CHECKING IN

Bring more than one appetite to this Maine inn

Email|Print| Text size + By Judith Gaines
Globe Correspondent / August 20, 2006

NEWCASTLE, Maine -- During our first few hours at the Newcastle Inn , we thought we might have made a mistake. Our room, advertised as overlooking the Damariscotta River , mainly overlooked a parking lot -- with the river in the leafy distance. The inn itself, touted as a ``historic 1860s' sea captain's home," had vinyl siding, gas fireplaces, and air conditioners sticking out of several windows. Its decor, which features antique furnishings juxtaposed against bright, contemporary wall treatments, was lively and eclectic but hardly restful or conventionally historic. A companion joked that perhaps the Globe should inaugurate a ``Checking Out" column .

But gradually we began to warm to the place. For one thing, we ate dinner. Lupine's, the inn's little restaurant, was worth the trip to Newcastle -- a small town just off Route 1 on the mid-coast of Maine .

Unlike many fine restaurant chefs who oversee operations but don't do much cooking themselves, Josh DeGroot puts his personal touch on everything that comes out of Lupine's kitchen. His only helpers are one prep cook, a dishwasher, and the servers. He makes all the appetizers, entrees, and desserts himself, including excellent sorbets and ice creams, bakes his own breads, even shops daily at nearby farms and markets, choosing ingredients that are as organic and local as possible. While sipping a demitasse of his cauliflower soup during a cocktail hour before dinner, we saw DeGroot pass by with a flashlight; he was off to pick some garden herbs for the next course.

His Damariscotta oysters were excellent, though somewhat overpowered by the cicely mignonette. We particularly enjoyed a lemon verbena sorbet intermezzo, a duck breast entree with cranberry gastrique along with a duck hash blintz, and a fallen chocolate torte for dessert. Everything was strongly flavored (and liberally salted), which seemed to be DeGroot's signature style, and portions were surprisingly large.

The standout dish was the gorgeous cheese plate. A cheese maker himself, DeGroot knows what to look for in artisanal cheeses and how to accentuate their flavors. For our meal, he chose three fine local cheeses, accompanied by his pear-port sorbet, an artfully arrayed assortment of fruits and nuts, and his homemade pear chutney.

The convenience and luxury of being able to crawl into bed after this big meal, instead of making the long drive home in the dark, was sufficient reason to stay at the Newcastle Inn. When we learned that some wine dinners were in the works, we seriously considered a return visit.

The inn is owned and run by Laura and Peter Barclay , landscape designers who bought it three years ago. Laura always liked to entertain, and her husband says he decided she might as well get paid for it. They groomed the property, redecorated the interiors, hired DeGroot, and got other Barclay family members into the act. Daughter Liz helps bake the morning breakfast with her mother and also serves as a waitress. Son Kyle works from time to time as a dishwasher.

Breakfast, included in the room rate, was large and satisfying, with juice, a fruit course, a breakfast bread, coffee or tea, and an entree -- a choice of homemade granola or pancakes with sausage on the morning of on our visit.

The inn has 15 guest rooms, all with private baths, many with gas fireplaces, and two with Jacuzzis. All the rooms are individually decorated with lots of bold red, gold, green, and blue patterns. One room -- the Monhegan Island room -- won an interior design award for its eclectic combination of colors, patterns, and textures. In our room, the bright red and blue oversized wallpaper flowers seemed to be flailing back and forth, which gave my companion the uneasy sense of being attacked. But we acknowledged that not everyone would interpret them this way.

Our room also was scantily equipped, no phones or TVs or the like, just a clock radio and a hair dryer. But lots of games were available in one of several pleasant common rooms.

The inn has a lounge that opens onto a picturesque deck with tables and a nice river view. In warm weather, it would be a lovely spot for breakfast or appetizers before dinner.

We were pleased to discover several interesting hiking trails a mile or two away. Our favorite was the Salt Bay Heritage Trail , an easy, 3-mile path that leads to one of the largest middens in the world: ancient heaps of oyster shells left by Native Americans more than 2,000 years ago. They enjoyed Damariscotta oysters first. The enormous shell mounds rise, layer upon layer, as high as 10 or 15 feet at points.

The inn is abundantly stocked with information about things to see and do in the area, including places to shop and gallery hop, several nearby museums, historic homesteads, and scenic drives. The innkeepers also will recommend other restaurants for those who find Lupine's six-course meal more than they want , or its $55-per-person prix-fix e charge too dear.

Contact Judith Gaines, a freelance writer in Portland, Maine, at gaines@judithgaines.com.

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