- By: Kim Ridley
James and Elizabeth Lindquist had racked up years of experience in other restaurants by the time they opened Red Sky in Southwest Harbor in 2003. Consequently, they knew precisely what they wanted. James sums it up in two words: “unstuffy elegance.”
“You know when you’re at a big party where you don’t know anybody, and one truly elegant person comes over to make sure you’re comfortable?” Lindquist asks. “As I explain to my wait staff, that’s how I want everybody to feel — as though they were in my mother’s living room at a cocktail party.”
That feeling translates into an atmosphere that is at once sophisticated and warm. Red Sky evokes the friendly vibe of a neighborhood gathering spot with a subtle polish that makes it special. Knowledgeable and attentive staff immediately put you at ease. Landscape paintings by a local artist grace hand-tinted walls of yellow and maroon. Votive candles glow on white tablecloths and the bar, hewn from white pine and trimmed in mahogany, is comfortable and capacious. Nothing is overdone or pretentious.
The menu, which prominently features organic and local ingredients, also reflects simplicity and a low-key elegance — along with a sense of play. James Lindquist sees ingredients as “back-up singers” that harmonize in a dish rather than overpower it. Among his most fabulous combinations is an appetizer of sweet potato and parsnip latkes topped with sautéed Maine shrimp gently spiked with ginger and accompanied by a spiced peanut sauce. He reinvents the turnover as an appetizer of lobster, sautéed leeks, and cream cheese wrapped in puff pastry and served with an orange mint sauce.
Main courses include classics like a New York strip sirloin steak grilled with Maytag blue cheese and served with red wine caramelized onions. Local scallops are perfectly grilled and beautifully presented with roasted beet risotto, asparagus, and a tangy, basil-infused clementine sauce painted on the rim of the plate in a sunburst pattern.
The “Trio” is a dream come true for dessert lovers who like to sample small bites: three diminutive ramekins filled with a tart lemon custard, a rich vanilla bean crème brûlée, and a decadently dense bittersweet chocolate pudding. Another tempting choice is James’ gingerbread, served toasted and topped with caramel sauce and cream cheese whipped cream flavored with apple brandy.
Ask Lindquist about the inspiration for his dishes, and he responds with entertaining stories peppered with frequent digressions on topics ranging from onions to umami, a Japanese term that loosely translates to “savory” or the “fifth flavor.”
Many of his stories eventually circle back to people in his life, from former clients to his family, which includes nine siblings. It turns out that Lindquist’s menu is delightfully autobiographical. “When my sister tried the chocolate pudding, she said, ‘Jimmy, you’ve channeled Mrs. Giddings!’ ” Lindquist recalls, describing a neighbor from childhood who occasionally brought their mother dessert and other dishes.
The earliest and most important inspiration for Lindquist’s cooking, however, is his mother, Muriel. “As the ninth of ten kids, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with mom,” he says. “One of my earliest memories is sitting on the kitchen counter turning the meat grinder as she used up scraps of different meat to make her spaghetti sauce. She communicated the good old-fashioned value of using food well. I also learned from her the elegance of simplicity and letting ingredients speak for themselves. Everybody who came to our house raved about her cooking.”
Lindquist’s family has summered in Seal Cove since the end of World War II. On a summertime visit with his family in 1995, he sailed every day on his eighteen-foot catboat and had an epiphany. “I realized I was home,” Lindquist says. He landed a job as a waiter at Galyn’s Galley in Bar Harbor, where he met Elizabeth. In 1997, he joined Havana, where he worked as a waiter until he and Elizabeth decided to open Red Sky.
While James handles the cooking, Elizabeth tends bar, selects the white wines on the restaurant’s excellent list (James chooses the reds), makes the pasta, creates the look and feel of the restaurant, and oversees the myriad details that make dining at Red Sky such a delightful experience. Everything at Red Sky, from the signature cocktail — a blend of Cava, James’ raspberry sorbet, and blood orange juice, inspired by the bellini cocktails Elizabeth sampled while shopping for a wedding dress near New York City’s Little Italy — to the hand-tinted walls and pared-down-to-perfection décor reflect her creativity and care.
Elizabeth also keeps things on an even keel, no easy task in an intense business that operates eleven months of the year. “One of the biggest challenges is that we sometimes get so busy, it’s hard to get back to the collaboration,” she says. To help solve that, she came up with great idea: she and James now take “menu walks” in the woods, where they can brainstorm new menu ideas away from the intensity and distraction of the restaurant.
Their collaboration is clearly brilliant. On a recent evening, guests looked well fed and happy as they basked in Red Sky’s glow.
Red Sky is located at 14 Clark Point Road in Southwest Harbor. It’s open from 5:30 to 9 p.m. seven days a week in the summer. Appetizers are $6 to $10; entrées are $19 to $29; desserts $5 to $8. Full bar. Handicap-accessible bathroom. 207-244-0476. www.redskyrestaurant.com
- By: Kim Ridley