Appealing to your appetite
In an old-time beach town Blue Sky's recipe for success is an upscale take on seaside cuisine
Panko-fried pork chops under hot buttered lobster, one of the many lobster dishes on the menu at Blue Sky. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
Outside the sky is a deep shade of cerulean, just right for Lydia Shire's new restaurant, Blue Sky on York Beach. Inside Shire stands in front of the pizza oven as she trims fat globe artichokes and describes new dishes to her waitstaff.
Blue Sky is Shire's first venture outside Boston, where her fame grew as chef and owner of Locke-Ober, the former Biba, and Pignoli. Blue Sky, which opened last winter, is gearing up for its first tourist season.
"We cooked bacon, and use the fat to cook garlic and onions," she says of the meatballs that accompany whole milk ricotta cannelloni. She stops to answer a question about the pink meatballs. They're pink because they're made of veal and pork, she explains as she continues to ready the artichokes for the evening meal. The staff samples the cannelloni and meatballs as she talks, the better to be able to explain the new spring dish to customers.
Shire is no slacker. She opened Scampo in Boston's Liberty Hotel in April, only months after the year-round Blue Sky started up. Yet, on this sparkling spring day, her energy in showing off her new place is impressive. The second-floor restaurant in the Atlantic House Hotel, a once-decrepit place converted into a sleek retail and condo development, is flooded with light. Across the street, the area around Short Sands Beach is still quiet, ice cream stores and shops shuttered. But couples stroll the rocky beach and seagulls circle overhead. York Beach, like Blue Sky, is anticipating summer, when its population will swell from 14,000 to more than 60,000.
"In January of '05 when I walked into the basement," Shire says of the renovated building, "there were skunks living there." Now she points out the dining room walls and ceiling of poplar, washed with white. She found the antique quilt displayed on one wall in a nearby antique shop, its pale, sunwashed greens and graphic design appealing to her artistic sense. The snazzy Italian espresso maker is in her favorite red, with red and orange espresso cups stacked around it. A Canadian furniture maker crafted the dining chairs, dubbing them the "Lydia chair." An old chandelier graces the women's room; Shire polished its 668 crystals herself.
But as excited as she is about the look of the 160-seat restaurant (plus 55 seats on the porch), Shire is even more enthusiastic about the food. "We toast the pecans for the pecan pie in the pizza oven," she says. "Wait till you taste it."
As chef, Shire brought in Susan Regis, who headed Biba's cooking staff and later cooked at UpStairs on the Square in Cambridge. Regis, who says that she grew up 17 miles away in New Hampshire, had planned to work at Blue Sky for a short time to help open it, but "started falling in love with it." Now she's committed to staying at least through the summer, and is living two miles away. "I hear the ocean when I go home at night, and hear it when I wake up," she says.
The menu sticks close to the shoreline, too. There's the ubiquitous raw bar selections, fish, and a selection of lobster dishes. Besides the lobster pizza that was famous at Biba and pan roast of lobster with fresh "pea" button raviolis, there are lobster linguini Bolognese, a lobster deep-fried in home-rendered lard, and fried pork chops under hot buttered lobster on the spring menu. "I'm trying to figure out the crabcake issue," says Shire with a laugh. "I think we'll have to have them."
Other dishes also reflect the eclectic creativity of the two women. We try the hot spiced lamb pizza, served up by Shire in the cozy bar, Vivi, named after one of her granddaughters. The lamb, on a thin, crackly crust, is delectable. Later at the table, we sample an airy asparagus sformato (a cross between a custard and a souffle) accompanied by wood-roasted spears of the vegetable and addictive bits of bacon. Haddock roasted on a cedar shingle is flanked by a little pork tourtière, its pastry crust and savory filling a perfect counterpoint to the fish. The tiny, buttery raviolis with the lobster extend its sweetness, and she's right about the toasted pecan pie.
Opening a restaurant like Blue Sky in slightly gritty York Beach might seem counterintuitive. Many summer visitors skip York's exits off Interstate 95 and Route 1 in favor of Ogunquit's glitzier shops, or head north to Portland. But Don Rivers, who developed the Atlantic House and is working on two more mixed-use buildings, thinks the uncrowded beaches of York and its less commercial feeling, plus its easy access to Boston, distinguish it. He admits he had not heard of Shire when he started looking for someone to head up a restaurant in the Atlantic House. Now they are partners. The Saturday, years ago, when she came to his house to make him breakfast more than clinched the deal. "It was incredible," Rivers says.
There is another plus to the area, Regis says. Instead of having to seek out farmers, there are more of them here than there are restaurants. Her staff is always telling her about a goat farm in the area that makes cheese, or the best place for the earliest vegetables, or the most succulent chickens.
Blue Sky has "a lot of Biba," says Regis, adding that working here feels reminiscent and fresh at the same time. But, she says, the food is "if anything, more American, more Maine" than Biba, with such dishes as spaghetti with white clam sauce, and charcoaled skirt steak with green garlic.
Shire is already extending her brand with the newly-opened Clara's Cupcake Café downstairs. She muses aloud: "I think it would be neat to have cotton candy," adding that she has an antique machine.
Looking ahead to summer, Shire sees only blue skies.
Alison Arnett can be reached at email@example.com.