Note: This was originally published on July 10, 2015 and having been reminded by a Facebook post in memories I decided to include it in the Golden Dish again since it’s so terribly apt for today, seven years later showing that fine cooking is timeless and still relevant without all the hoopla that swirls around our culinary scene today.

The food world is under siege with trendiness.  Fried chicken has become an artisanal  super-star.  The rarest tomato, the sustainable fish fillet, the rigors of omikase and Asian panache–even pizza are elevated to otherworldly stardom.  Canned food is left in the dust unless you can it yourself at a farm table in the middle of your highfalutin country kitchen. Then there’s the whole wide world of farm-to-table as though it were something really novel when in fact it’s how the world used to eat simply and well:  food from the field—unprocessed, unadulterated, fair and fresh.

At table at Turner Farm supper
The table set at Turner Farm Barn Dinner Circa  July10, 2015

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Out of the farm fields and farm shops in Cumberland Center is a growing list of purveyors who are integral to Maine’s food lore.  My list includes Pine Ridge Acres  farm store, Spring Brook Farm and Cumberland Food Company. The latter has now become a destination for dining-in for dinner known as Dara Bistro.

Their “Story” best describes the change:

“Dara Bistro, formerly named the Cumberland Food Company, started on January 1’st, 2017 by Chef Bryan Dame and myself, Kelsey Pettengill.   We serve as a community meeting space in the form of a casual neighborhood Coffeeshop by morning, and then as a more formal dinner service space at night.  Located at 371 Tuttle Rd, the building dates back to the late 1800’s and was originally utilized as a jersey cow dairy farm.  It has gone through a handful of transitions over the years, most recently when it was remodeled into a restaurant space and run as Doc’s cafe until 2017 When we leased the space and made it our own!”

Several comfortable dining areas including the open kitchen and service counter

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It’s been a great strawberry season in Maine, but it’s coming to an end.  According to regional producers there’s about a week or two left in the growing season.  However, don’t fret just yet.  Some growers cultivate the everbearing  variety. At Beth’s Farm Market in Warren they have berries all summer long, sometimes well into the fall from their everbearing variety.  Others like Fairwinds Farm  and Alewive’s Brook Farm have a second grow cycle in late July and beyond.  I’ve found that these second cycle berries aren’t as juicy and sweet as June varieties.  But for those of us who love strawberries, they’re still a pleasure to have.

Two quarts strawberries for strawberry pie, from Jordan’s Farm, Cape Elizabeth

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Two restaurants beyond  Portland’s sturdy culinary confines are exemplary. They are  87 miles apart, the distance from Cape Elizabeth’s The Well at Jordan’s Farm to Rockport’s Nina June.  They excel for one simple reason.  The food at each is fabulous.

I visited Nina June in early June, and it was my first time there. I loved the place when it was the Salt Water Grill some years ago.  The room was lily white then, right out of a Ralph Lauren playbook, Rockport Harbor being the perfect backdrop in this gorgeous little village as the quiet side of Camden next door.   Nina June is cozier than its predecessor and more like being in a country boite rather than a “fancy” restaurant. But the food  is superb under the able hands of Sara Jenkins, owner and chef. She commands her post like a general, but always calm, not rattled  as every nook and cranny of her cooking talents emerge. If anyone from Maine should merit a James Beard Award, it’s Jenkins, leaving many others merely striving.

Nina June’s dining terrace overlooking Rockport harbor, photo courtesy of Nina June

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This is one of the best uses of rhubarb in a cake.  When I took  the first slice I was amazed at how good this cake tasted: moist, rich, almost creamy with the tang of rhubarb in the filling and its overall sweetness tempered by the lemon glaze that coats the cake.

I found the recipe in  “Rustic Fruit Desserts” by Cory Schreiber. I use it more often than not for seasonal fruit desserts and other sweets depending on the time of year.  Cory Schreiber  owns a very popular bakery, Baker and Spice in Portland, Oregon.  If only we had such a bakery in our neck of the woods.  The closest is Scratch Baking, whose baked goods have similar characteristics as the other Portland bakery.

Rhubarb Bundt with lemon glaze

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Dare I disagree with the latest (and one of the few) reviews of this forward-looking restaurant?  After all,  the Helm Oyster Bar and Bistro  appeared in the city’s newspaper of record  with a four-star review, a rarity, barking unbridled raves. When I visited the restaurant shortly after the write-up appeared we ordered several of the menu items gushed over.   In our tastings it was as though we were at a different restaurant entirely.

The room is different from most other dining establishments in Portland.  For one, it’s glass-walled overlooking glimpses of the water on Thames Street, a byway that will one day connect to the rest of the Eastern Waterfront development, where the audacious and highly anticipated 12 is set to open in the old Portland Company Building  known collectively as 58 Fore Street or Portland Foreside. The renown of 12 is its pedigree: The chef, Colin Wyatt,   is from such New York stars as Daniel and Eleven Madison Park.  He joins the team of EVO (one day chef Matt Ginn should be nominated for a JBA), Chebeague Island Inn and  58 Culinary.

The chef at Helm, Billy Hagar,   hails from the San Francisco area, and his Portland resume reads Flood’s and Drifters Wife (both closed, both unremarkable , the latter less so).

The entry, the raw bar and dining bar

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If there’s one dessert that has no seasonality it’s lemon meringue pie.  Lemons are available all year from California, Florida and elsewhere such as Mexico where they are widely produced.  I prefer to get lemons from either Florida or California, the latter producing the most.  Sometimes supermarkets will post origins; if so look for the USA label.

For a short time a few years ago, Hannaford carried seedless lemons from the California grower, Wonderful Seedless Lemons.  I’ve not found them anywhere since Hannaford’s stopped carrying them.  They were a pleasure to use without those pesky seeds.  After further research, I discovered that the Stop and Shop stores in Massachusetts carry the Wonderful Lemons brand.  I’ve asked the produce department at Hannaford if they’ll carry them again.  No one knew for sure.  Ask your local Hannaford, Market Basket or Shaw’s if they would carry them.  Whole Foods never has. Maybe we can get them back in Maine.  They are great lemons.

If not lemons are easily juiced.  For the lemon curd in the lemon meringue pie, an electric juicer is a must have. Depending on size you’ll need at least 2 large lemons to yield half-cup juice called for in recipe.  Use the best eggs available that you can get at your local farmer’s market.  Separate the eggs first because you want the whites to reach room temperature before whipping into a meringue.  By the time you’ve made your pastry and separated the eggs, the whites should be at the proper temperature; they whip best at room temperature.

Put the lemon curd into the prebaked pie shell

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Recently revisited are Marcy’s Diner and the Miss Portland Diner as an update to Hash House published recently.  At Marcy’s, which has been under new ownership for the last two years after the infamous Darla sold the eatery to her long-time waitress, Mandy Lacourse, the food is as greasy-good as ever.  Note that certain preparations take a lot of tasty shortcuts.  The pancake batter is made from a mix and the fabulous hash-browns are prepackaged grated potatoes.  Note that these pre-grated potatoes are given star treatment on the restaurant’s flat top, where they remain for hours on end building up that wonderful patina of crispiness.

A plates of bacon and eggs with Marcy’s famous pile of hash browns

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Paper Tiger is everything I dislike in a restaurant: plate-smashing noise, inside as dark as a pocket with knife blades tearing through and quarters so close at the dining bar that I wanted to call the Covid matron for help.  In fact, the person sitting next to me had such a horrendous bronchial cough, I nearly walked out as my only means of getting away from this jabberwocky.  I should have and would have not had to endure a series of ridiculous food that was coming out of the kitchen.

Large booths and additional dining at the seating bar overlooking Fore Street

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The American breakfast, bacon and eggs, is alive and well  at Portland diners and hash houses.  But the tab has gone sky high.  While we’re all having sticker shock as consumers, perhaps the most egregious price hikes beyond the gas pump are for something we’ve long taken for granted.

The basic diner-menu breakfast used to include two eggs, bacon, ham or sausage, home fries and toast. I remember it being $6.99 not too long ago.  But after a  doing a round up of breakfast haunts, which I started in January, I’ve found it’s a solid $10 to $12 and higher for basic breakfast fare– the pay more and get less syndrome.  It’s like the  pound of coffee that shrank to 12 ounces some years ago; or boxed  cake mixes now at 15. 25 ounces that used to weigh in at 18.5 ounces. Even the shampoo that I’ve used for year came out with packaging that proclaimed  a “new look, but same old formula”  The new look was a shrunken bottle  weighing 10 ounces instead of 12.  So far a  pound of butter is still a pound.  Woe be the day when those 4 ounce sticks become 3; there’d be mayhem in kitchens everywhere.

Two eggs, sausage patty, home fries and raisin toast at Moody’s

The reliable greasy spoons that we love are charging ahead with full seats  after the pandemic closed off most dining counters.  Here’s what you get nowadays  at breakfast places in and around Greater Portland’s diners and dives.

Hot Suppa.  Only a few stools  at the counter are available in this shoebox of a space, so one doesn’t have much choice but to sit close to your neighbor. There is still table seating.  Their classic B&E is called the Hollis and costs  $12 or $16 with bacon or sausage.   But the eggs are good, though no crispy edges and the thick bacon is a bit chewy.  The hash browns are tasty, reasonably crisp, but I’ve had better.  And what’s with the one slice of toast instead of the usual two?  All in all not a bad breakfast. B+

B&E plate–the Hollis–at Hot Suppa with one slice of toast and classic hash browns and smoky bacon

Hot Suppa’s evocative mural at the entry vestibule

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