Slow-braised oxtail on sourdough toast; chef/owner Harding Lee Smith; libations on the deck; a bar with a view; grilled cheese and tomato soup; “poutine” with crispy pig-head terrine instead of French fries, topped with sunny-side-up egg.
At Sunday River, chef Harding Lee Smith takes tried-and-true comfort food to new heights.
By Joe Ricchio
Photography by Leslie Brienza
Back in 2005, when chef Harding Lee Smith opened his first restaurant, the Front Room, creative spins on classic comfort food earned him a loyal following in Portland. Over the next eight years, he opened three more spots in the city, stepping into fresh gastronomic terrain with each one. The Grill Room introduced steakhouse fare, the Corner Room brought Italian, and Boone’s Fish House added traditional Maine seafood. Now, with his first restaurant outside Portland, Smith has hit pause on his culinary voyaging and delved back into the cooking he knows best.
The Mountain Room features a menu loaded with dressed-up comfort foods. The grilled cheese sandwich is made with bacon jam and local chèvre and served with tomato soup. Smoked-ricotta pancakes come adorned with maple-jalapeño butter and, as the menu puts it, “a good whack of caviar.” Fermented slaw accompanies the bourbon-glazed pork belly. There’s just one catch: the ski-season-only restaurant sits at 2,100 feet, on Sunday River’s North Peak, in Newry, and you need to ride a chairlift to get there.
Dressed in a tattersall button-down shirt, gray cashmere overcoat, jeans, and walnut-colored Chelsea boots from Allen Edmonds, I caught a lot of confused looks in the lift line. “I don’t ski,” I explained over and over. “I’m here for the food.” At the top, I shuffled across the hardpack and into the Peak Lodge. Rosy-cheeked skiers and boarders were tossing jackets over chairs at long rows of tables or huddling by the woodstove or standing around sipping beers. The Mountain Room occupies the far corner of the lodge. Some patrons sat at high-top tables around the circular bar, taking in panoramic views through huge picture windows, while others bundled up and snagged an Adirondack chair by the fire pit outside on the deck.
Sunday River Resort, Newry
Small plates $8-–$14.
Comfort food usually comes in heaping portions, but chef Harding Lee Smith decided on small plates, to accommodate patrons who might just want a quick bite between runs.
Hitch a Ride
Most diners are already on the mountain to ski or snowboard. Slopes-averse gourmands can buy $15 round-trip lift tickets to the restaurant when it’s open, Thursday through Sunday.
For Smith, running the Mountain Room posed challenges he hadn’t encountered in Portland. Without road access, he had to figure out how to keep the kitchen stocked — stashing orders on snowcats, lugging armfuls of supplies on lift rides — and how to get staff on and off the mountain for shifts. Plus, he had to design a menu as well suited to someone looking for a multi-course spread as to someone wanting a quick snack before hitting the slopes again — hence the focus on small plates.
Smith says he feels like he really has the hang of the place now, in its second season, so he decided to expand the menu, taking care to avoid anything resembling “summer food.” The Scotch egg bursts with velvety soft-cooked yolk. Iberian ham pairs with pungent Bayley Hazen Blue cheese. Warm sourdough garlic toasts have a number of options for spreads, from duck rillettes to whipped ricotta, and are perfect for when snowflakes and temperatures fall. Wash it all down with a frosty Budweiser tall boy or with craftier suds from the likes of Allagash, Rising Tide, and Banded Horn. There’s no beer that wouldn’t go well with a ham, cheese, and hot-pepper-jelly sandwich.
Smith’s food is a perfect fit for Sunday River, upping the on-mountain dining scene, but in a way that keeps with the low-key and fun slope-side vibe. And despite the logistical hassles, the location has advantages too. Even though I don’t ski, I imagine it’s way easier to justify an order of the so-called “poutine” — crispy slabs of pig-head terrine smothered in gravy, dotted with cheese curds, and topped with a sunny-side-up egg — after a full day on the slopes.