By Virginia M. Wright
Photographs by Douglas Merriam[T]he coolest building in midcoast Maine may well be the 136-year-old brick flatiron at the junction of Main and Beaver in the up-and-coming midcoast city of Belfast. The building’s prow pokes into the downtown intersection like a ship under way, arched stone trim ornaments its windows, and spiky iron finials sprout from its steep slate roof. Matthew Kenney, the renowned vegetarian chef and raw-food pioneer who grew up in neighboring Searsport, fell in love with the building while in residence at PlantLab, his experimental kitchen and cooking school across the street. When its tenant, The Lost Kitchen restaurant, closed in the spring of 2013, Kenney felt compelled to keep the lights on, and The Gothic was born.
“I wasn’t looking for a project,” says Kenney, who has vegan restaurants in Malibu, Miami, and Oklahoma City. “It was a project of passion more than anything else. I felt that space represented the town, and it needed to have a beautiful restaurant.”
That The Gothic is, and bold, too. It is one of a handful of Maine restaurants offering a vegetarian-only menu and, of those, the only one adventuring into cutting-edge molecular gastronomy, which produces seemingly magical — and utterly delicious — flourishes like lemon air, goat cheese foam, and, from the bar, beautiful transparent orbs that burst with the flavor of a classic old-fashioned — bourbon, bitters, lemon zest, even a maraschino cherry.
Initially offering an omnivore’s menu, The Gothic went completely vegetarian this past spring. “We wanted to embrace what we’re about as a company, even if, for the short term, it’s a smaller audience,” Kenney explains. “I have 125 to 140 people who joined my company because of their belief in a plant-based lifestyle for health and the environment. As a chef, I get excited about vegetable cuisine from an artistic point of view. It’s what we’re passionate about. I just believe it’s the future — even Alain Ducasse at his three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris has switched to a mostly vegetarian menu.”
Still, The Gothic, with chef Mike Mastronardi at the helm since June, remains the most independent restaurant in Kenney’s empire. For one thing, its food is not 100 percent plant based, the principal exceptions being eggs and a fine selection of artisanal cheeses. For another, the seasonal variations of its menu are far more dramatic than those of its sister restaurants because this is Maine, after all, and our cultivated and foraged ingredients are nothing if not ephemeral.
“I like homestyle food, but I also like fine dining,” Mastronardi says of this twist on the traditional barbecue. “I want you to be familiar with what you’re eating but to have some surprises, too.
A former bank, the wedge-shaped interior is divided into two small dining rooms whose sleek, contemporary furnishings defer to the antique hammered white tin wainscoting and charcoal walls. Just inside the entrance, Ian Gurney tends a lively bar, where he concocts full-flavored cocktails with house-made infusions, like the Dirty Greek Martini (cucumber- and basil-infused gin, Kalamata olive juice, dry vermouth, and cheese-stuffed olives) and The Living’s Easy (citrus-infused vodka, house-made sweet and sour, Cointreau).
Chef Mastronardi, a veteran of three of the state’s best kitchens (Five Fifty-five, Hugo’s, and Francine), is an avowed omnivore who relishes coaxing the “meatiness” out of vegetables. That means cauliflower seared to a steak-like succulence, accompanied by ratatouille and served with a daub of cauliflower puree, or Mastronardi’s personal favorite from the late-summer menu, tender barbecued carrots, which fall apart like perfectly cooked spareribs. Brushed with a sweet-hot Korean-style sauce, they are accompanied by roasted corn, collards, pickles, and jalapeño cornbread. “I like homestyle food, but I also like fine dining,” Mastronardi says of this twist on the traditional barbecue. “I want you to be familiar with what you’re eating but to have some surprises, too.”
To that end, Mastronardi ventures judiciously into modernist cuisine, which uses tools like vacuum sealers and ultrasonic homogenizers to transform ingredients. Thus, an earthy and sweet chilled beet soup is served not with the usual dollop of sour cream, but with lemon air, a citrusy foam made from lemon juice that is so light it dissipates on the tongue. Smoked potato foam, likewise as light as air, lends its hickory essence to Aroostook potatoes and filet beans, which are served atop a creamy smudge of soubise.
Mastronardi employs innovative techniques with desserts as well, micro-pureeing a walnut sorbet from walnuts, water, sugar, and black walnut oil and a rich vegan ice cream from chocolate, agave, and orange peel. The Almond, an almond-milk panna cotta, is a seasonal canvas — in spring, it was a gorgeous garden in a bowl, topped with blossoms, buds, and watercress granita; in late summer, it was crowned with fresh wild blueberry sorbet.
For autumn, Mastronardi is delving into heartier fare — stews, burgers, perhaps a mushroom shepherd’s pie — and he’ll indulge his love for Asian cuisine with ramen bowls, kimchi, and dumplings. His creative counterpart at the bar, Gurney, promises rich, velvety concoctions, maybe pumpkin liqueur, smoked squash bourbon, hot toddies, and eggnog inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s family recipe.
An accomplished vegetarian cook in his own right, Gurney recognizes the power of the bar in winning over patrons who may be skeptical of meatless fare, never mind unfamiliar textures like foams and spheres. He woos them with starters like the toothsome chilled ramen with nori or the addictive raw kale salad with smoked red pepper dressing, then stands back and smiles as he watches their doubts dissolve.