February is waning, March is on the horizon, which means it’s time to think about food. Farmers are anticipating planting, seasonal ice cream shops are dusting off the equipment (John’s in Liberty is open), the Beard nominees are in, and the 2013 edition of Maine Restaurant Week is right around the corner.
Maine Restaurant Week 2013
Yessiree folks, it’s time to pick up the phone and start making reservations to return to your favorite haunts or try a new dining venue. Don’t wait on this: Maine Restaurant Week, which celebrates its fifth anniversary March 1-10 this year, is no longer a secret.
As always, participating restaurants (more than 75) are offering three-course fixed price menus at special prices: $15 for lunch and $22, $32, or $42 for dinner. Although most are from the Greater Portland area, there are options from Eliot to Belfast along the coast, and inland including L/A, Oakland, and Dedham.
Maine Restaurant Week kicks off with the Incredible Breakfast Cook-off on March 1, scheduled from 7-9 a.m. at the Sea Dog Brewing Co. in South Portland; tickets are $20. The week concludes with the Signature Event, Bartender and Dessert Competition on March 10, beginning at 4:30 at Prime Mercedes-Benz in Scarborough; tickets are $40-45. Full details on all events, along with a link for purchasing tickets, are on the MRW site.
2013 James Beard Semifinalists
Here we go again. It’s a small sea of familiar Maine faces for the 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards, the culinary equivalent of the Oscars. One Maine restaurant and three Maine chefs are semifinalists. All have been nominated previously, and two have won other Beard awards. Finalists will be announced on March 18, with winners named on May 6. FYI: Only Francine Bistro is participating in Maine Restaurant Week.
• Outstanding Restaurant
Five times lucky? Fore Street is up for the fifth time for Outstanding Restaurant. Partner Sam Hayward put the state on the Beard map and helped launch Portland’s rise to national culinary fame when he won Best Chef Northeast back in 2004. I’m hoping this is the year Fore Street breaks out of its bridesmaid status and gets to throw the bouquet. Fore Street’s renown means landing a rez isn’t easy. Plan well ahead, or arrive right at opening–a percentage of tables is set aside for walk-ins, or do as I often do, settle in the bar and dine there.
• Best Chef Northeast
Krista Kern Desjarlais, chef/owner of Portland’s Bresca, returns for the third time as a semifinalist for Best Chef Northeast. I love this vest pocket restaurant on Middle Street, with its small menu delivering big, Mediterranean-accented flavors. Getting reservations, especially on weekends or during the crazy summer/fall season is tough. Desjarlais recently began serving lunch, so if you can’t score one of the few tables for dinner, consider popping in for lunch. And don’t miss the financier if it’s on the dessert menu (I have dreams about this pastry).
Portland positions itself as Maine’s culinary hotspot, but the Penobscot Bay region is nipping at its heels. Although the number of restaurants can’t compete with Maine’s largest city, the quality sure can. Last year, Melissa Kelly, of Primo, in Rockland, was a semifinalist for Outstanding Chef, a national category. She already has one Best Chef Northeast award under her toque, but that was for a restaurant in New York. This time she’s being recognized for her authentic farm-to-table restaurant (don’t miss touring the gardens or the livestock areas of the restaurant’s grounds before dining during the warmer months). While reservations are required for the dining rooms, it’s first-come/first-served in the upstairs bar and lounge areas, where you can dine of any of the menus. Trust me, though, this is no secret. Even on a Sunday night in the off-season, I’ve had to wait for a seat.
Brian Hill, chef/owner of Francine Bistro, in Camden, is another familiar name on the semifinal list. Like the others, his reputation is built upon a mastery of classic skills, training with noted chefs, and the ability to give a unique twist to familiar foods. Hill crafts his limited menu daily, using primarily organic fare sourced locally. The space is small, the often cross-table conversation can be lively. It’s a delightful find that requires reservations well in advance.