The Asticou Inn, Northeast Harbor
Posted on June 11, 2012
by Joe Ricchio
The Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor provides the perfect setting for clearing the mind and soul.
Author Jim Harrison writes about a "place where you go, physically or mentally, when the life is being squeezed out of you or when you think it is, which is the same thing." He calls it the "panic hole," where we go to clear our heads and re-center ourselves when faced with the various manifestations of exhaustion.
Re-centering is what I'm after during my one-night stay at the Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor. Built in 1883, this historic inn is situated on the water's edge, with stunning views of the marina and within close proximity to Acadia National Park. My assumption is that no one will find me here, and to limit contact with the outside world I power down my cell phone—a rare act that initially makes me feel vulnerable but ultimately frees my mind for whatever task is at hand.
Upon arrival, my companion and I are greeted and shown to our suite, which actually resembles a small apartment, with the living area separated from the bedroom by a hallway. The predominantly white decor is simple and contrasts nicely with the pine wood floors. Vintage magazines add character, as do numerous prints of Ray Harny watercolors adorning the walls.
Because it's been a long drive, and dinner is not for a few more hours, we snack on a selection of cheeses that the inn's chef has put together for us. The range of offerings far exceeds that of most garden variety "hotel cheese plates," with Roquefort-crusted chevre, Camembert, aged cheddar, and even a chevre that has been blended with semi-sweet chocolate. The accompanying crostini more closely resemble buttery, garlicky croutons, and are delicious even with the chocolate. We sip from a bottle of Writer's Block Grenache, a North Coast red that has just enough fruit to hold its ground when paired with the various cheeses, yet is subtle enough as not to be intrusive. After having our fill, we set out to explore the surrounding area.
The Asticou Azalea Garden, located steps away from the inn, is modeled after a traditional Japanese stroll garden but constructed to utilize the indigenous flora and fauna of the Maine coast. I could spend hours roaming the various paths, dotted with a myriad of flowers, and passing by streams and a "sand garden" that has been painstakingly raked in a zen-like fashion. Simply imagining the amount of work and detail that go into maintaining an epic undertaking such as this is a bit tiring, and, as it turns out, also aids in working up my appetite. We make one more lap through the gardens before making our way back to the inn for our dinner reservation.
While freshening up back at the suite, I come to the realization that the window in the shower opens all of the way up. This allows one to experience a cool breeze and unobstructed views of the harbor while simultaneously enjoying a hot shower in the comfort and privacy of your room. There are some who may consider this to be too much information, but I find small details like this to be incredibly decadent and therefore worth mentioning.
We make our way downstairs to the lobby, where we are graciously escorted to our table in the dining room. The aesthetic of Peabody's at the Asticou matches the quintessential New England vibe we encountered in our suite, albeit with a slightly updated lounge area and an extensive outdoor patio. I deduce that the size of the dining room, which is on the larger side considering the size of the inn, is meant to accommodate the many weddings the inn hosts during the summer season.
Executive chef Stephen Barck and his sous, Jon Lewis, have recently taken over the kitchen at Peabody's in an effort to update the menu and create a more refined dining experience. Service at the inn is professional and efficient, and they have trained their wait staff to follow suit. The food appears to draw influence from many styles, with several ingredients sourced from the inn's own gardens, as well as local foragers and farmers.
We begin with a bottle of Leeuwin Estates "Artist Series" Riesling from Margaret River in Australia. Though most people view Aussie wines as a bit passé these days—and with good reason considering the manner in which they oversaturated the market in the early 2000s with massive, overly extracted, critter-label bearing shiraz—it is important to note that the wines of Western Australia are different. They are characterized by a very European style of finesse, due to a different climate and varying philosophies of the winemakers. This Riesling is a perfect example, as it displays more of the lime peel, petrol, and acid characteristics commonly found in the wines of the Alsace.
The crispness of the Riesling is especially pleasing alongside our seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras, served with a delicate apple bread pudding and spiced currants, topped with a flourish of aged port syrup. This dish embodies everything I love about foie gras, and the flavors from each bite linger on the palate for what feels like a solid five minutes. I would happily enjoy this dish again as a dessert, or even as breakfast for that matter.
The Savory Mushroom Meatball Hot Pot is a playful interpretation of the retro, yet perpetually delicious cocktail meatball, in this case flecked with leeks and grated cheese before being simmered in a sweet and tangy gravy of foraged mushrooms and chilies. They are garnished with fresh lemon thyme, which serves to dramatically brighten the flavor while also adding an interesting flavor profile.
Both my dining companion and I are completely floored by the garlic-roasted Colorado Lamb Rack, which is cooked to absolute melt-in-your-mouth perfection and is awash in a rich port wine lamb jus. It is served with a luscious, lightly truffled risotto of maitake, king trumpet, and beach mushrooms, with a side of broccoli rabe to impart bitterness and crunch. This makes a fine companion for a bottle of Argiano Brunello di Montalcino, with the fat from the lamb softening the wine's tannins and allowing for flavors of black cherry, leather, and mushrooms to properly shine. Our second entree, the Native Maine Lobster Tagliatelle, is loaded up with a full pound and a half of lobster, and simmered in a light cream sauce with peas, tomatoes, and roasted corn. Once again, I enjoy that kale has been added to offset the rich, creamy element of the dish with a nice bitter crunch.
After dinner we are treated to a traditional tarte tatin consisting of caramel roasted apples layered over buttery and flaky pastry crust and served with house made vanilla ice cream. This is enough to put me over the edge, and I am forced to retire to the lounge for a spot of Bowmore 12—a single malt from the isle of Islay—before returning to the comforts of the suite and calling it an early night. We find that the bed has been turned down, adding just another touch to the already impeccable service we have received all day.
We awake early, with the intention of sampling the breakfast offering before making our way out for a brief hike. When we arrive in the dining room, I note that there is a buffet but am confused that the offerings are limited to fruit, pastries, and cereal. I don't mind at all—I love Frosted Mini-Wheats as much as the next man—but as I am seated and begin eating, a server appears and presents us with a breakfast menu. At this point we already have a plate full of pastries, so we settle on the lobster Eggs Benedict to share, not because it is the quintessential "Maine" thing to do, but rather because the lobster meat was so fresh and abundant in last night's pasta dish that we figure this will be no exception.
My theory proves to be correct, as the Benedict contains a liberal amount of meat, as well as two perfectly poached eggs, enrobed in a lemony hollandaise and showered with fresh garden herbs. After polishing it off in a very short period of time, we are both excited to get a bit of exercise to counterbalance the mountain of rich food we have been consuming.
After checkout, we take a brief drive down the road and park the car before beginning the quarter-mile ascent of the steep series of granite steps, shelters, and overlooks that form the Asticou Terrace. I somehow make it to the top, and am rewarded for my efforts with the spectacular, English-style Thuya Garden, with yet another astonishing array of flowers surrounded by beautiful grass lawns and a reflecting pool. We wander about for a while, losing ourselves in the surroundings, before we begin the seemingly effortless descent back down the terraces.
Unfortunately, the reality of our daily existence calls, and we are forced to abandon the calm of Northeast Harbor and make our way home. I have accomplished my goal, however, and am feeling entirely recharged and ready to hit the ground running, though I would happily enjoy one more plate of foie gras beforehand.
15 Peabody Dr. | Northeast Harbor | 207.276.3344 | asticou.com