Bolognese Meets Benjamin Franklin at Lincolnville’s Aster & Rose

The new owners of the historic Youngtown Inn bring fresh energy and culinary chops to its restaurant.

dinner at Aster & Rose, Youngtown Inn's restaurant
By Brian Kevin
Photos by Hannah Hoggatt
From our October 2023 issue

When the Young family showed up at the foot of Mount Megunticook in 1777, the plantation around them was called Canaan, after the biblical Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. By the time the Youngs built their sprawling farmhouse, around 1810, the town around them had incorporated as Lincolnville, and in the generations that followed, the Young farmstead became a land of milk and eggs: a dairy, at first, then a laying farm. 

The Nowaks, with daughter Colette and Aster & Rose server Mary Menn.

Today, it’s a land of milk and wine — or it can be, if you order chef Michael Nowak’s superb Bolognese at Aster & Rose, the unpretentious contemporary-European restaurant he and his wife, Karrie, opened in 2022 in what is today the Youngtown Inn. Chef Nowak’s Bolognese is a fragrant marriage of slow-braised pork, beef, and lamb, a protein triple-threat served over the fettuccine noodles he makes in-house almost daily. It’s a luscious standard on a fairly protein-heavy menu that otherwise changes frequently with what’s in season, and it’s of a lineage with his output at the meat-centric Black Pig, a much-praised, French-influenced farm-to-table joint the Nowaks owned outside Cleveland before relocating to Maine, in 2021.

“We’d vacationed here a lot and just felt like this was our place,” explained Karrie, a native New Hampshirite with Maine family roots, when I stopped in recently. “In 2019, we were staying in Stockton Springs, and I saw a listing for this cute inn in Lincolnville: land, a restaurant, and six guest rooms.” Two of those things they wanted; running an inn wasn’t part of their vision. But the next year, COVID shut down the Black Pig, and Karrie’s corporate job was restructured. The couple thought, hey, we can be innkeepers if it facilitates the Maine dream.

The Nowaks, who now live next door with their three kids, aren’t the first to look at the Young family spread and see the Promised Land. The white-clapboard farmhouse became an inn back in the ’80s, after the collapse of the midcoast poultry industry. Before the Nowaks, it was run for 30 years by Maryann and Manuel Mercier, who raised their own three kids at Youngtown Corner and cultivated a loyal clientele. The Merciers’ dining room was elegant, a white-tablecloth affair, with Manuel, classically trained in his native France, known for his delicate sauces and lobster ravioli.  

581 Youngtown Rd., Lincolnville.
Starters $12–$15, entrées $24–$38.
The wine list slightly privileges Italian grapes, and the cocktail list is updated now and then.
The restaurant is open year-round (so’s the inn, but only five days a week), with reservations appreciated but less crucial in fall and winter, when a Vermont Castings woodstove warms the dining room. The bar always welcomes walk-ins.

The Nowaks’ approach at Aster & Rose is more relaxed. On one recent visit, I sat solo in the snug bar, wearing Chacos and a hoodie, attacking a plate of fettuccine Bolognese and draining an Oxbow pilsner while admiring the patterned wallpaper, which shows Benjamin Franklin blowing a big, pink chewing-gum bubble. It’s the most whimsical of the contemporary touches the Nowaks have put on the place, which include new furniture and fixtures throughout. “We did that for a reason,” Michael says. “To say, this is not a serious room — hop in here anytime for a snack and a cocktail.”

The adjacent dining room is a smidge more serious but still far from stuffy. Gone are the white tablecloths. The vibe is, well, country farmhouse, with wide-plank floors, exposed wood beams, gauzy drapes, and just a few bright landscape paintings. When my wife and I came in for a date night, our fellow diners were mostly in street clothes, with a few boomers in blazers and pearls. The menu was simple, six entrées, each described in fewer than a dozen words, half protein (including a fish dish — scallops on my visit) and half pasta (Chef Nowak, though trained in French technique, cut his teeth at an Italian restaurant).

We started with a salad of local greens and lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms, grown at Troy’s Moorit Hill Farm, tossed lightly in a tahini dressing and made decadent with a beautiful poached egg on top. We foolishly skipped the chicken-liver toast I now know to be the one anchor item on an otherwise rotating starter menu. It’s a favorite seasonal canvas of Chef Nowak’s, dressed with pickled shallots, spicy honey, and pistachio on my first visit, then pickled strawberries when I came back a few weeks later. Our entrées, both off the menu’s non-pasta side, were rich and robust: The bistro steak, on a bed of broccolini and nutty onion farro, was as tender as could be. A perfectly seared duck breast got a bit of sweetness from a citrus demi-glace and a veggie-and-apple hash (midcoast purveyors, like Morrill’s Calyx Farm and Hope’s Three Bug Farm, supply the kitchen with produce).

Dessert was a slab of spiced-pineapple and toasted-coconut cheesecake and a raspberry-chocolate custard, with a healthy dollop of mascarpone mousse, both served on colorful, irregularly shaped ceramic plates. From start to finish, the experience hit a sweet spot between classic and rustic. Which is by design, the Nowaks say — the Ben Franklin wallpaper notwithstanding.

“My style of cooking is kind of more-than-meets-the-eye, with a lot of little prep steps and nuances you don’t necessarily read on the menu,” Michael says. “But we don’t want to get too modern or too wild with anything. We’re aiming for approachable food that, you know, fits a 210-year-old colonial farmhouse in the Camden Hills.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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