Seasons Are Secret to Chefs' Success

At Arrows in Maine, cuisine is created from on-site gardens and inspired by world travel

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ARROWS isn't exactly the kind of restaurant you just happen upon. To get there, you must drive to the coastal town of Ogunquit, Maine; hang a left at the Key Bank in the center of town, and head toward the woods two miles down Berwick Road. That's when you'll see the unassuming 19th-century farmhouse on your right, fringed by flower gardens.

Here, chef-owners Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier have hit the bulls-eye with their seasonal restaurant (open May through Thanksgiving) specializing in innovative American-country cuisine.

A little more than an hour's drive north of Boston, Arrows is a ``destination'' restaurant, one in which patrons consider dining out the main event of their evening. While Arrows has all the givens of an excellent restaurant - exciting and reliable food, attentive service, lovely atmosphere, and loyal clientele - its uniqueness lies in the fact that its owners are as self-sufficient as possible.

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Within the walls of their antique house-cum-restaurant, Mr. Frasier and Mr. Gaier have embraced the do-it-yourself Yankee ideal. They do much of the maintenance on the farmhouse and grounds themselves. Virtually everything served at the restaurant is local, usually very local. They smoke their own meats, (house-cured prosciutto is a specialty), and breads and pastry are all made in-house.

Then there are the gardens.

From the main dining room, one looks out large windows onto beautiful flower gardens. Further along the property, backdropped by dense woods, more gardens provide large amounts of organically grown produce - herbs, vegetables, and berries. Ten to 15 different kinds of lettuce go from garden plot to dinner plate. Indeed, Arrows's salads always seem to earn raves. ``That was the best salad I have ever had,'' said one enthusiastic gentleman after his dinner that included Arrows signature salad: Butter-Lettuce Salad with Danish Blue-Cheese Vinaigrette and Spicy Glazed Pecans. This makes Arrows the epitome of a country restaurant. Need eggplant? Go out back. Need some tarragon? Back in a minute.

But the seasonal aspect of the restaurant serves more than the cause of fresh food. Frasier and Gaier are able to take advantage of the winter break to travel, research food, and rejuvenate. In fact, they consider it one of the secrets to their success. During an interview in one of Arrows's dining rooms, Frasier explains:

IT'S difficult for restaurateurs - chefs especially - to keep going, and there tends to be a peak in restaurants where they open full of energy and life and great ideas. That happens for a couple of years, and the restaurant gets better and better. But then after five or six years of constant work without any real break - which is very true in restaurants - there is just simple burnout.

``Our big advantage is we go away, we eat, we go to all these different restaurants, we experience all sorts of different cultures, then we come back here. Instead of being burned-out, we're completely re-energized and ready to go again.''

Arrows menus constantly evolve to keep pace with inspiration gleaned from the chefs' travels. An appetizer might be a sampler of Pemaquid oysters and a spicy ginger mignonette, steamed Maine-shrimp dumplings, and pork-stuffed tofu that arrives at the table in a tall, tiered, wooden bento box (an Asian lunch box). A main course might be Ginger and Star Anise Confit of Duck with a scallion puff pancake, bok choy, jasmine rice, and a sweet and hot dipping sauce; or Pan-Seared French Turbot with a roasted-garlic broth, crispy zucchini chips, orange oil, and potato-eggplant puree. A dessert might be Honey and Fresh-Lime Granita with Mexican wedding cakes and lace cookies. Their most recent trip was to Mexico. This winter they plan to go to China.

The chefs' respect for Asian aesthetics in presentation shows in the picturesque plates that go from kitchen to table, lovely in color as well as design.

``We believe - like the Chinese do - that food should be beautiful when you first look at it. Part of experiencing good food is through your eyes first, through your nose and your eyes, and then your taste. What makes coming to a really wonderful restaurant is that you eat with your eyes first, and you see a really beautiful presentation,'' says Frasier, who lived in Beijing for a year and a half. ``We're always trying to do things to make it really exciting for the customer, so they experience food on many different levels.''

Before opening Arrows, both Frasier and Gaier worked with Jeremiah Tower at the renowned Stars Restaurant in San Francisco.

``Obviously the influences are: You use fresh ingredients, you use only the best, only things that come from the garden; you use local fishermen.... It makes perfect sense here,'' Frasier says.

They considered opening a restaurant in the Bay area, but, as Gaier says, ``It's really prohibitive to start a business in California.'' As it was, they opened Arrows on a shoestring.

There are so many details to running a really good restaurant, Frasier says, but ``it's all people.'' About 25 people are on Arrows's staff; the restaurant seats 75 and serves as many as 140 dinners a night.

``We're workaholics for maybe seven months out of the year,'' Gaier says, ``but we also know how to forget about work, and have that balance, and be good to ourselves.'' January and February tend to be their travel months.

``Restaurants are like theater, in a way,'' Frasier muses. ``There's the show, which lasts a couple of hours, and behind that there's an incredible amount of rehearsal. For every hour on stage, there are hundreds behind it.''

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