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Small food, big chefs

Along the coast, places that feel private, service that’s personal, cuisine that’s inventive

By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2011

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It’s a Saturday, the first warm evening of early spring. We have a dinner reservation at The Lost Kitchen, a secret spot near Penobscot Bay. We park and walk around the corner to an address that was e-mailed to us earlier in the day. The building is wedge-shaped, narrow and Gothic, taking up an entire corner. The host unlocks the unmarked door promptly at 6.

We walk inside and up 20 steep stairs to a second story high above the street. It’s an apartment, a clean, airy perch of a place with polished wood floors and tall windows dressed with louvered shutters. The chef’s boat builder husband banged together long communal tables out of clear fir and sawhorses. The chef made a few playlists, set the tables with linen, and forced pear branches to blossom in warm water. Just before dinner she wrote the menu on a blackboard next to the coat closet.

Tonight’s meal is five courses cooked almost entirely from local and seasonal ingredients — not an easy thing to do in Maine in early April. To start there is a six-minute duck egg with bacon and buttery bread crumbs, then French lentil soup with local yogurt and mint and a toasted baguette. That is followed by a plate of spring vegetables with garlicky bagna cauda, local hangar steak with spring-dug parsnip puree, frites, and a spinach and pea shoot salad. Dessert is a semolina almond cake with cherry preserves and homemade sage ice cream. To finish there is a local cheese plate with fancy fixings and coffee service with cat tongue cookies.

The suggested donation is $40 per person, plus a tip for the server. Bring your own drink.

Sounds good, and it was. But dinner at The Lost Kitchen (@thelostkitchen, www.facebook.com/pages/The-Lost-Kitchen/119270838136645?sk=info) takes a few hours and requires small talk with strangers and eating whatever is served. It is sweet and personal, but also something other than a restaurant. Sometimes you need a restaurant.

We left wishing that on any normal night we could go out, order off a menu, and have a private restaurant meal with the same personal attention to detail and renegade spirit that felt so good at The Lost Kitchen. Such places are rare but you can find them in Maine. Generally they serve seasonal food from local farms and fishermen and make everything from scratch. Usually the chef is the owner. Here are a few good ones along the coast.

BRESCA

After years of cooking in the United States (including a stint in New York at Babou, an illegal kitchen in an old shoe store with two hot plates and an oven) and France (in the pastry basement at Guy Savoy), chef Krista Kern moved back to Maine to open her little jewel box of a dream restaurant in Portland. The whole thing would fit in the back of a UPS truck and it’s always full.

The menu is small and hyper-curated. Sometimes it feels almost academic (before opening Bresca, Kern was picking away at a master’s degree in medieval studies). Dishes such as honey-glazed duck breast with Roman trading spices and sumac, and white asparagus with soft-scrambled farm egg, caper brown butter, herbs, and French ham seem to have sprung from the pages of a classic novel or history textbook. Don’t miss the hand-rolled pasta such as spaghetti nero with sauteed calamari, chili, olive oil, and garlic.

111 Middle St., 207-772-1004, www.restaurantbresca.com, entrees $22-$26.

FRANCINE AND SHEPHERD’S PIE

For seven years, on a side street near Camden Harbor, in a building that looks like a Wild West saloon, chef Brian Hill has been inventing and reinventing his version of Maine coast cuisine. Making it up as he goes along, writing the menu every day, he mashes up Yankee ingredients (smelt, maple syrup, dry beans) with exotic flavors (fish sauce, Middle Eastern spices, preserved lemons) and elaborate technique (smoking, pickling, fermenting).

On a Friday in early spring there is roast fresh squid with pork confit and creamy white beans; smoked shad roe “chips and dip’’ with herbed potato chips; duck-fat-fried local rabbit with cauliflower and hot sauce; and chilled sweet neck oysters with apple sambal, smoked haddock, and crema.

For the past year Hill has been splitting his time between Francine and his new place in Rockport, Shepherd’s Pie, an artisinal pub in a 100-year-old general store with a view of the harbor. At Shepherd’s Pie he mostly sticks to the classics, but everything is tweaked and refined. Fried clams are served as fried clam tacos with avocado and green tomato. The cheeseburger is topped with local cheese and served on a homemade bun, and the mussels are roasted in cast iron with cedar, black butter, and lots of fresh lime juice.

Francine Bistro 55 Chestnut St., Camden, 207-230-0083, www.francinebistro.com, entrees $12-$35. Shepherd’s Pie, 18 Central St., Rockport, 207-236-8500, entrees $14-$22.

RESTAURANT ROW: LILY BISTRO, SUZUKI’S SUSHI BAR, IN GOOD COMPANY Three great chef-owned restaurants are all in a row on Main Street in Rockland.

Lily Bistro serves French bistro and bar food for lunch and dinner. Everything is made from scratch: the rustic pork pate, the corned hake and potatoes, the crusty sourdough bread, the nightly braises and fish specials, the hand-cut frites with or without gravy and cheese curds.

Suzuki’s Sushi Bar serves traditional sushi made with local, seasonal fish. Yuki Goseki runs the kitchen. She pickles seaweed and stuffs delicate shumai dumplings with Maine shrimp. Chef-owner Keiko Suzuki Steinberger handles the sushi bar. She goes to a lot of trouble to source the creamiest sea urchins, the richest monkfish liver, and the fattiest mackerel.

In Good Company is a wine bar with tapas. Chef Melody Wolfertz is a Culinary Institute of America graduate and a Rockland native. The atmosphere — overstuffed sofas and armchairs, a window seat, lots of plants — makes the place feel more like a living room than a restaurant. The wine list is endless and the food (salt boiled potatoes with red pepper aioli, pizzettas with olives and goat cheese, chicken pot pie) all tastes like the best home cooking.

Lily Bistro, 421 Main St., 207- 594-4141, www.lilybistromaine.com, entrees $9-$24. Suzuki’s Sushi Bar, 419 Main St., 207-596-7447, www.suzukisushi.com , entrees $13-$30. In Good Company, 415 Main St., 207-593-9110, www.ingoodcompanymaine.com, entrees $14-$18.

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at www.jonathanlevitt.com.