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The Maine attraction beyond blueberries, lobster

By Rachel TraversSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 24, 2002


Two restaurants in Maine, with menus driven by their organic gardens, prove that it is possible to combine the rigors of restaurant ownership with those of organic farming.

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In Ogunquit, Arrows, owned by Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, is housed in a 237-year-old farmhouse with a two-acre organic garden that supplies most of their produce during the summer months.

Farther up the coast in Rockland, Primo serves exceptional garden-fresh fare in a 110-year-old restored house. Now in its third season, Primo was founded by chef Melissa Kelly and her fiancé, Price Kushner.

Both sets of restaurateurs heeded a reverse-pioneer call not to "go West," but to "go East" and to create something new out of something old.

Clark Wolf, a New York food and restaurant consultant, explains this draw. "There aren't many states that have a national reputation for food. Maine is one of them. For 50 years, the word "Maine" has appeared on US menus."

But beyond blueberries and lobsters, Maine is also becoming known for a more sophisticated cuisine. He credits advances in greenhouse technology, which have made restaurant farm gardens in this craggy, rocky state a practical option.

Arrows and Primo are both run by chefs who learned from the best in the business and who are committed to using only the freshest ingredients. But their stories and their food are quite different.

Arrows's owners were trained in the 1980s by California chef Jeremiah Tower at his famed San Francisco restaurant, Stars.

They hoped to open a restaurant in Carmel, Calif., but found that prices were too high. When they heard about a Maine restaurant for sale, they took one look and fell in love. At first, they had to rely on nearby farmers' markets, but eventually their garden began to thrive.

"We started out small," recalls Mr. Frasier. Now five times its original size, their garden supplies about 90 percent of the produce at Arrows. "As the garden changes, we change the menu," he says.

Ingredients are gently woven into their elegant menu. Dinner might start with a terrine of marjoram-cured salmon served "niçoise style" with roasted shallots, haricots verts, potatoes, red onions, and olives. An entree of grilled yellowfin tuna with a roasted tomato, carrot, and almond sauce might follow.

All of this freshness wouldn't be possible without gardener Patti Parrott. When there is still snow on the ground, Ms. Parrott starts seedlings under lights in her house, then moves them to a greenhouse.

"I aim for Clark and Mark not to buy any kind of produce," she says, "except for onions and potatoes."

The list of crops in the Arrows garden is extensive and exotic. Among lettuces, there are five types of romaine alone, and others with names such as Samantha and new red fire (red leaf), crispy frills (green leaf), and red riding hood (a red butterhead). There are six kinds of radishes, 25 varieties of tomatoes, 30 kinds of edible flowers, and a multitude of herbs.

Frasier revels in the environment they've created. "I walk through the garden," he says, "and look at all the beauty and the orderly and perfect-looking vegetables, and hear the birds.... It sounds corny, but you say, 'OK, I can deal with 21st-century life.' It's really restorative."

At Primo, the same high standards are evident. Chef Melissa Kelly began her culinary career under the tutelage of Larry Forgione at An American Place in New York and later worked at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters's shrine to supremely fresh ingredients, in Berkeley, Calif.

"At Chez Panisse," she says, "lettuce is delivered at 5 p.m. to put on plates when service begins. They have a full-time forager and someone who searches out perfect ingredients. It's not a normal restaurant."

Ms. Kelly's next experience was not exactly normal either. She helped create the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn in Hudson Valley, N.Y., which became a major destination for both New Yorkers and New Englanders. The wealthy owners made the garden on the 500-acre property a priority, employing both a landscape designer and a full-time gardener.