The Maine Attraction: Getting a Taste of the Chellie Pingree Experience
ROCKLAND, Maine — Once aboard the boat that will speed us to North Haven, a Connecticut man opens up about his affinity for the Pine Tree State.
“It’s just waves and rocks and sky. It’s very relaxing after a year of work,” he said of his annual sojourn north.
A Camden, Maine, resident relates how he and his wife make their way across the white-capped expanse for dinner at least once each summer; he hopes to spend a night at Nebo Lodge sometime in order to take the full measure of the island.
So go the conversations aboard the Equinox, the privately owned boat tasked with moving mainlanders across the 12 miles of open water that separates Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree’s dining empire from the contiguous United States.
Equinox Captain John Morin calculates he’s transported some 2,200 people to North Haven over the course of this summer. And he loves to educate them about how their patronage benefits the community at large .
“You are supporting a revitalization of what once was,” he proclaims, before allowing travelers to disembark. Morin notes, “Vinalhaven got rocks, so they quarried and fished,” while North Haven had rich soil, so they planted. He also praises the opportunity Nebo affords local youth, hailing the restaurant as the second largest employer on the island “after the schools.”
Navigating one’s way from the harbor to the lodge is a fairly simple, if not entirely self-explanatory affair. You cut through the marina lot. Hang a left at the postage stamp-sized post office. Turn right just after passing the clapboard-sided American Legion hall. Then hike up a short hill until the light-festooned porch emerges from the surrounding foliage. Inside, guests are ushered to tables outfitted with fresh flowers and mix-and-match place settings. The walls and ceiling are wrapped in gleaming wood. A dormant fireplace promises toasty nights come fall.
Young women — some opting for the comfort of Toms, faded jeans and colored T-shirts, while others sport ruffled blouses, knee-length skirts and scuffed loafers — flitter about tending to everyone’s needs. One server confirms she’s an educator moonlighting during the break. (“When you live here, you wear many hats,” the graduate student said.)
Everyone appears to be all smiles, from the mother-daughter two-top who appear to be doing some much-needed catching up to the foursome of gift-toting ladies raring to have some fun.
“This is so tacky,” one overly enthusiastic partygoer declares once the bubbly starts flowing. “But I wanna try …” she says as she leans toward the birthday gal, “a selfie!”
The excitement only increases once dishes begin to arrive.
Watermelon slices draped in roasted peppers and dotted with lime-cilantro vinaigrette is the embodiment of freshness. The pickled fruit is sweet and sour, the ringlets of fired poblanos plenty meaty. Crumbled goat cheese adds tang and creamy richness to the toothsome composition.
Crostini gets an intoxicating makeover courtesy of delectable fungi and distilled spirits. The grilled bread is smothered with big, fleshy mushrooms (foraged on the mainland “where they have hardwoods,” my server noted) rendered absolutely irresistible by a soak in a heavy cream sauce spiked with cayenne, cognac and white wine. Minced garlic adds piquancy to the broth, while fresh parsley injects some bitterness.
“Do I get a bib or not?” a neighbor jokingly (we think) inquires after her lobster Bohemienne is presented.
That lady was on to something.
The lobster feast (one of head cook Amanda Hallowell’s favorites) features pre-cracked claws and tails coated in a sauce reminiscent of the mushroom bath. Except shells don’t absorb liquid. So the cream-based lacquer increases the difficulty of handling the already slick lobster parts (and probability of inadvertently wearing home a clump of herbs or some stray onion). Once you’re through, though, the underlying meat is blissfully sweet and succulent.
“All the ingredients were just so … fresh,” announced one happy camper as she exited the restaurant.
“I’m so full, I think the boat might sink,” quipped her packed-to-the-gills spouse.
Serene Acres “There used to be a huge mink farm on the island. So there’s quite a few left,” the shuttle bus driver says after a jet-black runaway slinks across the roadway on the drive to the Turner Farm.
The property lies some three miles to the northeast of Nebo Lodge. It’s not a particularly long trip (15 minutes, tops). But on an island inherently devoid of human congestion, it’s fun to scour the ruggedly beautiful landscape for signs of additional life.
As the van wends its way toward the stately looking barn, the breadth of Pingree’s ecological vision comes into sharper focus.
“We give people a chance to see everything that we do,” Pingree said, encouraging everyone who steps foot on Turner Farm “to really go behind the scenes and see the animals and the vegetables in the field, and ask questions from the people who grow them.”
Farm manager Brenna Chase greets us as soon as we arrive. Giving everyone the lay of the surrounding land, she invites us all to stroll the grounds while staff put the finishing touches on the cocktail service and hors d’oeuvres.
A few of us wander off to take a gander at what’s growing in the wood-fired hothouses. Others, perhaps less inclined to regularly commune with nature, glean a thing or two.
“I didn’t realize they really did that,” one urban dweller said after hearing the pigs noisily grunting as they nosed the clay-like earth in search of food.
Once the barn doors slid open, servers streamed out hoisting aloft trays dotted with caramel-colored libations.
The boozy welcome featured Jim Beam rye doctored with local syrup and garnished with a lemon twist. “A spring product, but it smells like fall,” Hallowell later explained about the maple syrup used to sweeten the homespun old fashioned. Freshly shucked local oysters (“as the crow flies, maybe half a mile,” one server said of the distance the locally cultured shellfish had traveled to be there) whet the appetite. The terrifically briny specimens were well complemented by a bracing red onion-shallot-champagne vinegar mignonette.
Pingree and her husband, S. Donald Sussman showed up, with friends in tow, a short while later. “I love the barn suppers and try to attend when I am home,” Pingree said of her penchant for the “special occasion” dinners.
Once seated, Pingree and Hallowell took turns thanking everyone for joining them, making a point of highlighting the fact that everything we would soon be savoring sprung into existence mere steps from the doorway.
Everyone devoured a colorful arrangement of sliced eggplant, peppers and squash drizzled in bagna couda (a seasoning forged from garlic, oil and anchovies).
Salt-speckled heirloom tomatoes layered with pieces of chewy white cheese threw some people for a loop. “Is that cauliflower?” one neighbor asked as she struggled to place the taste and texture of the fried halloumi. A companion course of mixed greens splashed with champagne vinaigrette was just OK.
I would have totally understood if, after nearly 90 minutes of slurping oysters and munching on delectable pesto-covered country bread, folk’s appetites had begun to wane before the meat course. But such was not the case.
“Did I take too much?” the carnivore to my right sheepishly inquired after shepherding three slices of the featured pork-on-pork power play onto his plate.
Great call, pal.
Each slab of prosciutto-filled saltimbocca revealed tender pig anointed in nutty olive oil and studded with earthy herbs. The cured meat embedded within was silky rich and wickedly salty. Swirling said porcine deliciousness in the buttery white corn polenta served alongside only magnified the intensity of the remarkably savory experience.
Never the Twain Shall Meet Striking the proper work-life balance can be plenty trying for any congressperson.
Pingree remains conscious of that, and then some — stressing that she goes out of her way to keep the restaurant side walled off from everything else.
“I really try to keep the politics out of the restaurant,” she said.
“We have great customers who are Republicans and Democrats and independents and Libertarians, and they all know what I do for work. And I never mind discussing an issue or concern that they may have,” Pingree said. “But I’m pretty strict about the lines of not using anything that belongs to our business for a political opportunity.”
To wit, Pingree noted that while she enjoys cooking at home, she would never dream of sliding behind the burners at Nebo.
“The inn kitchen is way too professional and crowded for me to dare go in there and do anything more than just tell them what a good job they do. But I do love to get behind the bar and mix and few drinks,” she shared.
Pingree’s specialties include mojitos (“We have an incredibly good mint patch,” she noted) and old fashioneds (“I’ve been working on that.”). She’ll even mix up the ghastly sounding blend of Mount Gay dark rum, tonic and olives — “When you’ve been drinking a long time, you’ve got to mix it up,” she quipped — one Nebo regular swears by.
Should her day job come up while she’s doling out potent potables, Pingree says she simply goes with flow.
“Plenty of politics gets talked. Nobody holds back when they see me,” the self-styled barkeep maintains.
Nebo Lodge: 11 Mullins Lane, North Haven, Maine; 207-867-2007; nebolodge.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for dinner Friday and Saturday.
Turner Farm: 73 Turner Farm Road, North Haven, Maine; 207-867-4962; turner-farm.com
Average entree: over $31 ($$$$). Seasonal dinner service subject to availability.
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