March 6, 2011

Dining in Kennebunk and Sunday Night Salads!

One summer evening, restaurateurs Merrilee Paul and David Ross had trouble getting seated for dinner in downtown Kennebunk.
The culinary scene in southern Maine hasn’t been the same since.

A Kennebunk native with experience in the hotel industry and event planning, Paul met Ross when she lived in Boston’s North End and he was the chef at her favorite neighborhood eatery, Lucca. The culinary institute-trained Ross had worked at such New York establishments as Oceana (seafood) and Tabla (Indian) before coming to Boston and cooking at the upscale blu Restaurant. Given their respective talents, it was perhaps no surprise that, once married, a restaurant of their own would soon follow.

“When we would visit my family in Maine each summer and have to drive to Portland for dinner, we realized Kennebunk needed another place,” says Paul. “So we took a leap of faith, sold our condo, and moved here.”

The resultant 50 Local, a former bakery and café stylishly redesigned by interior decorator Nicki Bongiorno of Spaces in Kennebunkport, reflects not only the couple’s attention to detail but also their commitment to place.

Fresh, locally produced ingredients are the core of the restaurant’s menu, and allegiance to area farmers the couple’s business mainstay. A floor-to-ceiling chalkboard listing the local origins of the day’s offerings greets diners. Before even glimpsing the menu you know that the grass-fed beef hamburger comes from Harris Farm in Dayton; the fish from Browne Trading Company in Portland; the fresh greens from Sunset Farm Organics in Lyman.

The interior is festive and friendly. For weekend brunch, daylight pours through a high wall of windows whimsically festooned with a frothy wave of “O’s” plucked from the restaurant’s name. Gun-metal gray predominates in the dining room, with chrome chairs and wooden tables painted a metallic hue, but the effect is more tinsel than industrial. At night the vibe is champagne and bubbly, with blinking candles and white orbs providing most of the light.

Although 50 Local offers an excellent wine list, the handcrafted cocktails are memorable and reflect the owners’ creativity and sense of fun. You won’t find a mix here. All drinks begin with fresh-squeezed juice and the ingredients, when possible, are local. So for a cranberry maple “marguerita,” Maine cranberries are simmered down to a chutney-like consistency in Maine maple syrup, then whipped and added to a traditional margarita. The Grown Up Mr. Misty is the restaurant’s slushy riff on a dark and stormy, made with their own ginger beer granita. Traditional cocktails, like the Bloody Mary, the aviation, and the mai thai, have new life breathed into them thanks to fresh ingredients and good liquor.

The menu, American bistro with influences of Chef Ross’ background preparing Italian and Indian specialties, changes daily, depending on what’s in season. Winter features include homemade gnocchi with root vegetables in a sage brown butter, while summer entrees begin with what’s ripe that day.

“We felt very lucky to open this past summer, which was so bountiful!” enthuses Paul. “David would begin each day in the kitchen with baskets of wonderful produce.”

Still, there are standbys that keep patrons coming back. Mussels cooked in white wine, garlic, and mustard and served with the restaurant’s “frites” are a favorite, as is the mac and cheese, baked in a parmesan truffle cream with sausage and roasted tomatoes. Calamari is prepared in the familiar light batter but flashed fried to tender-crispy perfection, served with pickles and spicy red sauce. The duck salad of greens, bacon, and goat cheese is topped with a fried poached egg and raw Belon oysters arrive topped with a mignonette of shaved apple, Prosecco, garlic, and lemon. Lobster carbonara is a signature item on the menu, prepared with spaghetti, pancetta, eggs, and cream, as is the twelve-ounce organic rib-eye steak served with fries and a mushroom demi-glace. Housemade ricotta appears as an appetizer served with quince jam and crostini, as well as a delicious accompaniment to pasta with pomodoro sauce and basil, one of the few purely vegetarian options. For dessert, homemade beignets served with crème anglais are a staple, but if you’re lucky, the flourless chocolate cake might appear on the evening menu.

50 Local makes everything itself, from the focaccia on each table to the homemade ketchup on the burger to the Indian rub, mixed by Ross, coating the spiced statler chicken. “We were surprised to discover that most other area restaurants don’t do this,” says Paul. “We’re an oddity in this way.” But a refreshingly delicious oddity, and a welcome addition to the dining scene south of Portland.

Sunday Night Favorites at The Maine House!


Estelle's Greek Pasta Salad
1 lb. dried rotini or fusilli pasta
4 or 5 ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges or 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cucumber, peeled and cubed (about 2 cups)
1 half red onion, thinly sliced and soaked in cool water for 10 minutes (about 1/2 cup)
1 red bell pepper, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 cup of Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
1-1/2 — 2 cups feta cheese, crumbled or cubed
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil or mint

1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 tsp. dried oregano
Pinch dried marjoram
Sea Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup olive oil

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. Drain and set aside. Combine tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, red pepper, and olives in a large mixing bowl and set aside. Prepare the dressing by whisking together the red wine vinegar, garlic, oregano, marjoram, salt, and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil. Set aside. Assemble the salad by adding the cooked pasta to the vegetables, tossing in the feta cheese, and adding as much dressing as you like (you may have some left over). Finally, toss in the fresh basil or mint, and season with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature in a serving bowl or over a bed of greens on a large platter.

Estelle's Savory Tip!
Soaking onions after they have been sliced or chopped is a great way to make them less pungent and more palatable if they are not going to be cooked. Soak or rinse the raw onions in cold water and then dry well with a paper towel before adding them to the dish.

Pasta Veggie Salad
1/2 -1 package of bow tie pasta
broccoli florets--bite size pieces
or Grilled fresh Asparagus
 sliced pepperoni (cut in half)
sliced olives
mozzarella cheese-cubed
cherry tomatoes
Good Seasonings dry packets, made with red wine vinegar,
plus 1 T.  of fresh Parmesan Cheese

Estelle's Guacamole Salad
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and 1/2-inch diced
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup small diced red onion
2 tablespoons minced jalapeno peppers, seeded (2 peppers)
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lime zest
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (2 limes)
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2 ripe avocados, seeded, peeled, and 1/2-inch diced

Place the tomatoes, yellow pepper, black beans, red onion, jalapeno peppers, and lime zest in a large bowl. Whisk together the lime juice, olive oil, salt, black pepper, garlic, and cayenne pepper and pour over the vegetables. Toss well!

Boil the pasta in water according to the package directions. For the last minute of cooking add thesliced grilled asparagus or broccoli florets. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop cooking. Add to a bowl with the pepperoni, olives, cheese and tomatoes. Toss with your favorite Italian dressing. Remember that the pasta will soak in some of the dressing so put in a little more than you think.

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