Down East 2013 ©
She may call her new fine-dining eatery The Lost Kitchen, but thirty-one year old chef-owner Erin French knew the restaurant’s location before she gained the skills, talent, or finances to run it. “I had been lusting after this one building downtown since I was a kid really,” French says.
If you’ve been to Belfast you probably know this gothic building, and may have lusted after it as well. It’s the former National Bank of Belfast perched at the top of Main Street. It looks like New York’s famous triangle-shaped Flatiron Building made Maine-friendly: fit-to-scale on the coast, adorned with dark red bricks, less austere yet still slightly spooky, and, as of November, home to an American, farm-to-table restaurant garnering attention across the midcoast.
French says she bases The Lost Kitchen’s cuisine around the most fresh, local ingredients, and she means it. I spoke to her on Tuesday morning, and she had no idea what would be on that night’s menu. “My menu is dictated by whatever the farmers show up with that day,” she says. When I asked the waiter about the scallop entree on the night I visited, he said the fish were so fresh he had yet to see the dish himself. Recommending a starter he could attest to, he pointed me towards the fried shrimp with hot peppers, lemon, and parsley for nine dollars. Shrimp season started just days earlier, and you could taste it.
This was the second time I visited the restaurant in two weeks. Both nights were chilly and suited best for staying in, yet a youthful mix of couples and families filled the restaurant’s two rooms and thirteen tables. With the exception of the Caldwell Farm cheeseburger, the menu changed completely between visits. Unpredictability is predictable at The Lost Kitchen. Anything from the restaurant’s wine list to local cheese plates, starters, and three to four entrees can change nightly.
I ordered the confit chicken with roasted lemon ($21) one night and salmon over a bed of forbidden rice ($24) the next. Both were bold in their simplicity, as if daring you to try and cook it better (you can’t) or find fresher ingredients (you won’t). French tends to get more playful with her small dishes. The artfully adorned deviled pullet eggs with pickled beets for four dollars was a stand out.
You shouldn’t expect the formalities of an established restaurant, however. There are no side dish options, and no bread-baskets. This casualness will turn some diners off, and French knows it, but The Lost Kitchen’s journey has always been defined by following its chef’s instincts, and rarely do those align with tradition.
The restaurant’s name derives from a secret six-course supper club held in French’s apartment (the second floor of the former bank) every Saturday that started in December 2010. “The whole point of the supper club was to try things out. I couldn’t handle the burden of paying off a huge student loan for culinary school, so I figured I would teach myself,” she says.
French initially struggled to find eighteen people willing to attend, but word quickly spread of her talent. By the summer, her twenty-four available spots were fully booked by complete strangers just minutes after sending out the e-vites. The reception gave French the confidence to move her operation downstairs and open it up to the public.
From the outside, the building remains the same imposing gothic bank. Inside, the décor of The Lost Kitchen is chic, though not out of place for Belfast. Mid-century modern lights hang over a zinc bar while handmade tabletops complement antique French bistro bases. The minimalist design accentuates the existing architecture.
“For me, the biggest challenge was to keep the restaurant feeling as if it were part of the building, as if it’s been there the whole time, but to bring in a few modern elements,” she says. The “Bank” signage remains, as do the hand-tile mosaics and original flooring that tellers stood on back in 1878.
Despite so much polish, this young restaurant is still a work-in-progress. But French likes it that way. As of late December, she had never cooked rabbit. Three weeks later, a fried local rabbit with grilled radicchio appetizer was the clear standout of my meal. The boldness of putting an item just learned on a fine-dining menu is almost rebellious, yet undoubtedly a welcome injection of energy to Belfast’s food scene. Those expecting breadbaskets, a standard menu, and chefs with years of formal training and culinary degrees may not agree with French’s methods, but after just one bite, it’s hard argue with her results.
The Lost Kitchen is located at 108 Main Street in Belfast. It’s open Tues. – Sat. 5 p.m. to close. Dishes can change daily. Appetizers from $4–$11. Entrees $19–$29. Desserts are $6. 207-930-2055.