By Elizabeth Peavey Photographed by Douglas Merriam
76 Pleasant Street, Norway
One might be forgiven for having modest expectations when searching out 76 Pleasant Street for the first time. To be geographically snobbish, the western Maine town of Norway doesn’t necessarily inspire visions of culinary heights. And frankly, the turn off Main Street onto Pleasant, which is lined with modest Capes and ranches, doesn’t do much to disabuse one of any reservations. Chicken potpie and meatloaf, here we come.
Ah, but then as the road begins its gentle rise, the houses spread out, and, there, set back at the top of a circular drive, sits the stunning 1896 Victorian manse that is home to 76 Pleasant Street. Sparkle lights festoon the columns at the front door, soaring windows cast a warm glow, and through those windows one can catch a glimpse of a table set with two voluminous red wine glasses. Your hopes rise.
And with good reason. From the moment you set foot in the elegant foyer with its dramatic chandelier and curved staircase, you know you have arrived someplace special.
It was that very same feeling that compelled owners Bret and Amy Baker to purchase the property in 2010. The couple, who had spent their careers in the restaurant business working for other people — most recently twenty years in Lake Tahoe — decided to venture out on their own. By chance, they stumbled their way onto this property that had been constructed by a prominent local judge as a wedding gift to his bride. They knew instantly, this was the place. There was just one minor detail: transforming this architectural jewel that had only ever served as a private residence into a code-worthy restaurant. Ambitious? Yes. But by the end of that same year, they were up and running.
To the left of the foyer is a sitting room that is appointed with another crazy chandelier (Amy says she “collects” them) and mid-twentieth-century furniture arranged in front of a gas fireplace. The two dining rooms also boast fireplaces and modern touches: copper tabletops, metal café chairs, interesting art on the walls. But the real story here is what’s on the plates.
The Bakers choose to keep things manageable at just twenty-four seats. Their staff is made up of only themselves and their chef, Jeremy Donovan. Bret floats, serving as sous chef, bartender, and doing whatever else needs to be done. Amy manages the front of the house with service so deft, you barely notice she’s there — save for her wry wit. The affordable menu changes seasonally. Almost everything at 76 Pleasant is made in-house and is locally sourced. The lamb shank comes from a neighbor’s farm. The seafood from a Portland fishmonger. The herbs are grown on-site. The reasonably priced wine list, which leans predictably toward California, offers a couple of surprises. Just like your entire dining experience here.
Donovan’s plates are beautifully constructed but lack pretense and fussiness. The roasted beet salad, for example, is not served in the expected stacked tower, but rather gamely tossed in cubes with greens, red onion, crispy fried leeks, and a breaded mound of warm goat cheese. A party on a plate. That’s not to say his dishes lack composition. The house-cured gravlax is a study in contrast: bright orangey-pink slabs of salmon sit beside a tangle of greens and onions, three squares of pumpernickel, and a puddle of spicy orange remoulade dotted with three marching caperberries: a subject ready for its still life. Many of his dishes are topped with a crown of fried onions or herbs.
And the flavors stand up to the visuals. One amuse-bouche features wild mushrooms draped languidly over a buttery crouton and accompanied by a halved “baby” tomato stuffed with caviar. The duck, which is charcoaled and served with dried-fruit Madeira sauce, is, according to one duck aficionado, whose taste I trust, the best he’s ever had. And just when you thought you couldn’t stand another bite — all you need to hear are the words fig crème brulée.
Okay, maybe just a taste. After all, who wouldn’t want to linger in Norway and savor one of Maine’s newest culinary hot spots?
Elizabeth Peavey’s one-woman show My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother will be showing at Bath’s Chocolate Church Arts Center on Dec. 8.