added, “This doesn’t. It’s like something you’d get at a roller skating rink in the ’80s.” Indeed, the butterflied (not pounded) cutlet was tough and had little flavor apart from sweet marinara sauce.

The understated swordfish with caper sauce is a surprise hit at this largely red-meat restaurant. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

On the other hand, beautifully cooked fish ($38) reveals that Lucarelli’s team is capable of taking a restrained approach toward cooking and seasoning. Here, a thin, South American swordfish fillet is dusted with turmeric, garlic powder and coriander, then grilled over charcoal and topped with a verdant dribble of crushed capers, parsley and olive oil.

When one of my guests asked, “Is it OK for me to order the swordfish even though it seems like a dish from another restaurant?” I could immediately see what she meant. Its nuance, much like that of the delicate, almost mousse-like flourless Torta Caprese ($10), did seem out of place alongside the restaurant’s conspicuous red-meat sensibilities and rollicking ambiance. And yet, from sweetbreads to swordfish, Lucarelli’s best dishes are his quietest, most understated ones. Despite The Lost Fire’s keen attention to the traditions around embers and flame, it is in danger of neglecting its most precious asset: subtlety.

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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