The Maine attraction beyond blueberries, lobster

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

But Kelly longed to have her own restaurant. When she and Mr. Kushner, who was the inn's pastry chef, found a restaurant with a small flower garden on four acres in Rockland, they knew they'd found their dream.

Their goal was to start serving food from the garden on opening day. Gardener Dan Gross began with ingredients most difficult for Kelly to find fresh in Maine – herbs, edible flowers, and salad greens.

Inspired by Elliot Coleman, whom he calls "the guru of growing in Maine in the winter," Mr. Gross relies on an unheated greenhouse.

He starts the growing season with produce that he believes is at its best in the cold – such foods as spinach, miner's lettuce, arugula, carrots, and Asian greens, including mizuna and tatsoi as well as hakurei turnips.

Primo's rustic menu is inspired by cuisines of the coasts of Italy and France. The pizzas and pastas are popular, as are seafood dishes such as wood-roasted local hake with a summer succotash of peas, corn, Vidalia onions, and new potatoes.

At both Arrows and Primo, guests are encouraged to stroll through the gardens before dinner – a valuable part of the dining experience at any restaurant farm garden, says Mr. Wolf. "In today's uncertain age," he says, "we like to know where food comes from. And out back is closer than down the road."

Arrows' Beet Salad with Greens, Farmer's Cheese, and Shallot Vinaigrette

Vinaigrette:

3 large shallots

12 peppercorns

1/2 cup sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Salad:

4 large red beets (or 2 red and 2 yellow)

Salt

3 ounces lettuce, washed and dried

3 ounces mesclun (mixed baby greens), washed and dried

1/2 pound farmer's cheese, crumbed

Place all of the vinaigrette ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth. Set aside. (This can be made a day ahead and refrigerated in a sealed, nonreactive container.)

Place the beets in a saucepan with cold water to cover and 2 teaspoons of salt, and bring to a boil. Cook until a small knife can be slit into the beets without resistance, about 20 minutes. (If using yellow beets, cook them separately.)

Drain the beets and place them in ice water until cool. Using your fingers, remove the skin from the beets and discard. Slice the beets into 1/8-inch rounds.

In a large stainless or glass bowl, toss the greens with 1/2 cup of the vinaigrette. Arrange the greens in the center of six chilled plates. In the same bowl, place the beets and 1/2 cup of the vinaigrette, and lightly toss. Arrange the beets on top of the dressed lettuce on plates. Sprinkle the cheese over the top of the salads and serve.

Serves 6.

Primo's Salmon & Scallions Baked in Parchment Paper with Fine Herbs

6 sheets parchment paper

6 salmon fillets (about 6 ounces each)

1 bunch of scallions (6 to 8), chopped

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup fines herbes, minced (about 1/4 cup each of chervil, parsley, chives, and tarragon)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. For each fillet, fold a piece of parchment paper in half and cut a heart shape – which efficiently accommodates the fish and other fillings – about 3 to 4 inches bigger than the fish. Place a fillet near the fold with a handful of chopped scallions beside it. Drizzle the fish with olive oil, then sprinkle it with salt, pepper, herbs. Top this with a pat of butter.

Tightly fold up the edges of the parchment paper. Place the packages on a baking sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the parchment paper is puffed and slightly brown. Remove from the oven and open carefully to let steam escape. Serves 6.

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