Down East 2013 ©
By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
Amanda Hallowell figured she would be cooking for thirty to forty people during the high season when she agreed to head up the kitchen at Nebo Lodge in 2006. That’s how it was for her parents when they ran an inn and restaurant on North Haven island several years before.
She couldn’t have been more wrong. Folks on North Haven, it seems, cannot get enough of Nebo Lodge. “The last two summers we’ve grown exponentially, from 120 people being the most we’ve ever served, to 170 being the most we’ve ever served, to 240,” Hallowell says. “It’s been crazy. We’re happy.”
To be sure, Nebo has a captive audience. There is only one other restaurant on the island — Cooper’s Landing, which serves sandwiches and ice cream. But it would be a mistake to suggest lack of competition accounts for Nebo’s popularity. Food is what fills the dining room — delicious and beautifully presented suppers like roasted organic steelhead trout with celeriac and fennel pureé or pizza with sweet lamb sausage, chèvre, and greens. All of the offerings are created around vegetables, berries, meat, fish, and cheeses produced on the island, located thirteen miles east of Rockland in Penobscot Bay.
“The experience I’m trying to create is the delight of something unexpectedly good and a little bit sophisticated,” Hallowell says. “Our menu is not what you’d expect on a little Maine island. It’s not so dissimilar from what you’d find in Portland or New York. That is one reason we’ve gotten attention: surprise and delight. You’re thinking, ‘I’m in this incredibly beautiful place, so removed from the world, and oh, my God, I can get a fantastic cocktail or a great bottle of wine and some really good food, too.’”
Hallowell, whose skills in North Haven’s “amazing ultra-locavore lodge” captured the attention of Food & Wine magazine last summer, credits her mother, an accomplished cook and avid vegetable gardener, for what she calls her “ingredients-based” approach to cooking. “We always ate locally and seasonally — we just didn’t think about it,” says Hallowell, who grew up on North Haven and in the midcoast town of Warren. “I want to use the best and freshest ingredients I can find and let them stand for themselves.”
Hallowell learned to cook on a large scale from Stacey Glassman of Swan’s Way catering in Lincolnville, but she had never cooked at a restaurant and was pursuing a career as a copyeditor (her résumé includes a stint at Down East), when Nebo’s owner, Chellie Pingree, a longtime North Haven resident and Maine’s First District congresswoman, approached her about opening a restaurant. “It was very casual,” she recalls. “That’s how Chellie is: she has ideas and if you want to do it, she’ll support you.”
The restaurant opened in 2006, as Nebo was entering its second season under Pingree’s ownership. An unassuming neighbor to the early-twentieth-century houses that comprise North Haven’s small village, Nebo was built around 1912 (the year is etched into one of the dining room fireplaces) and welcomed guests for four decades. The building spent the next fifty years as a private residence and had fallen into disrepair when Pingree, with three friends, stepped in to revive it (she is now the sole owner). One of just two inns on North Haven, it is managed by her daughter, Hannah Pingree, innkeeper and gardener Pam Mountain, and Hallowell.
Nebo’s small and cozy interior spaces belie its size. A rambling series of halls, stairways, and landings leads to nine bedrooms furnished with old-fashioned iron beds and rugs and wallpapers designed by Angela Adams, a North Haven native and Pingree family friend. Another local artist, David Wilson, has painted murals on the dining room and reception walls.
“It’s low key and simple, and we try to do a lot of things well,” Hannah Pingree says. “Amanda’s style has really added to that. The food is the reason a lot of people come here.” To that end, three years ago the kitchen and bar were expanded and a large deck for outdoor dining was built, allowing Nebo to offer pub fare like pizza and burgers, in addition to its more formal dinner menu.
Nebo’s success is no small matter in this community of 355 year-round residents (the population more than triples in summer). Not only does the inn employ roughly seventy people in full-time, part-time, and seasonal jobs, but it also is fueling a revival of farming on North Haven, historically an agricultural community whose rich soils and gentle terrain are rare among Maine’s rugged granite-bound islands. Hallowell buys ingredients from island bakers, beekeepers, fishermen, and a handful of small farms. “The quality of ingredients we get rivals anything people get in California,” she says. “I don’t think you can get food any fresher than what we have brought to our backdoor by a variety of farmers.”
Nebo’s chief supplier is Turner Farm, which not coincidentally is owned by Pingree and her husband, S. Donald Sussman. Turner Farm’s roots on North Haven are even deeper than Nebo’s. Sitting on a peninsula, the property was farmed by the Turner and Thomas families for more than one hundred years before it was allowed to go dormant sometime after World War I. In the five years since Sussman purchased it, however, the hill overlooking Penobscot Bay has sprouted eight greenhouses for year-round organic vegetable production and several pens and coops for the barnyard denizens: thirteen milking goats, a pair of bucks, three dairy cows, four beef cattle, sixteen pigs, thirty ducks, and six hundred chickens.
No animals live in the stunning timber-frame barn. Rather, it stores hay and machinery and houses a seasonal farm stand and the Turner Farm Creamery, where Jamien Shields makes forty-five pounds of cheese a week. Twice each summer, string lights are draped from the rafters and a table for sixty is set with white tablecloths, mismatched china, candles, and flowers. Dinner guests, cocktails in hand, amble about the barnyard and soak up the glorious view before taking a place at the table. One of the farm managers, James Blair or Brenna Chase, or perhaps Chellie Pingree herself, tells diners about the harvest and offers a toast. Then a feast prepared by Hallowell and the Nebo staff is served — barbecued ribs, perhaps, and slow-roasted pork shoulder, grilled lemon chicken, grilled eggplants, zucchinis, and peppers topped with chèvre, grilled corn with chipotle lime butter, cornbread, and fresh tomato salad.
The barn dinners, Hallowell suggests, are an amplified expression of the Nebo spirit. “It’s a community story,” she says. “Most of the people who work at Nebo have some ties to the island, and we work hard to make it a place where people love to work. It’s become an important employer, and it has brought some business and energy to North Haven.”
If You Go
Dining at Nebo Lodge can be a challenge for day-trippers. The ferry Captain Neal Burgess makes the round trip between Rockland and North Haven just three times daily, and its last departure from North Haven is well before dinnertime (for a ferry schedule, visit maine.gov/mdot/msfs/index.htm). To that end, Nebo Lodge has partnered with John Morin of Equinox Island Transit to offer round-trip dinner cruises between Rockland and North Haven on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in July and August; and on Saturdays in June and September. Departure from Journey’s End Marina in Rockland is at 4 p.m. Guests disembark in North Haven village about an hour later and make the short stroll to the lodge. Equinox departs for Rockland when the last of the passengers have finished dinner, typically around 8 p.m. The fare is $25 per person not including dinner. Make reservations for both boat and dinner by calling Nebo Lodge, 207-867-2007. nebolodge.com