Restaurants & Bars

Bar Harbor/Mt. Desert Island Report (longish)

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Bar Harbor/Mt. Desert Island Report (longish)

Bob Libkind | Aug 6, 2003 06:13 PM

Spent last week Mount Desert Island, so here’s a rather lengthy restaurant report:

RIVERSIDE CAFÉ, ELLSWORTH

Before we even hit MDI, we stopped in Ellsworth for lunch at the Riverside Café. You may have known it as “Dick’s” when it was located at State & Main; for at least a few years, it’s been up Main Street closer to the Grand and across the street from Maidee’s. It’s a great place for breakfast or lunch, but be prepared to wait during the peak summer season, unless there is room at the counter. She Who Must Be Obeyed (SWMBO) highly recommends the excellent bacon to accompany your eggs in the morning (or at lunch). Homemade onion rings were generous, sweet and took up just the right amount of grease. I thought the clam chowder was too thick and had a higher potato/clam ratio than necessary. The fried haddock (I had it as a sandwich, but it’s also available as a platter) was excellent: very lightly battered, perfectly deep-fried with no trace of residual oil.

BAR HARBOR INN

Sunday brunch at the Bar Harbor Inn has gone up in price in the two years since I last visited. Back then, brunch was under $20 a head and included mimosas. Now, the tab is $23, I believe, and drinks are extra. But that should not deter you from going if you enjoy buffet brunches, especially ones with outstanding views. The food is mostly what you expect for a Sunday buffet brunch – carving station, omelets and Belgian waffles to order, pastas, salads, breakfast meats – with a moderate emphasis on seafood. How many places offer Finan Haddie on a buffet table, or at all? Decent smoked salmon. The bagels were pre-sliced and divided into eighths, so it would be impossible to make a sandwich, but in this instance I considered that a plus, because it helped to prevent me from overindulging in carbohydrates. Also a nice selection smoked mussels, shrimp and scallops. What was missed from previous years, however, were the crepes with strawberry sauce.

XYZ, MANSET

XYZ remains one of my favorite Mexican restaurants anywhere (certainly east of Chicago, and it could compete there, too) and is one of the best eateries on the island. We dined there twice. The first night, dessert was the highlight. The proprietor made fresh blueberry sorbet from berries she had picked in her yard that day. Absolutely the best blueberry dessert I’ve ever had, including some exceptional pies and cobblers. The appetizer and entrée offerings have been updated. To my disappointment (but probably not to most diners), braised tongue no longer graces the menu. But there is a good range of other offerings. SWMBO particularly enjoyed the mole poblano chicken thighs. I found the braised short ribs an excellent replacement for the tongue – it was served as one long rib with meat on the bone, and I had enough left over to shred it into leftover pasta for dinner at the cottage the next evening.

We enjoyed XYZ so much that we went back for our last night’s dinner before leaving the island. I started out with a special appetizer, which has been offered occasionally in past seasons as well: octopus, scallops, and shrimp in a devilish sauce over guacamole. Quite yummy and appetite stimulating. The previous time, I had ordered the queso fundido with shredded pork as an appetizer; this time SWMBO did, much to her satisfaction. For an entrée, she continued with one of the two shredded pork entrees (one spicy, one not; she selected the latter). I tried the “chef’s choice”, which I had hoped would be an off-menu surprise from the kitchen. I was a bit let down when it arrived as a combo platter. But it was a most satisfying melange with the chile-enhanced shredded pork, a milder shredded beef concoction, and chile rellenos, as well as rice, black beans and a nicely intense garlic-enhanced chile sauce. The chile rellenos was not of the batter-fried variety; instead, it was a most mellow composition, a poblano with a cheese and corn interior, baked with cream.

For dessert, the waitress kindly excavated with pick and axe from the deep freeze a serving of that blueberry sorbet (they had not intended to offer it that night); though icy, I enjoyed it. XYZ’s featured dessert is XYZ pie, described on the menu as “layers of coffee and butter crunch ice cream divided by a rich ridge of solid chocolate covered in warm Kahlua chocolate sauce and topped with whipped cream.” SWMBO is a chocoholic, but religiously avoids the combination of chocolate and coffee. (Silly girl!) So she asked for chocolate ice cream which, alas, XYZ does not stock. The proprietor, Janet, suggested a dish of chocolate sauce which SWMBO snapped up. She loved it, not knowing at the moment that it had a bit of coffee in it via the Kahlua.

THRUMCAP, BAR HARBOR

I had enjoyed Porcupine Grill on Cottage Street in Bar Harbor in past visits, but a number of years ago the owner changed the menu and renamed the establishment Thrumcap, and I had not had an opportunity to try it. So, we made a point of stopping by. It offers quality ingredients, imaginatively prepared (perhaps too imaginatively) and well executed. The menu is prix fixe only: $39. This buys you a soup or salad course, a “next” course, a small mains plate, and dessert. Wine, of course, is additional.

But be warned: this is a restaurant with a single serious problem.

For openers, SWMBO enjoyed a green salad accented with pears and feta while I selected a tasty tomato-less gazpacho dominated by corn and cucumber. “Next” I had a highly satisfactory feta-beet salad. SWMBO went for the cheese plate, selecting three cheeses from among the half-dozen offered, including a Dutch goat gouda. It was on the third courses where there was some displeasure on our part. I ordered the mackerel filet, which turned out to be much too frou-frou for my taste (though not to SWMBO's), adorned as it was with tropical fruits among other over-the-top additions. SWMBO opted for the bistro steak, which was an excellent choice with a notable exception: she was never asked how she wanted the meat done because, we learned too late, the chef always prepares it rare unless otherwise instructed. Now, I would have had no complaint, because that’s how I like my steak, but SWMBO does not. I think it was unthinking not to ask. Maybe the chef dislikes cooking it that way, but he/she is there to serve. Bottom-line: the server should have announced that the steak would be cooked rare unless otherwise requested; that would have avoided the issue. (At least they took it back to the kitchen and cooked it to her liking.) Desserts were good, if unexceptional: SWMBO liked her thin chocolate torte with ground almonds; I found the peach-rhubarb cobbler just okay.

The problem we had with Thrumcap was its presumptuousness. We were told repeatedly how good every dish was and why, and how we should eat it. The implied message: “We know what’s trendy and good, and you don’t.”

While this attitude was clearly expressed by the steak doneness episode, I found it most telling in the wine list. I have difficulty understanding how a restaurant that prides itself on wine and prominently displays Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence” certificates (that’s another story, well-covered by Mrs. Latte a few weeks ago in the Times) does not offer a single riesling. It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but there is no finer all-around wine for food than riesling. Yes, the Alsatian pinot gris offered instead was fine, but it wasn’t riesling! When I asked the a functionary in the front room (he may have been the owner, or perhaps just a barkeep – by my measure, if not his, he was no wine steward) his explanation was that they used to offer a riesling, but he doesn’t like German rieslings so he removed it from the list. This alone demonstrates the true value of Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence”.

(A few other wine observations. Each dish on the menu comes with one or two wine recommendations, yet some of them do not appear on the wine list. Hard to know if they have them or not. SWMBO requested the chardonnay from the wine list with one of her dishes; they did not have it and replaced it with another without checking.)

Again, it’s not that any of the dishes or wines were bad or even mediocre. All were good, some excellent. It’s just that the place has an irredeemable attitude problem.

GEORGE’S, BAR HARBOR

In three decades of visiting MDI, I have yet to find another restaurant that offers the combination of food, service, and gracious surroundings of George’s. It remains my favorite destination dining room on the island.

I was concerned a few years ago when I learned George had retired and sold his establishment after some 20+ years of operation. But both two years ago, when I was last there, and last week prove that while there have been natural and evolutionary changes, the high standards (as well as a few of George’s standard dishes) remain in place.

I went for the smoked salmon followed by the lobster strudel. The strudel was the same one George made when I first dined here 25 years ago: triangular phyllo (it had to be homemade) crisply layered around lightly seasoned, defiantly and properly undersauced lobster meat, served with chanterelles on the side as well as perfectly cooked and incredibly fresh sugar snaps. SWMBO began with fried green tomatoes surrounding a local goat cheese flan, followed by swordfish with a pineapple salsa. For dessert I savored a blueberry zabaglione, while she was disappointed in a dessert much less chocolate-intensive than desired; it appeared that her and the pastry chef’s conception of ganache differed greatly.

SWMBO’s disappointment in dessert notwithstanding, we retain George’s on the top of our list of fine MDI dining establishments. And it would hardly fall in rank on any other island

DEACON SEAT, SOUTHWEST HARBOR

If you have read my previous postings on MDI restaurants, you know that I’ve recommended the Deacon Seat as a breakfast/blueberry pancake spot over Bar Harbor’s Jordan’s – not because the food is necessarily superior, but because the lines are shorter.

Although there appears to be new management/ownership at the Deacon Seat, the menu seems the same and the pancakes unchanged. But I had an unwanted experience this year. Perhaps I am letting my parsimonious nature get in the way. So I’ll let you be the judge.

I ordered blueberry pancakes with a side of sausage. The “side” of sausage cost $1.80. I received one sausage, slightly bigger than a Brown’N Serve. What really ticked me off is that the cook had nearly bisected the sausage (indeed, it was butterflied) in a feeble attempt to make it seem more than it was. I complained to the waitress, who commisserated with me, then I asked to see the manager (who was also the cook). When he eventually came out his explanation was simply that his costs have been going up. Other than telling him his reasoning was unsatisfactory, I let it go. But my guess is he either (1) overpaid in buying the restaurant and is cutting back to try to make it work or (2) he is a rotten manager or (3) both.

It could be I’m just cheap. But $1.80 seems a steep price to pay for a puny piece of minced pig meat and fat.

LOBSTER POUNDS

I’ve yet to visit a lobster pound restaurant in Mount Desert or anywhere in Hancock or Washington counties that didn’t do a great job cooking crustaceans. Just steam them so many minutes per pound and you’ve got a perfect seaside meal. Same goes for the clams (soft belly clams, the true clam, not the quahog pretender).

So, as for the debate of who does a better job, Beal’s in Southwest Harbor or Thurston’s in Bernard (on Bass Harbor), the quality of the food is not an issue. Both use fresh-hauled, minimally impounded lobsters. Both know how to cook them. Both charge about the same price (though Beal’s was just a tad less expensive last week).

What does make the difference is ambiance, and here Thurston’s is the clear winner. Beal’s seems hemmed in and does not offer a wide view of its harbor. Thurston’s dining area is at the end of the wharf with an expansive view of the harbor. Another edge for Thurston’s is that you can order the steamed seafood and all other offerings (dessert, burgers and hot dogs, etc.) at the same window. At Beal’s you have to walk halfway up the wharf.

I was going to try Head of the Harbor in Southwest, but when I saw the prices for clams (I eat more pounds of clams during a week on MDI than lobster by a 3.5:1 ratio) my penurious personality got the best of me and I drove to Beal’s instead. Nice view, though.

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