Originally published in Maine magazine, May 2022.
Yazmin Saraya Jean, owner and general manager of Chez Rosa, says she and chef Kyle Robinson have only one hard-and-fast rule: “We’re pretty strict about not putting things on the menu that are not French.” She says it’s tempting at times to stray from their self-imposed edict, but they enjoy researching until they discover a French dish that fits the season and the availability of ingredients in Maine. “We’re not quite purists, but we always want to stick with French cuisine,” Saraya Jean says.
To that end, Chez Rosa’s menu is full of French classics like steak frites, beef bourguignon, and crème brûlée. The husband-and-wife team opened Chez Rosa (a portmanteau of the couple’s last names) two years ago in Kennebunkport’s Dock Square. Since then, the town has enthusiastically embraced Saraya Jean and Robinson’s bistro as a destination for socializing with friends with a glass of earthy Bordeaux or a plate of perfectly crisped frites.
Although Chez Rosa opened in late May 2020, Saraya Jean and Robinson had intended to open the month prior, after leaving their jobs at Portland’s now-closed Five Fifty-Five. Due to coronavirus restrictions, they were limited to serving takeout until the owners of nearby Abacus Gallery offered their patio for outdoor dining. “They were our angels. We would literally not be here without them,” says Robinson. The couple accented the patio with string lights, which, along with the lush greenery and the gallery’s sculptures, made the perfect al fresco bistro scene.
By the time my husband and I come to dine at Chez Rosa, it’s midwinter, and Robinson has swapped lighter coastal French cuisine like ratatouille and salade Niçoise for heartier dishes such as beef bourguignon and cheese fondue, which are popular in the snowy mountainous regions. Saraya Jean says, “French cuisine is so big, and the regions are so different, that you can almost never get bored. The options are endless.”
We begin our meal with a round of original cocktails from bar manager Julia Russell. My well-balanced Noix de Pecan is a rum-based sour made with lime juice and a tea brewed from pecans. Next, our server recommends we try the charcuterie, as Robinson makes his own spreads like chicken liver pâté and chicken and mushroom terrine. I opt for the pâté, a customer favorite, and slather it on toasted bread from Kennebunk’s Boulangerie bakery. The rich flavor of the liver is cut by a dollop of tart cranberry compote.
Before our entrees, I enjoy a ramekin of onion soup, a savory beef and chicken broth packed with caramelized onions. It’s topped with a few slices of baguette and a salty, smooth lid of browned Swiss cheeses. Robinson says the soup’s components take three days to make, and that customers order this French classic no matter the weather: “Even in the summer, it’ll be so hot out, and we’ll still sell 30 of them.”
With tempting options like steak frites and cassoulet, narrowing down our choice of entrees proves difficult. Robinson makes two versions of cassoulet: one with locally raised duck and chicken, the other topped with delicately fried cubes of tofu that are enlivened by a sprinkle of herbed salt. Intrigued by the vegetarian version, I try the tofu, which proves to pleasantly lighten the hearty bean and vegetable dish.
My husband orders an entree in which Robinson wraps fish, kale, and a crème fraîche lemon mousse in a square of puff pastry. The filled golden pastry, scored with small semicircles to give the appearance of scales, is nestled alongside nutty farro and roasted cauliflower. The surrounding vadouvan velouté, a creamy sauce with Indian-inspired spices, gives the dish a luscious finish.
Both of the main dishes we enjoyed at Chez Rosa have since been traded for others to match the changing seasons. By early spring, Robinson features in-season Maine day boat scallops instead of the pollock, and mushroom bourguignon in the tofu cassoulet’s place. He says he’s looking to strike a balance, offering dishes that feature seasonal ingredients while also keeping customer favorites available. “I’ve learned that, if you’ve got to take something away, whatever you put in its place better be good!” Robinson says with a laugh.
My one regret after dinner at Chez Rosa is that I didn’t order the cheese fondue. I spied a couple at a neighboring table dipping skewered cubes of fruit, ham, and bread into a miniature cast-iron dish of gooey cheese kept warm by a small Sterno can. A return visit to the cozy bistro in Kennebunkport is in my future, and while the menu may have changed, I know that I’ll find Robinson and Saraya Jean taking cues from the Maine seasons to create dishes that are, first and foremost, French.
Chez Rosa | Cross St., Kennebunkport | 207.204.0183
Chez Rosa is one of a handful ocean-friendly restaurants in Maine, a certification given by the Surfrider Foundation. The restaurant recycles, composts, and uses compostable takeout containers and drink straws made from hay. All of the seafood served at Chez Rosa is sustainably sourced, which means that the salade Niçoise served in the summer features Maine lobster or crab instead of tuna, a species that has been over-fished in some areas. Since Chez Rosa received its certification, several other Maine restaurants have followed suit.