[I]t all started with a dog and a snowstorm. Tony Rossi and Heidi Donovan routinely walked their pup past an abandoned farmhouse for sale in Coplin Plantation (population 166), located on the outskirts of Stratton Village in the western mountains of Maine. One day they saw that drifting snow had pushed open a side door. They ventured inside to take a look. Crossing that threshold started a metaphoric snowball rolling.
Long story condensed: After a bank foreclosure and a stint on the auction block, and after Rossi and Donovan had secured a bank loan and obtained zoning changes, that 1896 building and an acre of land around it was theirs for $35,000. Three months later, just as the 2013 Christmas vacation week was getting under way at nearby Sugarloaf ski resort, the Coplin Dinner House opened its doors.
“We got slammed,” recalls Rossi, the chef, with a laugh. “We were busy-busy-busy from the first.” Sugarloafers and locals alike, it seems, had been pining for quality fine dining, and they were willing to brave a few isolated roads to get it.
Rossi and Donovan, life partners and native Mainers — he from Gardiner, she from Gorham — met working at the ski resort. Tony was chef at Shipyard Brew Haus, Heidi its bar manager. They were used to moving people quickly, serving 300 to 500 lunches and dinners a day and dishing out chicken fingers alongside filet mignon. “When you do too much, you lose focus,” says Rossi, who’s worked in the industry since his teens, including a valuable stint with Larry Matthews at the esteemed Back Bay Grill in Portland. “We’d talked about our own restaurant for a long time, but there weren’t a lot of affordable options.”
Indeed, the community has embraced the restaurant with a barn-raising spirit ever since Donovan and Rossi bought the farmhouse and set about renovating it.
Rossi credits Shipyard for giving him the latitude to develop a special series of ingredients found within 100 miles of the resort. The experience expanded his skills and gained him a following. “It was a good challenge,” he says. “We got to know a lot of farmers in the area.”
At Coplin Dinner House, Rossi strives to offer what he calls “real food, whole food.” The extensive menu changes daily and includes classics (rack of lamb with rosemary whipped potatoes, for instance), novel dishes (smoked salmon pastrami appetizer), and Asian-inspired meals (duck breast lo mein with wasabi aoili). Rossi creates all manner of dishes with meat from pigs raised on the restaurant’s table scraps at the dishwasher’s farm. A fall menu featured adecadent pork belly appetizer with pickled vegetables and sautéed swiss chard, a pulled pork sandwich, pâté with figs and whole-grain mustard, and a meatloaf with beef, pork, and Parmesan that is so meltingly wonderful, you’ll want it to replace your mother’s recipe.
CIA-trained pastry chef Ashley Wienck turns out beautiful desserts, including a tall and filled-to-bursting apple pie that is served hot with homemade cinnamon ice cream and a swoon-worthy dark-chocolate torte with raspberry filling.
The atmosphere is comfortable, uncluttered, and elegant. The front porch has been enclosed to create a long, narrow dining room with plenty of windows. Elsewhere, interior walls have been taken down to make dining nooks and a bar area where Donovan crafts cocktails with simple syrups made from locally harvested rhubarb, raspberries, thyme, and elderflower. Rossi’s kitchen is located in what was once the attached garage.
The couple has a small garden plot and laying chickens on the premises, and they hope to grow more of their own food in the future. Right now, though, they are amply provisioned: The chef’s primary farmer is the spotlight-shy dishwasher (she declined to allow her full name print) who raises those pigs. Three other staffers sell vegetables to the restaurant. And, Rossi says, neighbors “regularly show up at the back door with things — rhubarb and garlic scapes, and, before the first frost, green tomatoes.”
Indeed, the community has embraced the restaurant with a barn-raising spirit ever since Donovan and Rossi bought the farmhouse and set about renovating it. Fifteen people showed up when the pair put out a call to paint the exterior siding. Jeff and Beth Hinman, owners of the popular and long-closed Porter House in Eustis, advised the new restaurateurs on the quirks of a backcountry business. “The support has been overwhelming,” Donovan sayThe couple works just as hard as they did at Sugarloaf, but the new pace and style agree with them. If there is a moral to their story, it might be this: Be open to real estate with potential. To the help of others. To piglets. And never underestimate the value of walking the dog in the snow.
Coplin Dinner House
8252 Carrabassett Rd., Coplin Plantation (Stratton)