(Arrows Dining Room)
Arrows is perhaps Maine’s most nationally-renowned fine-dining restaurant, and Chef/Owners Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier were awarded the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northeast in 2010. Located in an 18th century farmhouse in Ogunquit, the grounds are similar to White Barn Inn through how they both exist as worlds unto themselves. It was founded in 1989 and is considered the progenitor of the farm to table movement in New England. Accordingly, one of the interesting aspects of going to Arrows today is to compare how culturally diverse the cuisine has become contra the more simple preparations of its early days.
The restaurant opens in early April and closes after New Year’s Eve. The opening corresponds with the cycle of the seasons—just as spring is characterized by rebirth, the restaurant renews itself with a new concept (or modification to the existing concept) every April. Accordingly, there is a new concept this year, which they have termed “Revolution.”Diners are now encouraged to design their own tasting menu from a template of 5 starters, 6 main plates, and 4 desserts. While hyperbolic, this title is appropriate in that I can’t think of many restaurants (if any) that are using employing an analogous menu structure.
With an early 6:00 reservation there were only a couple of parties in the dining room when I was seated. I was grateful that even as a solo diner I was given one of the fantastic window-side 4-tops, and the view of the garden is quite dramatic (the photo below is of the view from my table.) Directly in front of my table was the flower garden, while the vegetable garden is on the right-hand side of the restaurant. The interior is decorated in wood, and there is an oak tree in the center, with small lanterns hanging as ornaments; incorporating nature within the dining room makes it the perfect corollary to the grounds outside and the restaurant seems to do its best to act as though modernity never arrived. For the first hour or so I noticed a farmhand picking vegetables and with the sun beginning to set, the scene looked as though it had been manufactured to resemble a Millet painting; there is no doubt that the view is an attraction on par with the cuisine.
I was excited about the change in menu concept although it did place a bit of a burden on me; there is a predesigned 6-course “Chef’s Collection” that one can select, however, and I used this as a model to draw from. I decided to go with 2 lighter plates and 4 more savory dishes; dessert was to be selected after finishing the mains.
The bread basket offered four varieties; tomato focaccia, crabapple sourdough, baguette, and cornbread. There was also crostini. All were incredible—this was the most varied and well-executed bread service I’ve had this year.
Arrows doesn’t offer an amuse bouche and so the meal began with my first course, bearing the florid title “The Garden of Good and Evil.” (Note: I was relying mostly on candles and outdoor light, compromising the quality of a number of the photos from this meal.) In classic Arrows form, the composition was over-the-top and in excess of what was needed, but in an alluring way. The portion size was enormous and basically sized like three tasting menu dishes included on the same plate; this dish covered a lot of ground and fully unpacking it would warrant it own blog post. The name draws its inspiration from both the deviled eggs at the bottom of the frame and the juxtaposition between the healthy trio on the left-hand side and the less dietary items on the right; this created a sort of split-screen effect. Invoking the Bible was in line with the restaurant’s archetypal nostalgia. On the left were three different lettuces (can’t remember the exact titles) and on the right were (from the top) roasted garlic/brie fondue, garlic flan, and a deviled egg. Conceptually, I loved this dish; I think Arrows has always been very self conscious of the reputation Maine has for being a “vacationland” and the whimsical concept exemplified this attribute. Unfortunately, the greens were marred from being ridiculously overdressed with a vinegar dressing (and I ordinarily love acidic flavors) and it was hard to shake the acrid taste. The trio on the right was more agreeable and I enjoyed the examples of how good cream and garlic can be when mixed together.
My second plate was an Arrows trademark: “Garden greens with vintage 2010 house cured prosciutto.” Arrows is famous for their prosciutto, which has been a mainstay on the menu since their inception. In fact, they have a smokehouse on the grounds where they cure their meats and smoke fish. Again, this was a much larger serving than necessary; on one hand, this was nice since I enjoy prosciutto, but it also disregarded the tasting menu context. The garden greens were again disappointing, though—not only were they way overdressed but the portion was too large and a huge pile of lettuce just isn’t very aesthetically appealing.
My fish course was pan roasted red snapper with kohlrabi fondue, sweet garlic pickled collard greens and shaved garden carrot and buttermilk cheese salad. As the title testifies, the menu description is very exhaustive; this is useful for recording all of the components, although one of the benefits of concise titles is that there’s more room for surprise. The picture below was compromised by the setting sun and many of the components are indiscernible, a shame since this course was terrific. The snapper was cooked through but it still held its characteristic sweet flavor. I liked how even with a burdensome roster of ingredients, the dish still felt very light.
The first meat course was “Duck, Strawberry and Rhubarb.” Similar to my first course, this was an archetypal Arrows plating—sculptural and gratuitously “precious.” I’m always drawn to restaurants that are expressive with their plating to the point that they can be identified through their plating style, and Arrows certainly qualifies. At the far left was smoked duck breast with duck cracklings, rhubarb chips and a micro green salad; to the right of it was a beverage pairing/sauce of sparkling sake and strawberry mimosa. On the lower right was a duck confit cube with a port wine sauce; above the duck confit was a strawberry gelee, and on the lower left was duck saucisson with pickled rhubarb, rhubarb-tarragon mustard and potato pancake. This was probably one of the ten most interesting dishes I’ve had all year. I understand that the 3-way preparation style has its detractors, but when each component is well-executed, the relational structure is very stimulating.
The next dish was apple wood roasted squab breast with ham and squab pate, grits, chanterelle mushrooms, and truffle sauce. The grits were a good example of Arrows’ appreciation for American nostalgia—in the past, I’ve also enjoyed their fried chicken, and an interpretation of clam chowder is also on the menu. I had been concerned that the squab would be redundant in light of the duck that had preceded it, but this was a heavier dish and so it fit the progression perfectly—this was easily the richest course of the night.
After my plate was cleared I received a nice visit from chef/owner Clark Frasier, who welcomed me back and chatted with me in between courses. He referred to Arrows as “an adult playground”; certainly, his descriptor captures the sense of fantasy engendered by the dining room and the flower garden. Where another chef might refer to their operation as a “workshop,” “playground” is more accurate here since Arrows resonates as the antithesis of the workplace and the embodiment of a “vacationland.”
My final savory dish was a lamb trio: on the left was fried belly with tarragon vinegar, in the middle was braised shank with fennel puree and fennel salad, and on the right was grilled loin with huckleberry gastrique. I’m not usually a fan of lamb but there wasn’t a beef course and so I went with this. In this case, I would have preferred if this wasn’t a 3-way preparation; the fried belly and the loin were fairly boring and I would have just preferred a larger portion of the shank. The fennel puree was amazing and I was delighted when I detected horseradish, which the server confirmed as one of the ingredients.
One salient characteristic of the progression is that this didn’t feel like a tasting so much as a collection of several a la carte dishes—I felt almost as though I’d gone to an a la carte restaurant and ordered 2 starters and 4 main dishes. Perhaps this was because I had designed the progression myself, but I think it’s because each dish had so many parts that there wasn’t room for them to exist in dialogue with each other. This wasn’t necessarily a problem since the plates were complex enough on their own merits, but I’ve never experienced a tasting menu where I came away with this impression.
By this point, the dining room was full and this had an adverse effect on the service; Arrows has a very long and narrow dining room and there isn’t enough room for more than a few servers; I had to wait for a long while before placing my dessert order. This was annoying although it did clarify the impact that architecture can have on service, a topic that had never occurred to me.
I decided on two desserts: the Maine berry doughnuts and frappe, and the chocolate pain perdu with roasted plum and European wine barley granita. I figured that it was self-evident that the berry doughnuts would be delivered first as they were fruit-based and so I was astounded when the chocolate dish arrived. After explaining to my server that I wanted the doughnuts first, he decided to “educate” me about why it made more sense to serve the chocolate first; I could see he had no intention of honoring my wish and so I signaled for the manager, who assured me that they would fix the situation. Unfortunately, my server didn’t seem to care for this and he went missing in action for the next ~40 minutes in a passive-aggressive maneuver. I have no idea why my server acted so petty but this was probably one of the most awkward situations I’ve ever encountered in a restaurant.
Neither dessert impressed me although my judgment may have been clouded by the long wait and the attitude. The doughnuts included a raspberry-topped one that was prepared in the old-fashioned yeast-raised style, a strawberry glazed one, and two blueberry fritters; the milkshake in the center was made with black pepper-spiced Greek yogurt. I was drawn to the concept for this dessert since it suggested the sort of revisionist nostalgia that I enjoy from Arrows, but it tasted bland.
The chocolate dessert was even worse; the pain perdu was dry and the plum/barley component was rancid. By this point I was losing stamina as the meal wound up lasting almost an hour longer than it should have due to the service.
The mignardises included a raspberry pate de fruit, chocolate chip cookie, and chocolate toffee, served in this elaborate tower:
Ultimately, this meal was arguably the most bipolar I’ve ever had. All four of the main dishes were outstanding and the squab and duck among the best I’ve had this year. The bread service was terrific as well, and for the first couple of hours I felt it was turning out to be one of my 5 favorite meals of the year. I can’t explain my server’s change in attitude, but it certainly revealed just how many people are involved in the restaurant experience—everyone else I encountered was professional and friendly (including the owner) but my server’s conduct negatively impacted the meal. I still think Arrows is arguably the most interesting restaurant in Maine because it’s the rare restaurant where both the setting and cuisine are unlike any that can be found anywhere else, but after the soap opera conclusion, I’m in no rush to return.