(Clementine Facade; Photo Taken from Yelp)
Clementine closed its doors for good on October 20, and I wanted to dine there while I still had the chance. Even though it has closed as of this writing, I still think it’s worth writing about since it was the best-regarded restaurant in its town and elucidates a particular restaurant genre—the upscale college town restaurant. Located in Brunswick, ME Clementine drew heavily from the Bowdoin College clientele, similar to Fuel in Lewiston or Appolo Bistro in Waterville, which draw from the Bates and Colby populations, respectively. This genre is significant not so much for its cuisine but for the niche it fulfills for college students looking for a nice dinner out; the category is similar to a neighborhood restaurant, only with the more ethnically and geographically diverse population of a college community. Interestingly, Clementine advertises itself with the confusing subtitle of “Casual Fine Dining”; this seemed like an oxymoron and made me wonder why they didn’t just call it a bistro. Perhaps they felt that combining “Casual” and “Fine Dining” was the perfect recipe to entice college students who wanted a nice dinner out without spending vast amounts of money, but it still seems like a strange label.
The husband and wife team of Dan and Nancy Robicheaw have a strong pedigree; Dan worked for years at Back Bay Grill, while Nancy worked at the storied Chantarelle in New York City. One would think that the captive audience of the college demographic should have guaranteed robust profits for the pair, but this was apparently not the case. While the restaurant’s website stated that the reason for closing was that they wanted to spend more time with their family, early in our meal we overheard Nancy telling another table that it was not financially feasible to continue. Brunswick’s proximity to the burgeoning Portland restaurant juggernaut perhaps spelled the end of the restaurant; in this regard, it is also worth noting that Back Street Bistro, Brunswick’s other upscale restaurant, also closed its doors this year.
I was very surprised upon arriving to find that the restaurant was almost completely full even though we had made an early 5:30 reservation. As I don’t care to eat in a dining room filled with college students as it can get noisy, we had made an early reservation and the other tables were filled with elderly types. In fact, Maine is an elderly state and Clementine is characteristic of the state’s restaurants in that the early seating is filled predominantly with elderly citizens while the later seating features a younger crowd. Maine restaurants can’t rely on a specific “type” of audience like restaurants in large cities and so the same restaurant can offer very different experiences depending on the seating time.
Despite the elderly crowd, the restaurant was still extremely noisy. This was because the petite dining room was overcrowded with tables. I understand their need to incorporate as many seats as possible but at the same time, I don’t think a restaurant should be so transparent in their attempt to maximize profits. As I was dining with my parents, we were seated at one of the few four-tops, and there really wasn’t space for the larger tables, particularly in light of the fact that there were way too many tables boxing us in. The excessive number of tables also made it difficult to focus my attention as there was too much commotion taking place in the tiny space. Also adding to the noise was an open kitchen, which was a double-edged sword; it did a good job of making the space seem larger, but the sound of plates clanging and ambient kitchen noise grew irritating. Ultimately, restaurants should conceptualize how their patrons will perceive the experience and it seemed that Clementine failed to recognize the disorienting effect of the layout.
Our welcome was warm and we received separate visits from both the owner and our server, a pleasant woman with an excellent grasp of the menu but who was unfortunately vastly overworked. In fact, there were only two servers and one back waiter (plus the owner/hostess) manning a dining room with at least 15 tables. I suspect that because of their imminent closing they had already lost a good deal of the staff, or perhaps they had let go some of their waitstaff as business atrophied in the final months. Still, our server did an adequate job of introducing the regular menu, in addition to the $27 3-course prix-fixe with “all portions reduced size.” For the most part, the menu wasn’t very interesting; the appetizer section read like a traditional French bistro (country pork pate, greens salad, soup of the day, etc.), with the exception of the “lobster tortellini,” the dish that I was most interested in and really the main reason I was inspired to go to Clementine in the first place. The main dishes were generally more interesting and I settled on “Salmon in Bric Pastry.” My mom ordered the soup of the day (black lentil) and “Sauteed Sea Scallops” for her main, while my dad chose “Grilled Spice Rubbed Pork Loin.”
Feather bread sourced from Standard Baking Company in Portland was served and as expected it was terrific. Standard Baking is my favorite bakery in Maine and our basket was later refilled upon request.
The lobster tortellini was served with wasabi tobiko and a white wine butter sauce; it was a good value at $9. It’s always a dangerous proposition to have such great expectations for one dish, but the tortellini was outstanding. The pasta was very light and would have more aptly been titled as wontons; pairing lobster/white wine/butter with wasabi created a nice blend of comfort and complexity and this was one of the best-tasting dishes I’ve had all year, validating an otherwise shaky meal.
My mother enjoyed her soup although I can’t comment on it as I didn’t taste it. The thin broth was surprising although my mom reported that it was still satisfying.
By this point in the meal the service suffered badly and become very slow. The combination of too many tables and too few servers was damaging and at this point the meal became sloppy. The dining room was full, presumably as people wanted to dine there one last time before the restaurant closed. However, the servers couldn’t stay afloat. The effect was analogous to a sports team that has already been eliminated from contention and runs the clock in a halfhearted attempt to keep up appearances; I have never been in a dining room that was so crowded yet had such little energy.
The salmon was large in portion although it should be noted that it was served in a plate with a small, shallow center, which made the portion seem larger than it was. Restaurants have to realize how the customer will perceive the dish and this composition either needed to be reduced in portion or served on a more accommodating plate. The dish had the stew-like consistency that characterizes a number of Maine bistros (Mache Bistro, Sea Grass Bistro, etc.) Accompaniments included stewed cannellini beans, a fennel-black olive salad, and basil. There were a number of aggressive flavors at work (the salmon, fennel, and basil particularly) and the beans were necessary in providing some relief. However, the crispy pastry was too texturally similar to the fennel and the dish would have been more satisfying had the pastry been softer or perhaps discarded altogether.
I am allergic to scallops and so I didn’t try my mom’s scallops. They were served with arugula, green beans, fingerling potato, tarragon, and corn veloute. The scallops were enormous and my mom reported that the veloute worked well.
My dad’s pork loin was visually striking, with the char of the grilled pork visually complementing the orange sweet potato puree in a seasonally appropriate composition. Other accompaniments were broccolini, radish salad, and curried vinaigrette. I didn’t try this dish although my dad raved about it and I was pleased when he reported that it was one of the best restaurant dishes he’d ever had—this demonstrates how even in a meal with poor service, there are other pleasures that can at least partially rectify the meal.
Clementine built their reputation on their pastry program, which the chef/owner himself has identified as their specialty. It is unusual for a restaurant to advertise their desserts as their chief strength (particularly as it is the most inexpensive chapter of the meal) and so I reasoned that the desserts must be superb. I chose the saffron poached pear, while my parents split the apple crisp. Unfortunately, our desserts took a long time to arrive, and the environment became almost painful. As the tables from the first seating were turned, Bowdoin students arrived for the 7:30 seating. However, the owner was the only person changing the linen—in light of the space constraints, it would have been more practical to forgo white tablecloths. She couldn’t prepare the tables quickly enough and the entryway became oversaturated with people waiting for their tables.
The pear was served with white chocolate and macadamia—it was terrific, although the cookie spoon was a bit precious. My parents enjoyed their apple crisp as well.
It is a shame that Clementine is closing since it clearly served a useful purpose for the nearby elderly population and the Bowdoin community. The white tablecloths and French theme likely appeased students looking for an upscale dinner out, making Clementine a classic example of a college town restaurant. For the most part, the cuisine was terrific and my family agreed that the chef’s greatest problem is simply that he doesn’t have the proper building to accommodate his talents. There was a tragic discrepancy between the high standard of the cuisine, which was among the best I’ve had in Maine, and the inexcusable service. I’ve never encountered a restaurant that was so limited by its interior space and I question whether the next restaurant to inhabit the building will suffer a similar fate. There is no question that at least six tables must be removed; however, this would likely necessitate raising the prices, which might not be sustainable in a neighborhood like Brunswick. Even though Clementine is now closed, I will keep an eye out for both Chef Robicheaw and the building itself to see if perhaps each can thrive without being reliant on the other.