Dining Well Far Out to Sea
In the surging gastronomy of food-centric Maine, who would have thought that an island 12 miles out to sea would join the ranks of the culinary elite? But such a food escapade awaits the weary traveler at North Haven Island’s inimitable Nebo Lodge. Here dining on the island’s bountiful harvest is the stuff of memorable meals based on a righteous pedigree of provisions grown, raised and yielding freshness and purity that’s flawless.
The story of this dining phenomenon, so resplendent in the far reaches of Penobscot Bay, isn’t just about a local innkeeper and cooks who made good. It’s much more than that.
Some well heeled patronage didn’t hurt as the crow flies, and on North Haven good connections count. In this case the inn is owned by daughter and mother Hannah and Chellie Pingree, Maine’s venerable US congresswoman. That Chellie Pingree’s husband is the Wall Street billionaire Donald Sussman, his war chest didn’t hinder the inn’s success and renown. Nor did it thwart the efforts of the family’s Turner Farm--the definitive gentleman’s spread that sprawls over 300 pristine waterfront acres and supplies the restaurant with much of its cherished provender.
Local largesse notwithstanding, the kitchen at Nebo Lodge is a symbol of the agricultural renaissance that has brought North Haven back to its roots as a nearly self-sustaing agricultural community.
The island is particularly suited to farming with its rolling terrain of verdant meadows and fertile soil replenished by a delicious sea mist. Five major farms operate full time on the island enabling Nebo Chef Amanda Hallowell to choose from some beautifully sourced foods that include the highly prized island lamb from Sheep Meadow, Foggy Meadow and Cider Hill farms, breads from Little Urchin Bakery and the bounty of Turner Farm’s produce, pork, goat cheese, eggs and dairy products.
Much of this also winds up at the Saturday North Haven farmer’s market. There the small parking lots fills up with Mini’s and Mercedes, pickup trucks and Subarus—a convivial mingling of old and new money summer residents and the prevailing local gentry.
The night that we finally got to Nebo Lodge, Maine was melting under a relentless heat wave, and the inn’s very pretty dining rooms felt like airless—albeit utterly charming-- trenches.
Also that evening the inn’s chefs were tending to Turner Farm’s barn dinner for 75, a quickly sold out event that occurs several times during the summer and fall.
That may have accounted for the shortened menu at the lodge, and I was somewhat disappointed to find only three entrees listed. Where, for instance, was the prized North Haven lamb or locally sourced fish like Vinalhaven halibut?
Still, service was very good and there were some tempting choices on the menu. I started off with deviled eggs, a pleasing dish with its silken, deliciously creamy filling. The other two appetizers we tried were the fried green tomatoes and a Caesar salad of local greens and smoked fish. All were simple, highly flavorful and well made.
We had one each of the three entrees. I chose the steak frites topped with a delicious pesto and crisp classic fries; my friend had trout (an odd item, I thought, with the greater world of ocean fish outside the front door) and my other friend had the fish taco, a popular dish at the inn.
The trout turned out to be steelhead trout, also known as salmon trout, a far cry from lake fish. Steelhead from the West Coast is plentiful in fish markets now and it’s a delicious, rich species, much sweeter than wild salmon. Here it was simply roasted, topped with a creamy herbed sauce and set on a bed of sautéed local greens.
For dessert we chose from the list of house-made ice creams, which were all terrific and a cooling, refreshing conclusion for a nicely conceived meal.
By the time we left at 10 pm, the front bar room was still bustling as though a touch of gentle society had no where else to go after dining well so far out to sea..
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinions. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org