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Expertise mixes with devotion in Rockland, Maine

By Sheryl Julian
Globe Staff / June 30, 2010

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ROCKLAND, Maine — You can’t help noticing the skill on the plates: duck rillettes with crackly toasts, rosy lamb with a tagine of squashes and chickpea fritters, an exquisite upside down rhubarb tartlet with rich vanilla ice cream. The 19th-century storefront at Lily Bistro is almost unadorned. There are 10 tables, a bar that seats six, an appealing menu of half a dozen appetizers and five entrees, two waitresses, no pretensions.

Mention this town on the coast about two hours north of Portland, and you’re likely to hear about the celebrated restaurant Primo, with its greenhouse, 1 1/2 acres of garden, and award-winning chef Melissa Kelly. Lily Bistro is understated, quiet, relatively unknown. Lynette Mosher, 38, and Robert Krajewski, 35, are the owners, chefs, shoppers, bread bakers, ice cream makers. They begin their day at the local farm, a 50-mile round trip from home, to pick up provisions, and end it 16 hours later in their kitchen, trading off 3-year-old Shawn during the day so one can cook while the other is a parent. During service, when Shawn is with his grandmother, Mosher is in the kitchen and Krajewski is at the bar.

Lily is modeled after a French bistro, and the couple worried when they opened two years ago that the locals would not appreciate their food. Mosher says her friends told them, “You guys are nuts to open a French restaurant.’’ In a region where chowders, lobster, and seafood dominate, Lily’s French menu offers classics such as a steak frites, whose twice-fried potatoes come with garlicky aioli, a duck confit, roasted whole fish, fresh lobster from Port Clyde made into a salad with potatoes, and a country pate with pork and pistachios. About that pate, says Mosher, “We tell people it’s meatloaf with a little booze and some pistachios, wrapped in bacon.’’ Today it’s one of their most popular dishes.

The couple spent many years working in Boston, and had stints in kitchens run by Todd English, Ken Oringer, Lydia Shire, Steve Johnson, and Corinna Mozo. Their combined resumé includes the Blue Room (together), Clio (together), Pignoli (he), Biba (he), Pigalle (he), Radius (he), Chez Henri (he), Olives (she), and Truc (she). Then came 9/11.

The two left Boston for a quiet place and landed in Rockport, Mass., at Emerson Inn by the Sea, where Krajewski starting making bread. (Today, he makes sourdough, brioche, and other loaves at Lily.) Everything was going well until one icy day. “We were in a terrible car accident in the snow in February,’’ she says. Her shattered leg was rebuilt in three reconstructive surgeries. “I was in a wheelchair. They told me I would never walk again. I thought I would never be a chef again.’’

They went to Montpelier to teach at New England Culinary Institute, and when the school consolidated campuses, they headed to Maine. When they opened Lily in 2008, it was not because they were ready to be on their own — Krajewski was working at Natalie’s in nearby Camden — but because the real estate became available. Says Mosher, “The space came up and we jumped on it.’’

The only adornment in the little bistro is a chandelier made by Maine glass blower Patti Kissinger with sconces and what look like green garlic scapes curling and flaring around them. Lily is the name of the onion family that includes garlic and garlic scapes. (It’s also the name of Mozo’s daughter.) The restaurant is painted a green color the chefs call “lily bud green.’’ When they first met with their designer, they had the idea to use a calla lilly in their logo. “Please tell me you don’t want your logo to be a calla lilly,’’ she told them. A little intimidated, the couple said, of course not.

Mosher is an Oregon native; he was raised in New Bedford. His grandparents have a cabin in Ogunquit, Maine, which is how the couple originally found their way here. Her mother followed them to Vermont, then to Maine. She’s the grandmother who looks after Shawn. On weekends, his father comes from New Hampshire to mind the toddler.

Being restaurateurs is both exhilarating and exhausting, Mosher says. They’re open every day and never get to see colleagues unless those restaurateurs come to them. “It’s like a wonderful dream and a terrible nightmare,’’ says Mosher. “We don’t have private investors. We don’t have partners.

“Whatever comes through the door is our bread and butter.’’

It is beautiful homemade bread and luxurious butter whipped with fleur de sel. And plenty of people are coming in for it.

Lily Bistro, 421 Main St., Rockland, Maine, 207-594-4141, www.lilybistromaine.com

Sheryl Julian can be reached at julian@gobe.com