JUST A FEW FEET Separate farm from feast.
Photo by Rebecca Goldfine
Popular tastes wax, wane, and wander about, but over the long run people most appreciate those things that are timelessly simple, elegant, and right: Roger Federer's backhand, German-expressionist art, cotton, and the summer here in Maine. So it is precisely because of its total disinterest in trendiness that Primo Restaurant in Rockland, which offers perhaps Maine's best summertime meal, embodies several contemporary trends.
Long before the current obsession with local ingredients, chef Melissa Kelly was cooking mostly with the produce from her own sprawling gardens set on the hill behind the old Victorian that houses Primo. While the gardens at Arrows, for example, seem set up to impress the eye, the gardens and greenhouses at Primo have a messier and more utilitarian elegance. As you wander through them you can hear the sounds of the chickens and pigs that wander the large pen in the back, blithely unaware that they are destined for the kitchen nearby. The house itself is nice but unremarkable, with simple decoration and elegant wood-framed doorways. Upstairs there is a surprisingly stylish bar with small tables and its own menu. Spread out through the restaurant's many small rooms is a pleasant variety of diners: old couples on anniversaries, young couples flush from light hikes in the Camden Hills, a jubilant rehearsal dinner upstairs.
There is a lot of talk lately about work as "soulcraft" and a return to old-fashioned substantive professions. At Primo our meal was guided by the sort of skilled professional waiter one rarely encounters these days. He was simultaneously formal and at ease, explaining the specials like he was recounting to a few friends a dish he had recently enjoyed. He orchestrated our meal with a few well-considered questions and suggestions.
He suggested an appetizer in which a salad with white beans came on what was essentially a platter of flattened raw tuna. The sharp bitter greens worked nicely with the sweetness of the fish, a bit like the combination of tuna and kinome you find in Japan. Small peeled tomatoes were steeped in a sweet vinegar. Even better was an appetizer in which crêpes made from sharp cheese were filled with sautéed onions and mushrooms. They were served with a generous portion of surprisingly tender venison and small greens.
The ravioli filled with beet, ricotta, and potato were fanciful-looking half-moons of bright pink edged with pasta-beige. The potato had been whipped with lots of sweet butter, which infused each bite. While the dish's sautéed beet-greens were from the garden out back, the beets themselves were from nearby Dresden, whose organic farms are better known for their wonderful elderberries. In another entrée, cheeks of monkfish, caught nearby, had been sautéed and served under a light sauce of Meyer lemon and chives. The cheeks are softer than the rest of the fish, but the flesh still has a bit of spring to it. They came with a simple crab-cake that had a rustic appeal and a very straightforward succotash of corn and peas. Mussels and shrimp, cooked simply, spotted the plate. A dessert with three parts allows you to sample the range of pastry chef Price Kushner: a velvety cherry-bottomed crème brûlée, a sweet cherry crumble, and a creamy chocolate torte served on a crisp cookie.
Big awards going to Maine chefs has also become a trend, with Hugo's Rob Evans well-deserved Beard award this year, Sam Hayward's Beard award a few years back for his work at Fore Street, and Steve Corry's Food and Wine award for Five Fifty-Five. Primo's chef Kelly is Maine's original Beard winner. She won in 1999 at her previous restaurant in upstate New York, and promptly packed up and moved to Rockland. Let's hope Evans stays put in the wake of his accolades. Primo is a splurge, it's true. But if we are following "staycation" trends and sticking to Maine this summer, Primo allows us to appreciate the best of what is here — which is worth splurging on at least once a summer.
Brian Duff can be reached at email@example.com.
PRIMO RESTAURANT | 2 South Main Street, Rockland | June Wed-Sun, July-Aug Wed-Mon; 5:30-10 pm | Visa/MC/Amex/Disc | primorestaurant.com | 207.596.0770