Cold weather triggers the desire for comfort food; mashed potatoes thick chowders, and fried seafood leap to mind. But comfort can come in other guises. Poached, seared, locally sourced meats, seafood, and vegetables prepared by chefs who spend as much time selecting the perfect beet as they do their cut of beef, are easy to find at eateries around Maine. I am pledging to start the new year off with a clean slate, so I trek up the coast and into the heart of the state to find chefs who are as passionate about nutrition as they are about taste and quality. What I find is a coterie of cooks creating satisfying, nutrient-rich meals that leave you feeling fed, energized, and ready to seize the best of Maine this winter–rather than succumbing to a groggy, food coma. These are places that don’t wave the health flag, but consistently turn out delicious food sans guilt.
I start in Portland, where culinary choices abound.
Vinland on Congress Street is a tiny bistro where healthy, local food is not merely a trend, but the raison d’etre. “We need to recognize that we really are what we eat. We are also what we eat eats. And if we want to identify with this land we need to be really of this land,” says chef and owner David Levi, a belief that is echoed in his 19-step manifesto.
To dine here is to feel as though Levi, who cooks in a small open kitchen attached to the snug bar, is your personal chef. Amid soaring, gold-painted ceilings and natural birch tree wall sculptures, the vibe is holistic, but not holier-than-thou.
Levi experiments with an evolving all-local cuisine, to the point of eschewing lemon, olive oil, and chocolate because such staples are not sourced nearby. “The food I am producing is based on my understanding of an evolutionary diet and the wisdom of traditional cultures, particularly indigenous,” says the lean chef, who approaches his tightly focused menu as an artist would an art project.
He is a student of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a research group that believes nutrient-dense whole foods and animal fat are vital to health. Levi, like Vinland, is gluten-free. To visit him in his 34-seat dining room during the day is to see farmer after farmer arriving with overflowing boxes of freshly harvested vegetables, chickens, and even a sea salt delivery from Lubec.
All dishes and sauces are made with ghee (an Indian-style clarified butter); organic eggs from pasture-raised birds in nearby Scarborough make up emulsions and house-made ice cream. Any item you decide on is healthy, but Levi’s signature dish is his chicken with crisp skin. He starts with pasture-raised, organic-fed poultry from Serendipity Acres and incorporates a dense bone broth thickened with natural gelatin, which nourishes as well as “strengthens tendons and ligaments,” says Levi. It is served in a bowl with sage, lovage, and butternut squash. For added nutrients he tops the dish with skin, a key element that adds a dose of natural and needed fat. That’s right: a little cholesterol is good for the bloodstream and the taste buds. Rejoice!
No matter how good you plan to be in 2015, it’s hard to pass up a trip to a steakhouse on a chilly January night. Back in Portland regulars watching their waistlines know they don’t have to at the Grill Room in Portland. Amid the macaroni and cheese and German-fried potatoes, roasted beets and spicy broccoli are offered as side dishes, but it’s the lunchtime market salad that you should tuck into.
Whatever is tasty and in season goes into the giant salad, which evolves daily. Side dishes are similarly subject to farmers’ bounty. “We might have roasted beets, purple carrots, winter vegetables, or different sources of greens. We try to keep everything local—rutabaga, whatever turns up fresh and ready,” said chef and owner Harding Lee Smith.
While the Grill Room, where juicy steaks are served in a swank uptown setting, might not be the first place to dine on a diet, efforts have been made to up the health quotient here. It comes from the top. “It’s all about everything in moderation. We are not going to offer tofu bacon. We think it’s healthy if you eat well and lightly,” said Smith, singling out petite cuts of steaks as well as naturally raised, organic Cornish game hen and wood-grilled salmon as red-meat alternatives.
Since we are in the middle of ski season, we look to the mountains for sustenance.
I travel an hour and a half north to discover that the cuisine in Maine’s ski towns has jumped a mogul. In Bethel, at Mill Hill Inn, chef and owner Woody Hughes surprises overnight guests with honest and upscale fare in a tucked-away barn down a slope from the town common. At the inn’s Studio Bistro and Bar, Hughes, a potter and former art teacher at Gould Academy, turns his creativity to reinvigorated renditions of New England classics, all served on his own colorful plates in this homey barn turned ski lodge. Got an early gondola call at Sunday River? Fuel up the night before on pan-seared salmon flavored with a sriracha honey reduction and dusted with peanuts. It’s served with a side of basmati rice with a hint of coconut, and crispy green beans.
A turn towards healthy in the kitchen was no accident for Hughes. “My father died of a heart attack at 51. So I do try to cook healthy,” says the self-taught Hughes. He fell in love with the 1875 barn, purchased it in 2010, and wound up running an inn. The accidental chef creates dishes that can be served fireside in the bar or in the relaxed dining room. The menu offers gluten-free and vegan options, and popovers for lucky guests in the morning. Meals here are as unpretentious as the six-room inn, which he runs with his cheery wife, Lee. Wave off Lee’s wonderful cheesecake if you are truly counting calories. We could not.
In Bath, there is a cheerful Front Street spot that gives locals a reason to venture out no matter what the weather. For 10 years now, Solo Bistro has been sending out virtuous vibes downtown with chef Ray Franklyn in charge for the past two.
When you decide that only vegetables will do in the new year, the vitamin-rich vegan napoleon on the menu demands attention. The satisfying alternative for cheesy, starchy, oily lasagna is worth a venture. A towering and tasty stack of grilled vegetables, strengthened with tomato fennel puree, pine nut arugula pesto and balsamic reduction, will make you forget that you are eating a carb-free entree that’s a dynamo of produce. It’s pressed into perfection and topped with a salad of local greens.
“We are not totally vegetarian or anything like that,” said owner Pia Neilson, who says the vegan napoleon stands proud between a buttercup cheese and boar bacon burger and steak and frites. “But we can accommodate restricted diets.” However, it seems there is nothing restrictive about the meals this former sous chef at Walter’s in Portland is whipping up. This colorful, meatless entree feels like a splurge.
Winter in Maine is a great time to explore restaurants and inns without experiencing the lines out the door that mad summer months bring. Whatever your health goals for the new year, eating local, eating better, and eating in Maine has never tasted this good or been this easy.
Vinland | 593 Congress St. | Portland | 207.653.8617 vinland.me
Grill Room | 84 Exchange St. | Portland | 207.774.2333 thegrillroomandbar.com
Mill Hill Inn | 24 Mill Hill Rd. | Bethel | 207.824.3241 millhillinn.com
Solo Bistro | 128 Front St. | Bath | 207.443.3373 solobistro.com