A star chef’s Maine cooking comes home.
By Joe Ricchio
Photography by Stacey Cramp
Growing up in the 1960s, Rebecca Charles spent countless hours on Gooch’s Beach, in Kennebunk, where her family had vacationed for generations. Later, as a young chef in New York tired of big-city kitchen culture, she escaped back to southern Maine. For the latter part of the 1980s, she cooked along the coast, first at Ogunquit’s now-defunct Whistling Oyster, then at Kennebunk’s venerable White Barn Inn. She eventually returned to New York, and in 1997, she opened Pearl Oyster Bar, a cozy, narrow joint in Greenwich Village with a menu driven by coastal Maine cuisine.
Back then, lobster rolls weren’t a big draw — they were a curiosity found at a smattering of seaside shacks. Charles never anticipated the mania her traditional Maine lobster roll — mayo-tossed, chive-topped lobster meat on a toasted split-top bun — would spark. Diners turned out in droves for it. Soon, lobster rolls were everywhere: on menus across the city and on glossy food-magazine covers across the country.
27 Western Ave., Kennebunk. 207-204-0860.
Small plates $10–$16, large plates $18–$33.
Among Pearl’s creative cocktails, the Weimaraner — vodka, grapefruit, Aperol, and mint — is “great after a hot night in the kitchen,” chef Rebecca Charles says. Traditionalists can go for a Moscow Mule or an Aviation.
Charles made her name with seafood, but at Pearl Kennebunk, her strongest dishes tend to be terrestrial proteins. “Try the chicken,” she insists. “Seriously.”
Two decades later, the lobster roll that kicked off a national obsession has arrived in the state that begat it. Almost since the original Pearl first opened its doors, Charles had toyed with the idea of starting a place near her old summer stomping grounds. In early 2016, she found a suitable building. That fall, she opened Spat Oyster Cellar downstairs, but a rupture in the sprinkler system delayed the opening of the main restaurant.
Now, Pearl Kennebunk and Spat are open for their first full season together. Of the two, Spat is actually the clearer inheritor of Charles’s New York legacy. It’s small and intimate, and classic shellfish dishes dominate the menu. The new Pearl, on the other hand, has the open, boisterous feel of a brasserie. The design is meant to “bring the outside in,” says Charles, who opted for natural wood, bark, and greenery over artwork. Plus, she’s emphatic that this version of Pearl is not a seafood restaurant. “When I developed Pearl in New York, a small seafood bar was a unique concept,” she says. No longer is that the case, and she’d been itching to branch out.
To the lobster and scallops and daily catch, Charles has added a run of landlubber entrées at Pearl Kennebunk. A delicately pan-fried chicken with caper-studded celery-root slaw is as good as any katsu, Milanese, or schnitzel I’ve ever eaten. There’s a rib eye with grilled spring onions and a cider-glazed pork chop with roasted rainbow carrots. Oysters, mussels, and clam chowder still define the small-plates lineup, but Charles also included a not-to-be-skipped grilled quail dish that holds sweetness and acidity in perfect balance with pineapple chutney and sherry vinaigrette.
No matter how you order, surf or turf, you wind up at dessert, where choices range from classic and refined, like a mousse made with Belgian chocolate, to familiar and comforting, like a strawberry-rhubarb pie or a hot fudge sundae made with Biddeford’s Sweetcream Dairy ice cream. Here, there are no wrong decisions.
Taken together, the two Kennebunk restaurants marry the formula that made Charles a culinary star with her ambition to expand her culinary range. And although she’s certainly not the first chef to attempt to bring a restaurant concept from the city to small-town Maine, here, she’s evolving that concept, not just replicating it. Plus, she has a leg up on others who’ve made similar moves. It’s evident in her smoky clam chowder, mussels simmered in mustard and cream, and that famous lobster roll: she’s already been cooking like a Mainer for decades.