There’s no longer any doubt that Mainers are still hungering for traditional fine dining experiences during this pandemic.
Chef Christian Hayes, the owner of The Garrison in Yarmouth – now selling takeout under the name Thoroughfare – recently announced he would be offering a 15-night series of 10-course chef dinners, with wine pairings, in his restaurant’s garden by the Royal River. Just one table will be available each night, and the cost ranges from $400 for two up to $1,000 for six diners.
Reservations opened Tuesday morning, and the dinners – all 15 of them – sold out in 30 seconds, according to Hayes.
Also sold out? Six four-course, private Sunday dinners in August and September at More & Co. in Yarmouth, prepared by former Drifters Wife chef and 2020 James Beard Foundation finalist Ben Jackson. Those dinners, which seat eight to 10 people and include wine, cost $165 per person.
More dates will be added soon, according to the More & Co. website, alittlemorelikethis.com.
CLEAN EATING — REALLY CLEAN — AT ENGRAIN
When the COVID-19 crisis hit in spring, Ben Hasty and Jennifer Fecteau, co-owners of Thistle Pig in South Berwick, laid off their entire staff of 17 and ran the place on their own, offering a limited menu of takeout, until they exhausted themselves. Then it dawned on them that instead of a crisis, this might be the perfect opportunity to switch gears and launch a restaurant concept they’d had swimming in their heads for a year.
Thus was born Engrain, a fast casual restaurant that serves customizable bowls of farm-fresh, healthy foods. And when they say farm fresh, they aren’t kidding. They source beef from Brandmoore Farm just a mile down the road in Rollinsford, New Hampshire, and beef and pork from Hasty’s father, who owns Breezy Hill Farm in South Berwick. Vegetables come from four other local farms.
Engrain opened at 279 Main Street, in mid-July. “Once the crisis hit and we were looking at the future of what restaurants were going to look like,” Fecteau said, “we thought, ‘Wow, maybe this concept would be better suited here than Thistle Pig.’”
The owners cut the Thistle Pig’s bar into thirds and created three high-top tables for the 56-seat Engrain, which is running at half that capacity for now because of social distancing. (It doesn’t really matter, Fecteau said, because so far there’s “very, very minimal interest” among their customers for dining in. Most take their food to go, and the restaurant also offers delivery using its own staff.) Fecteau and Hasty were able to hire back four of their employees, plus they re-hired a former staffer who had been laid off from his job in another state because of the pandemic.
The menu features signature bowls ranging from $10-13, but customers can build their own meal as well, starting with a protein such as chicken, beef, tofu, salmon or pork. Fecteau said the kitchen uses no heavy cream or butter, and honey or maple syrup are their only sweeteners – no granulated sugar. Just one menu item contains cheese, and it’s a local cheese.
“People are sick of takeout pizza, I think,” Fecteau said.
Engrain also has a “gym menu” that it delivers to four local gyms on Mondays, when gym rats are sweating off their weekend splurges.
Order a clean-eating bowl on Friday, and the restaurant will leave it in the gym’s fridge, with your name on it, on Monday.
Engrain is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
If you’ve wandered by one of the three Rooms restaurants in Portland and wondered if they are closed for good – seating gone, floors torn up, signs down – no worries, you will eventually be able to get that bowl of pasta at The Corner Room, medium rare steak at The Grill Room, or Sunday brunch at The Front Room.
But it might not be until next April.
Restaurateur Harding Smith says his businesses, which closed March 16, will remain closed until next April or until the state allows 100 percent indoor dining, whichever comes first. He is using this down time to renovate all three restaurants from top to bottom.
Smith acknowledged that it’s a gamble spending so much money on renovations when he doesn’t know what the future holds. “It was a very, very difficult decision. Gut wrenching,” he said. “I second-guessed myself every minute.”
The move leaves his 85 employees in unemployment limbo for a good long while, although Smith has spent nearly $100,000 to pay for their health insurance until Sept. 1. He’s planning some pop-ups, such as selling pre-packaged holiday meals, and is looking at launching a food trailer, both of which could provide a little work for his staff. But he knows he’ll lose employees to other jobs if his places are closed until April.
“We were very afraid that come November, if we don’t have 100 percent inside dining back or even close to that, we would have a big struggle paying our bills and paying our employees,” Smith said. “Could we have made it? Perhaps, maybe. But you can’t live on a maybe. And this is a definite way we’re going to make it through the winter.”
As for the renovations, floors were redone and bars were resurfaced, among other updates, at all three places. The concrete floor at The Front Room has been replaced with more forgiving vinyl flooring that will be easier on servers’ feet and, Smith said, should cut back on noise, which has been a constant complaint of diners.
“We’re looking at it as a reset,” he said, and when the restaurants re-open, it will be “with one voice.”
And what about The Mountain Room, Smith’s place at the Sunday River ski resort? It will open this winter at a smaller capacity, and Smith will be opening a second location farther down the mountain at the Summit Hotel. It doesn’t have a name yet, but it will serve lunch and an apres ski menu.
HELP RESTAURANTS REOPEN WITH REUP MAINE
Hospitality Maine has teamed up with O’Maine Studios and Maine restaurant industry leaders to create a restaurant relief fund for Maine restaurants that need cash or in-kind services to re-open during the pandemic.
Called ReUp Maine, the six-month fundraising campaign aims to raise at least $1 million to provide grants and in-kind support on a sliding scale of $500 to $15,000.
One fundraising avenue will be a 90-minute weekly online cook-along show called Sunday Supper that will feature Maine chefs preparing their signature dishes. Viewers can cook along with them (recipes are already online) and hit the donate button while making their blueberry, tomato and cucumber tartines. The first episode will be held at 5 p.m. Aug. 23 and feature chefs David Turin of David’s and Paolo Laboa of Solo Italiano preparing a lobster and blueberry dinner. Charlie Zorich and Kirk Linder of the Hichborn in Stockton Springs will prepare the side dish and cocktail, and Ilma Lopez of Chaval and Dorene Mills from Hannaford Supermarkets will make a Maine Blueberries Napoleon for dessert.
For more information, or to donate to the fund, go to tastemaine.com.