BETTER THAN EXCELLENT

words CAROLYN SWARTZ
photography NICOLE FRANZEN
recipe from THE LOST KITCHEN by Erin French

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Left: Summer berries with ginger.
Above: Chilled golden beet and buttermilk soup.

Unless you’re Martha Stewart or Pope Francis, there’s just one way to get a seat at The Lost Kitchen, a seasonal 50-seat restaurant in Freedom: You have to win the lottery. With no phone, email or Open Table reservations, wishful diners snail-mail their contact info on a 3- x 5-inch card. And wait. If your card is picked, a friendly staffer will ring you up to go over available dates. Lost Kitchen Chef-Owner Erin French came up with the ingeniously low-tech system a few years ago, after fielding thousands of calls in one day.

In six short years, The Lost Kitchen has earned glowing press, three James Beard Award nominations and reluctantly received celebrity status for French. That she grew up in Freedom (population 730)—a town she fondly describes as “in the middle of nowhere”—makes her success story all the more interesting. Everything I’d read about the restaurant intrigued: its setting in a converted gristmill; French’s passion for real food, local and in season; and her staff of mostly women, all friends, who also contribute to the Lost Kitchen experience as foragers, growers and artisans.

Last spring, new to Maine after decades in New York City, I decided to try my luck. When the call came in, my husband, Wayne—who doesn’t really get why some people read cookbooks just for fun—claimed to be nearly as thrilled as I was. But even as I called friends and family to gloat about our amazing good fortune, a small voice inside my head asked how much better than excellent can a restaurant really be?

Freedom is one of Maine’s 56 “dry” towns. This means that The Lost Kitchen can serve alcohol, but not sell it. While you can technically BYO, most guests arrive early to visit the cozy wood-lined wine cellar—which is allowed to sell alcohol—under the mill. There, among a good selection of wines at different price points, we found Deanna Richardson (French’s mom) on hand to offer low-pressure suggestions on pairings. While she packed our selections into a basket, we took the opportunity to marvel at the rushing river and giant jackshaft that once powered the mill.

Up a short path, staff welcomed us into an airy post-and-beam dining room with lots of windows and walls of wood boards. The sun had broken through, and late afternoon light played off glassware and small bouquets of colorful wildflowers at each setting. As guests arrived and took their seats, the room buzzed with barely suppressed giddiness. We were all lucky and we knew it. In the open kitchen, French and her staff displayed an easy volley as they composed and handed off the first of several off-menu pre-dinner surprises.

For me, a dining experience can tank if a nearby party is yukking it up over after-dinner drinks while I’m trying to settle on an appetizer. At The Lost Kitchen, this can’t happen. With one seating a night, the restaurant serves a single menu (that changes daily) to all 50 guests. And every detail of the dining experience appears to have been carefully thought out.

Servers lean in close to identify at low volume the local cow, sheep and goat cheeses arranged on a slab of marble alongside small bowls of plump olives, roasted baby beets and sweet-salty Marcona almonds, accented here and there by white radishes and leafy greens. For French, who is self-taught, presentation is integral to experience. But you won’t see extruded squiggles or dishes looking like faux Jackson Pollacks. Plated or planked, what dazzles here is the food.

Tart rosy watermelon radishes mellowed by sweet butter, fresh cheeses encased in diaphanous squash blossom; bright briny oysters from nearby Damariscotta, set off by calligraphic wisps of pale green seaweed. The vibe was intimate; the service friendly but never fawning; the pace leisurely and relaxed. Just when we began to wonder what was next, it seemed to appear in front of us. Finally, for the Ultimate Trip to Umami: savory roasted beef marrow butter filling the hollow of a split marrow bone, for spreading on lightly grilled toasts. Even Wayne, who is normally less than enthusiastic about protein other than muscle meat, was transported.

A tawny dusk settled low in the sky as Thai basil sorbet, served in tiny decorative bowls, put a cap on our preamble to dinner. And Erin French—her blonde hair up in a loose ponytail—came out to the dining room to greet us warmly and walk us through the dinner menu to come (along with the exigencies of weather and transportation that had played a role in shaping it. Talking with us about how the restaurant got its start, she described how “blown away” she was by all it has become. Then she raised a glass in a warm toast to our shared good fortune: “We’re here together, in Maine!”

Under warm incandescent and candle light, dinner unfolded across four courses of deliciously imaginative pairings and contrasts I couldn’t have imagined. A creamy soup made a playful threesome of earthy Swiss chard, sweet Maine crab and tart crème fraîche. Onion sprouts and tiny violets good enough to eat (we did) enlivened a salad of tender lettuce hearts, bacon and radish tossed in a mild buttermilk-and-shallot dressing.

Our main course, a skillet-roasted halibut, arrived crisp skinned, moist inside, perched on a bed of creamy polenta that glistened with wild ramp and chive butter. Nestled alongside: tender asparagus shoots, spicy arugula and baby—no, make that infant—kale. That the dish was topped with a riot of edible pansies didn’t even feel over the top.

Dessert brought us back down to earth, but an earth as we imagine it once was or wished it could still be. An old-fashioned browned butter cake on vanilla custard and light raspberry compote was topped by a generous dollop of fresh whipped cream. I think it was a tiny elder flower on the top. Wayne described the dessert as down home. I agreed, but only if you could have a chef like Erin French in your kitchen.

One by one, people began to rise slowly from their seats—elated, fulfilled and probably secretly wishing, as we did, that the evening would never end. Erin French must understand this, because it wasn’t over, yet.

On a table near the doors, staff had laid out the lottery cards submitted by the evening’s guests but on the flip sides, where few of us can resist, were added personal messages, drawings, watercolors or collage. Together they formed a composite portrait of us all. Just beyond, French was tying twine bows around cellophane bags filled with cookies still warm from the oven. With good wishes and warm thanks, she handed them out as a sweet parting gift for the road.

In the car, a Bach prelude was playing on Maine Classical. I told Wayne that if food were music, Erin French would be Bach: her cooking ingenious, her dishes inspired, without a false or extraneous note. We listened, savoring the cookies, which were (not surprisingly) delicious. Lesson learned: some things in life are all they’re cracked up to be. At The Lost Kitchen we found better than excellent—by a lot.

. . .

The following recipe and all photos from The Lost Kitchen. Copyright © 2017 by Erin French. Photographs copyright © 2017 by Nicole Franzen. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.

Maine Halibut Niçoise

Serves 4

1 pound baby or new potatoes
Salt and pepper
½ pound green beans, blanched
1 large heirloom tomato, sliced into 8 wedges
Macerated Shallot Vinaigrette
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 halibut fillets (about ½ pound each)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 head Bibb lettuce, leaves separated
4 large eggs, poached
 ¼ cup Tapenade
1 lemon, quartered
Edible flowers, for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Put the potatoes in a large pot and cover with water. Season generously with salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so that the water simmers and cook the potatoes until fork-tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain and let cool to room temperature. Cut into quarters.

In a small bowl, toss the potatoes, green beans, and tomato with enough of the macerated shallot vinaigrette to coat the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat a large ovenproof skillet, preferably cast iron, over high heat, pour in the olive oil, and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Season the halibut on both sides with salt and pepper and add it to the hot skillet, skin-side down. You’ll know the pan is hot enough when you can hold your hand about 6 inches above it for only 3 seconds. Or the oil will begin to smoke. Be sure there’s at least a couple inches of space between the fillets or the fish will steam. Cook in 2 separate pans or in 2 batches, if necessary.

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