Down East 2013 ©
Photograph by Ted Axelrod
One summer evening, restaurateurs Merrilee Paul and David Ross had trouble getting seated for dinner in downtown Kennebunk. The culinary scene in southern Maine hasn’t been the same since.
A Kennebunk native with experience in the hotel industry and event planning, Paul met Ross when she lived in Boston’s North End and he was the chef at her favorite neighborhood eatery, Lucca. The culinary institute-trained Ross had worked at such New York establishments as Oceana (seafood) and Tabla (Indian) before coming to Boston and cooking at the upscale blu Restaurant. Given their respective talents, it was perhaps no surprise that, once married, a restaurant of their own would soon follow.
“When we would visit my family in Maine each summer and have to drive to Portland for dinner, we realized Kennebunk needed another place,” says Paul. “So we took a leap of faith, sold our condo, and moved here.”
The resultant 50 Local, a former bakery and café stylishly redesigned by interior decorator Nicki Bongiorno of Spaces in Kennebunkport, reflects not only the couple’s attention to detail but also their commitment to place.
Fresh, locally produced ingredients are the core of the restaurant’s menu, and allegiance to area farmers the couple’s business mainstay.
A floor-to-ceiling chalkboard listing the local origins of the day’s offerings greets diners. Before even glimpsing the menu you know that the grass-fed beef hamburger comes from Harris Farm in Dayton; the fish from Browne Trading Company in Portland; the fresh greens from Sunset Farm Organics in Lyman.
The interior is festive and friendly. For weekend brunch, daylight pours through a high wall of windows whimsically festooned with a frothy wave of “O’s” plucked from the restaurant’s name. Gun-metal gray predominates in the dining room, with chrome chairs and wooden tables painted a metallic hue, but the effect is more tinsel than industrial. At night the vibe is champagne and bubbly, with blinking candles and white orbs providing most of the light.
Although 50 Local offers an excellent wine list, the handcrafted cocktails are memorable and reflect the owners’ creativity and sense of fun. You won’t find a mix here. All drinks begin with fresh-squeezed juice and the ingredients, when possible, are local. So for a cranberry maple “marguerita,” Maine cranberries are simmered down to a chutney-like consistency in Maine maple syrup, then whipped and added to a traditional margarita. The Grown Up Mr. Misty is the restaurant’s slushy riff on a dark and stormy, made with their own ginger beer granita. Traditional cocktails, like the Bloody Mary, the aviation, and the mai thai, have new life breathed into them thanks to fresh ingredients and good liquor.
The menu, American bistro with influences of Chef Ross’ background preparing Italian and Indian specialties, changes daily, depending on what’s in season. Winter features include homemade gnocchi with root vegetables in a sage brown butter, while summer entrees begin with what’s ripe that day.
“We felt very lucky to open this past summer, which was so bountiful!” enthuses Paul. “David would begin each day in the kitchen with baskets of wonderful produce.”
Still, there are standbys that keep patrons coming back. Mussels cooked in white wine, garlic, and mustard and served with the restaurant’s “frites” are a favorite, as is the mac and cheese, baked in a parmesan truffle cream with sausage and roasted tomatoes. Calamari is prepared in the familiar light batter but flashed fried to tender-crispy perfection, served with pickles and spicy red sauce. The duck salad of greens, bacon, and goat cheese is topped with a fried poached egg and raw Belon oysters arrive topped with a mignonette of shaved apple, Prosecco, garlic, and lemon.
Lobster carbonara is a signature item on the menu, prepared with spaghetti, pancetta, eggs, and cream, as is the twelve-ounce organic rib-eye steak served with fries and a mushroom demi-glace. Housemade ricotta appears as an appetizer served with quince jam and crostini, as well as a delicious accompaniment to pasta with pomodoro sauce and basil, one of the few purely vegetarian options. For dessert, homemade beignets served with crème anglais are a staple, but if you’re lucky, the flourless chocolate cake might appear on the evening menu.
50 Local makes everything itself, from the focaccia on each table to the homemade ketchup on the burger to the Indian rub, mixed by Ross, coating the spiced statler chicken. “We were surprised to discover that most other area restaurants don’t do this,” says Paul. “We’re an oddity in this way.”
But a refreshingly delicious oddity, and a welcome addition to the dining scene south of Portland.
50 Local is located at 50 Main Street in Kennebunk. Open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Brunch is served on Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Appetizers $4 to $13; entrees $9 to $29; desserts $8. 207-985-0850.