By Michaela Cavallaro
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
21 Wells Rd., Cape Elizabeth
When you’re seated at a picnic table next to a lush field of flowers at Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, you can almost forget that you’re not at home. The sun is setting, the kids are playing happily in the grass, and you’re drinking that crisp bottle of sauvignon blanc you’ve been meaning to open. Yet a few key details signal that you’re someplace just a bit more pleasurable than your own backyard: You’re noshing on warm homemade bread and butter, the table is set with napkins and glowing tea lights — and a server arrives, bearing generous plates of tender greens and other vegetables, plucked from the nearby fields and gently dressed.
That’s the setup at The Well at Jordan’s Farm, a three-summers-old restaurant that operates on a piece of land that’s been farmed by the Jordan family since 1946. Though it’s a mere twenty minutes from the heart of Portland, The Well feels like it’s on another planet. In the distance a few cars roll by, but near at hand there are acres of farmland, a tractor or two, a few screened gazebos to keep out bugs and rain, and a blissful sense of quiet.
Chef and owner Jason Williams was looking for this kind of serenity after he left his post as sous chef at the Back Bay Grill, the Portland fine dining stalwart. “Once my daughter was born, it was time to slow down a little bit and think of the bigger picture,” says Williams, who is thirty-five (his daughter recently finished first grade). “I wanted to get myself in a place where I could spend more time with her.”
Williams had already sourced produce from Jordan’s Farm for years. As he pondered his next step, he decided to approach Penny Jordan about the possibility of an on-farm restaurant that would focus on the best seasonal produce in a relaxed atmosphere. Jordan and her family were enthusiastic about the concept, and The Well was born. Five nights a week from June through early October, Williams gains inspiration from what’s growing right outside the windows of his small kitchen.
The menu is simple — one salad or soup, one each of several protein options (chicken, fish, pork, and vegetarian, for instance), and one dessert. In fact, the whole setup is simple: The menu is posted on a chalkboard outside the structure that houses the kitchen and a four-seat counter. You walk in, order your meal at the counter, and help yourself to water or iced tea. (Kids can order from a similarly focused menu of their own, with choices such as chicken or fish with mashed potatoes and spinach, or pasta with butter and cheese.) The counter staff gives you napkin-wrapped silverware and a brown paper bag containing a hunk of fresh bread and a soft pat of butter. And before you wander out to select a table, you pay for your meal, dropping cash into a farm stand-style box on top of the counter. “It’s always nerve-racking to open the box,” Williams says. “But I like knowing that people feel like the food we serve is worth the price.”
For diners, the close connection between harvest and menu makes a compelling case for return visits throughout the season. Where a late spring meal is heavy on greens, for example, a mid-August plate contains the full array of the fields’ bounty: tomatoes, corn, herbs, cucumbers, peppers, and more. Williams has an especially sure hand with the meat at the center of the plate: His cod is seared to perfection, while pulled pork is shredded, then shaped into a cake and finished on the wood-fired grill. A recent dessert — a house-made doughnut over a fruit compote —disappeared in record time and reflected the best of what the season had to offer. “I’ve always shot from the hip in terms of what I do in the kitchen, and this setup gives me even more freedom to do that,” Williams says.
And while The Well draws diners from as far as New York, local families come by frequently for takeout or stay to eat in the fields. If you’re making a special trip, though, bear in mind that Williams only takes reservations for groups of six or more, and that you might want to throw some bug spray in your bag along with that bottle of wine.
Michaela Cavallaro is a Down East contributing editor and lives in South Portland.