Fast forward a decade later and the entire area is ablaze with savvy kitchen stars in one of the prettiest coastal regions in Maine. This is definite farm-to-table territory, too, with the quality of local ingredients a mainstay on these restaurant menus.
From Chef Brian Hill’s esteemed Francine Bistro
(still one of my favorites in Camden) to his two year old outpost, Shepherd’s Pie, in Rockport, the food world in this part of Maine is no longer a bundle of happenstance eateries. But rather the towns have taken a serious stab at the culinary arts, much hailed by locals, visitors and part-timers grateful to have them all there.
You need to spend a week to get to know all the dining establishments. And before I settled on Natalie’s I stopped into the much talked about 40 Paper in the Knox Mill complex off Washington Street. At 6 pm, the restaurant at happy hour seemed somber except for a trendy group of diners out on the front terrace. I had a quick drink and left. I headed over to Natalie’s for a look-see and cocktail and then planned to wind up at Shepherd’s Pie. But once I entered Natalie’s incredibly vivacious space I decided that this was where I would remain for dinner.
The main dining room is a showstopper. With its blaze of fire-engine red dining chairs, and red hanging lampshades, contrasting with the crisp white linen tablecloths, the look is indeed a dazzler for the accidental tourist. That evening the dining room was fairly empty because diners were seated on the outdoor dining porch with its killer views of Mt. Battie and Camden Harbor. It was one of those incredible Maine summer evenings — balmy without humidity and a soft breeze coming off the ocean.
Since I was alone, I planned to have dinner at the bar, which always seems more commodious for the single diner, but co-owner Raymond Brunyanzski said that I’d be much happier sitting at a table on the porch. “Wherever you like,” he graciously offered.
I proceeded to have an incredible dinner, one that was like dining abroad at a seaside villa.
My meal began with an artfully prepared amuse of watermelon gazpacho with mint and raspberry vinegar and salmon gravlax stuffed with smoked salmon mousse with sour cream, crushed pepper and a potato chip.
I asked my excellent server for a wine recommendation and she suggested a 2010 Donnhoff Riesling (Oberhausen/Nahe from Germany) that was the right choice and one that I drank with the ensuing courses.
This was followed by a lobster bisque with hints of tarragon and accompanied by two delectable little lobster cakes. This rendition was far from the New England classic, but it was a superb stretch on a gastronomic staple.
Though I had ordered a three-course dinner the chef was sending out little extras, which I didn’t turn away. I proceeded to enjoy salmon sashimi served under a veil of edamame beans, moistened with ponzu sauce and a light toss of scallions, cucumber and local greens.
My main course was seared long island duck breast with caillette (“sausage”) of duck dark meat, celeriac gratin and brandied cherries. The dish was brilliantly conceived revealing the very able talents of the chef, Geoffroy Deconinck. He’s from Belgium and sports an impressive resume from stints with world-class chefs like Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud. His interpretation of modern French cuisine is perhaps unexpected in Camden. But I wasn’t complaining.
For dessert I had a wondrously good strawberry tart with raspberry sorbet that was prepared more like a financier and was an elegant finale to a fabulous meal.
By the time dinner was over the sun had set and the lighting from the individual tables lamps at the outdoor tables cast a magical glow that meshed perfectly with the surroundings of this very stylish inn and its splendid restaurant.