(Mache Bistro Exterior)
Mache Bistro is one of a very select group that can lay claim to being the best restaurant in the Bar Harbor/Acadia region, and indeed Chef/owner Kyle Yarborough has received rave reviews since purchasing the restaurant in 2009. That said, to my mind the Bar Harbor dining scene is one of the most comical anywhere; the town is oversaturated with mediocre restaurants trying to outdo each other with huge menus and early bird specials, and so the select few restaurants that enjoy any acclaim are quite profitable. I’m always struck by the thought that if any number of acclaimed chefs from Portland were to open a restaurant there, they would have an instant gold mine. Given the paucity of talent, I was still a bit suspicious about reviews that placed Mache on a pedestal; nevertheless, my father and I had planned a day of biking in Acadia and so a week in advance, I made an early reservation for 5:30.
I was very fond of the exterior as the olive color held expressive charm yet was subtle enough to coexist with its fairly subdued location next to a bicycle shop and across the street from a bed and breakfast. With this in mind, the interior was disappointing—the muted colors looked bland and the interior decorating seemed straight out of a Pottery Barn catalogue. The cave-like space reminded me of Hugo’s in Portland; comfortable yet a bit dark, and more color would have gone a long way. Thankfully, we were seated in front of the window in the right-hand corner and so were afforded a sufficient amount of light.
Just a couple of minutes after being seated, we were brought our menus in tandem with the bread service, focaccia and baguette with olive oil. I’m quite unaccustomed to being brought bread with the menu and my instinct was that this was an implicit tactic to knock a few minutes off of the length of the meal and turn our table that much quicker; luckily, this was not a problem and we enjoyed our meal at a leisurely pace. It is a bit odd to see a restaurant skirt convention in this way, although it was by no means a problem, especially since both bread offerings were outstanding. Neither was baked in house although it’s difficult to fault Chef Yarborough for this since my understanding is that he cooks literally everything else himself, desserts included. Further, the bread service actually managed to reflect the chef’s sensibility, since the liberal use of (very high-quality) olive oil characterized a number of the courses to follow.
Our serveuse was quite helpful in unpacking the enormous menu and she and her cohorts were all exceptionally friendly. She (and a separate server as well) spoke with what seemed to be Eastern-European accents, and it’s possible that they were here just for the summer, which is the case with a number of Bar Harbor restaurants. It’s always illuminating to get to know people from a foreign culture, although in many instances this has the effect of creating a constantly-changing front-of-house staff. At any rate, the menu changes nightly, yet given its large size, day-to-day alterations are minimal. There were around 10 starters, 3 salads, and 8 entrees, plus one special. There was no shortage of interesting options, although I was perplexed by the recurring use of a few specific components; white beans, creamy polenta, olive tapenade, and saffron-tomato broth were each found in a number of dishes. This made it so that each menu item was hierarchically divided, with the protein privileged over an interchangeable roster of accompaniments. Overall, the menu resembled a Rubix cube, with each dish consisting of a protein paired with a slightly different combination of accompaniments formed from a common pool of ingredients. Additionally, I also found some of the preparations to be fairly unimaginative; for example, the “French Lobster Roll” read like a clichéd amalgamation of Maine and French ingredients: Maine lobster and Brie cheese rolled in a griddle-crisped flat bread to form a variation of a crepe. If someone had asked what a French lobster roll would look like, this is basically what I would have guessed. The dishes were also noteworthy for a huge list of ingredients, which made the main plates assume the consistency of a stew. As a starter, I decided on the grilled asparagus with local crab and lemon aioli; for my main dish, I went with the duck leg confit with creamy polenta, smoked duck breast, caramelized onion, and duck confit ragu. My dad selected the chicken leg with chorizo, shrimp, green olives, and tomato-saffron broth, and he elected to substitute white beans for the creamy polenta that was listed as part of the dish.
My starter arrived with a bit of surprise; based on the menu description, I had assumed that the crab would be separate from the aioli, but instead it was part of it. There was also too much mayonnaise and the olive oil clashed with it; the crab/aioli was basically similar to the filling for a crab roll that one finds at any number of Maine seafood shacks. The asparagus and crab were both fresh and flavorful and I feel this plate would have been more successful if the aioli was discarded and the crab/asparagus/olive oil combination able to harmonize without interference from unnecessary ingredients.
My main dish arrived on a large, wide plate with the plating a bit de-centered; in some cases, this would be unwelcome (i.e. if the restaurant had more of a minimalist style), but I actually found the messy composition to nicely embody the abundant, almost gratuitous list of ingredients. In this regard, the plating style reminded me of that of Vie Restaurant in Western Springs, IL. I had thought that the menu description was already quite lengthy and so I was surprised to also find spinach and bacon. Every component was well-executed (possibly my favorite duck leg preparation I’ve had) and while this dish is perhaps better-suited to fall, reviews had suggested that it was their signature dish and I’d wanted to try it. The portion size was quite large and this really had great filling power—an ideal dish within an a la carte format.
My dad’s chicken preparation had a similar stew-like appearance. It was a wise decision to substitute the white beans for the creamy polenta as the polenta would have been too heavy and clashed with the salty flavors, and all of the flavors harmonized quite nicely. The portion size here was also very large and by count, there were at least 11 green olives. Similar to my duck, the large size necessitated slow consumption, and we each lingered over our main courses for a good while; although it ran the risk of leading to palate fatigue, the flavors were compelling enough that this did not become an issue.
After our large main dishes, we were beginning to get full but in the spirit of supplying the meal with a beginning, middle and end we decided to order dessert. Taking our server’s recommendation, we chose the “Pain Perdu” with Maine blueberries, Meyer lemon olive oil soaked in sweet milk, and wild Maine blueberry and buttermilk ice cream. This was one of my favorite desserts I’ve had this year and I preferred it to all of the desserts that I recently enjoyed from Fore Street, Five Fifty-Five, and White Barn Inn. The olive oil continued the precedent established in earlier dishes and tempered the sweetness of the milk and cream. However, the blueberry ice cream—filled with actual berries—managed to be the highlight of the dessert, capitalizing on blueberries at the height of their ripeness. I imagine that Bar Harbor restaurants have a difficult time convincing patrons to stay for dessert due to the large number of touristy ice cream shops, but Mache Bistro certainly supplies creative and satisfying options.
I found that the meal improved with each passing course and this was certainly my favorite meal I’ve had in Bar Harbor. I’m not sure why the restaurant declares itself a bistro since there were identifiable aspects of both southern cuisine (the Charleston ‘she-crab’ soup from the appetizer menu) and Basque cuisine (my dad’s chicken dish.) It could be that in a town that largely eschews fine dining, they assent to the bistro label in an attempt to efface what could be construed as inaccessible cuisine to a tourist audience. It is interesting how in this country, “bistro” seems to be a convenient label that one can mold to fit their specifications.
Given that it is located adjacent to Acadia National Park, Maine’s premier destination, the dearth of quality Bar Harbor restaurants is borderline embarrassing. While there is value to touristy restaurants as they make families happy (I remember enjoying such restaurants as a young child), my irritation with Bar Harbor is that there are too many such restaurants and not enough alternatives. It’s frustrating to walk through the town and see one identical lobster-driven menu after another, and in this regard Mache Bistro certainly sticks out as a big fish in a small pond. It’s more or less impossible to divorce a restaurant from the context of its environment, but regardless of its location, I found the dessert and main dish quite remarkable and the restaurant genuinely interesting.