Monday, October 24, 2016

Dinner in the Kennebunks

Kennebunkport and neighboring Kennebunk are my favorite Maine towns outside of Portland. My partner's family lives there and so we visit frequently in the summer, spending time at their beach house. I have many happy memories of my time there, and I love exploring the restaurant scene—a mix of Maine beach town classics and chic new places. I even designed a map for Eater Maine of my favorite places to eat and drink in town (and received my first hate e-mail over said map!). 

So I was thrilled when the Kennebunk Chamber of Commerce invited me to a progressive dinner to explore two new restaurants and one classic that are all run by female chefs. I joined a few lifestyle/travel bloggers from out of town and some other Maine media guests to explore restaurants that I might not have otherwise visited, but now can confidently recommend to you. 

We started at Spat Oyster Cellar, the newest restaurant in the Kennebunks, with Chef Rebecca Charles at the helm. Chef Charles also opened and ran the popular Pearl Oyster Bar in New York, bringing the food she experienced summering and working in Maine to the urban masses. 

Spat Oyster Cellar is a casual basement raw bar, with a small bar and a few tables in a cozy room. Upstairs, renovations continue on the former Abbondante space where Pearl Kennebunk Beach will open sometime in the spring (apparently the renovations are taking much longer than anticipated). 

We started our dinner with some oysters from Maine and New Hampshire on the half shell. Chef Charles gave us her thoughts on the differences between Maine and New York (namely that Maine oysters are more expensive) which is one of my favorite games. 

We also enjoyed fried oysters presented perched on a shell full of tartar sauce and some fried shell-on shrimp. Other dishes at Spat include steamers, clam chowder, mussels, and naturally, their signature lobster roll. 

From Spat, we headed down the street to Toroso, the new project from chef Shannon Bard. Bard also own the upscale Mexican restaurant Zapoteca in Portland. Toroso has a Spanish theme, which means, you guessed it, tapas! (Sadly, Toroso and Zapoteca have since closed.)

Chef Bard proceeded to send out a veritable avalanche of food to our table—starting with a beautiful charcuterie and cheese plate. The meats are cured in-house and paired with a rotating selection of Spanish cheeses. 

We also enjoyed the croquetas with serrano ham and manchego, the almond-crusted tuna with a ginger apple salad (both pictured below), the oxtail stuffed pimento peppers, crispy eggplant rounds drizzled with honey, lamb meatballs, and a delightful bacalao (Portuguese seafood stew) with saffron, clams, spinach, chickpeas, and brandade. Erica Archer of Wine Wise provided some wine pairings, picking out a Spanish white and red for us to enjoy. 

As an aside, I even returned three nights later for a light dinner before seeing some live music in Arundel. I had to have those peppers and bacalao again! We were there for happy hour, where the menu features pinxtos or bite-size happy hour plates for $5. 

Next, we headed into downtown Kennebunk for dessert at Academe, the Kennebunk Inn's restaurant run by Brian and Shanna O'Hea. We were first treated to a telling of the history of the inn by a historical reenactor and then dazzled with plates of three desserts. 

We were served a pumpkin white chocolate cheesecake ice cream sandwich, a square of cranberry apple upside-down cake, and a puff of cotton candy dusted with cider spices. I have to admit that I'd previously thought that the rather ho-hum appearance of the inn meant that nothing too exciting was happening in the kitchen. But the desserts were so good—creative and fun, not cloyingly sweet—that I'll certainly consider the rest of the kitchen's menu when looking for a place to dine in Kennebunk. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Split Rock Distillery, Newcastle

I gave a book talk to a nice group at the Old Bristol Historical Society in the Midcoast last month, and they asked me to speak about the distillery that had recently opened nearby. So I left for my drive up the coast a little early to stop into Split Rock Distillery and learn about one of the state's newest distilleries and its only certified organic one.  

Split Rock is located at the crest of a hill on Route One in Newcastle, with a big red flag declaring them "OPEN" (if you pass by between 12 and 6 p.m., that is). Keep an eye out for it as you speed up the hill, since you stand to fly right by it. 

The distillery opened in July and is owned and operated by Topher Mallory (who is also the CEO of Mexicali Blues) and his business partner Matt Page. The old barn was rennovated into the distillery space and a tasting room, with a beautiful live-edge wooden bar. 

They makes several kinds of vodka and whiskey at the distillery: all organic and made from human-grade ingredients (versus feed-quality*). The most popular, judging by how often it sells out, is the horseradish vodka. When I sampled the line of spirits, Matt made sure to stress that these vodkas are infused with organic ingredients, not flavored with extracts. So the horseradish vodka is made by steeping grated horseradish in it for a few days; same with the blueberry (only blueberries, not horseradish, obvi). 

*Split Rock has planted their flag in the "highest quality" corner of the market; you'll have to decide for yourself whether organic and human-grade grain makes a difference to you. 

I tried two vodkas and two whiskeys on my visit, which you can see above: vodka, blueberry vodka, white whiskey, and bourbon. The vodka was smooth with lots of flavor and no harsh alcohol flavors. The blueberry didn't do much for me because I don't care for blueberry flavors (secret shame of the Blueberry Files!!) but a blueberry lover would flip for it. It was delicious when I enjoyed it with some sparkling lemonade this summer while out on an island (but I mean, duh). 

The white whiskey was also nice and smooth, with lots of sweet grain character. The bourbon was my favorite—while this batch was only aged a few months, Matt argues that the high-quality ingredients mean that it doesn't need to spend as much time in the barrel to age off the harsh alcohol characteristics. 

The distillery is visible through a glass-topped half wall from the tasting room. The column stills are used to make all the spirits, just more of the refining column is used when they're making vodka as compared to whiskey. Gin, rum, and more whiskey are in the works. Stop in to visit Split Rock Distillery if you're in the area, or find their products at your local high-end liquor store. 

And since no visit to the Midcoast is complete without a scenic lighthouse, here's a shot of the light out at Pemaquid Point, where I gave my book talk: