Primo (Rockland, ME)

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(Primo Dining Room)

Primo is a real pillar of Maine dining and one of the most famous restaurants in New England. Chef/co-founder Melissa Kelly won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northeast back in 1999. She is an alumnus of Chez Panisse and so it is no surprise that Primo was a New England pioneer in farm-to-table cuisine. The restaurant was named after Melissa Kelly’s Italian grandfather, and what has always been most appealing to me about Primo is the way that Kelly is able to balance her Italian heritage with indigenous Maine ingredients.

As an undergraduate, Primo was my favorite restaurant and I dined there many times. Primo was my first exposure to fine dining and on my first visit I had a halibut dish with shrimp, chorizo, and polenta that initiated my interest in restaurants. However, in 2011 the restaurant added an extra room (called the “Primo Room”) that I found tacky and discordant with the rustic ambience of the rest of the restaurant, and so I avoided going over the past year and a half. On their website, Primo advertises that they offer a number of different ambiences, from the bar to the “Primo Room” to the formal dining room. I have to say that offering many different environments does not make sense to me as it makes the space less focused. At the same time, the isolated setting on the farm is dramatic enough that this is really not too much of an issue. My mother had never been to Primo, and so I took her there for her birthday on November 3. This meal was to be an interesting one since we were approaching the restaurant from diametrically opposite perspectives; I would be returning there after a year-and-a-half hiatus and curious whether the restaurant would still manage to excite, while my mother would be going there for the first time.

Pulling into the restaurant for our 6:00 reservation, my mother commented that the location was “quite dramatic” and indeed the restaurant’s hilltop perch offers a great deal of wow factor. Primo is in the White Barn Inn/Arrows mold in that it exists as a world unto itself and I love seeing this type of setting—it is precisely what one cannot find at restaurants in the city. Even without considering the cuisine, the setting alone makes it so that Primo must be compared with White Barn Inn and Arrows. The major difference between the three is that Primo is much more rustic and doesn’t have the antique kitsch of White Barn Inn or the pre-modern spectacle of Arrows. Even though I preferred the setting before the expansion, the hilltop setting still manages to excite.

Finding parking was a real challenge and so it was surprising when the dining room was less than half full; this was because the crowd at the upstairs bar dwarfs that of the dining room. The bar also offers a completely different, offal-and-oyster centric small plate menu. I can’t remember going to a fine dining restaurant with such a skewed ratio of bar to dining room patrons and I do think this makes the restaurant lose some focus. Even still, the dining room is quite comfortable and we were led to a great window-side two-top.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Primo experience is the menu. The brown leather menu jacket adds a rustic touch. I think that menu fonts are under-recognized for their potential to impact the dining experience, and the menu’s comic sans-like font helped engender a playful tone. Another playful touch is their creative deployment of diacritical marks, with a number of quotation marks, exclamation marks, and ellipses.

Primo also advertises their purveyors and sourcing at every opportunity, similar to Vie in Chicago, Husk in Charleston, and Fore Street in Portland. Melissa Kelly has stated that her philosophy involves a “full circle kitchen” approach where they grow as much as possible on the premises, raising many of the animals they cook, etc. This farm-to-table philosophy certainly borrows from Alice Waters, and I think that such restaurants generally exhibit a romantic, naïve belief that a restaurant can be completely transparent to the point that it effaces its own status as a restaurant. I think this belief is analogous to the Italian Neorealist film movement, which involved films that tried to reflect the world unmediated through disguising the technology of the medium. Of course, the problem with this “realist” approach is that it disregards the inherent artifice of the restaurant as an institution.

Our outstanding server, whom I recognized from a couple of my past meals at Primo, also introduced a “snout to tail” tasting menu of nine pig-related courses but I didn’t think the service at Primo would be rigorous enough for such an extended tasting. We found many appealing a la carte menu options and I settled on the Farmer’s Salad as a starter and the Halibut for my main. My mother also chose the Farmer’s Salad and settled on the Pork Saltimbocca, the restaurant’s signature dish, for her entrée. I almost never order salads in restaurants but the Farmer’s Salad makes great use of their home-grown ingredients, with garden lettuces, a coddled backyard egg, and house-cured lardons.

The nontraditional amuse bouche was a shot of house-brewed apple cider with calvados cream. This was a great example of Primo’s refined rusticity and a refreshing jolt on a cold November evening. The amuse was delivered by a food runner wearing a pair of overalls, almost as though she had walked into the dining room directly from the farm. While this might seem like an insignificant detail, I read the overalls as an artificial prop embodying the hyperrealism the restaurant endeavors to achieve.

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Primo is proud of their bread service, which is under the jurisdiction of co-owner Price Kushner. Three offerings filled our basket: onion focaccia, multigrain, and semolina. Each was great, but the real star was the accompanying Nunez de Prado olive oil.

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Our Farmer’s Salads arrived in the same wooden salad bowls I remembered from past meals. The wood tones are consonant with the rustic aesthetic cultivated by each facet of the restaurant—in this regard, the restaurant achieves the synchronization between ambience and plating style that to my mind is a criterion for a great restaurant.

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The salad tasted as great as I’d remembered, although the portion size was formidable and necessitated a lengthy break between courses. I understand that many restaurants offer a salad with lettuce, soft egg, and bacon, but Primo distinguishes their offering through the freshness of their ingredients. Primo is not a great restaurant because they come up with novel ingredient pairings but because they do a superior job of sourcing their cuisine—other restaurants simply cannot grow all of these ingredients locally.

Our main dishes were quite large. My halibut was served with twice-cooked potatoes from Augusta, ME, turnips (with their greens), and a red wine sauce. A garnish of micro greens topped the halibut, an unnecessary neighborhood restaurant touch that felt out of place in a fine dining context. The halibut was a bit overcooked for my taste although this may just reflect my personal taste in fish. For a state that specializes in seafood, I find that many Maine restaurants overcook their fish. I was also disappointed by the red wine sauce, which was muted in flavor. Pairing halibut with pan-fried potatoes was a fun move and I appreciated that this was the sort of combination that one would not find at many other restaurants. Even if I didn’t care for the execution, I still enjoyed this preparation for its conceptual values. One of the most dispiriting aspects of restaurants is how they often serve fare that is indistinct from other restaurants, and this dish managed to avoid such a designation.

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The pork saltimbocca was less creative but more tasty. The saltimbocca title was listed in quotation marks on the menu, reflecting how this wasn’t a traditional saltimbocca. The pork wasn’t actually wrapped in house-cured ham and instead there were slices of ham on top of and in between two pounded pork cutlets (both the pork and ham were sourced from the pigs on their farm). The sauce was a Madeira jus and the dish was paired with spinach and mashed potatoes. I love Madeira sauces in most any context and this dish was amazing and a great example of Melissa Kelly’s ability to combine farm-to-table cuisine with traditional Italian staples.

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At this point we were almost full but proceeded toward dessert. There were an overwhelming number of options (including three specials) but my mother chose the fruit crostata, which was filled with cherries and plums (the filling changes nightly.) Meanwhile, I went with the brioche bread pudding, served with caramel corn, caramelized bananas and bourbon ice cream.

The crostata was ample and delicious, if relatively standard.

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I was more intrigued by my choice although it disappointed. I ordered this dessert since I’ve had great bourbon ice cream at Moto and L’Espalier and I wanted to see how it would pair with the bread pudding. However, the presentation was a let-down as the components were served in isolation and the boozy ice cream wasn’t able to seep into the brioche, which tasted more like pain perdu than bread pudding. The caramel corn was interesting although its function was basically to take up space on the large plate.

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The mignardise service included passion fruit marshmallow, a raspberry-dusted chocolate, and a berry of some variety. Primo has always disappointed with their mignardises and these were harmless but really no better than past ones.

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I was glad that I returned to Primo, even if it didn’t make as much of an impact as a couple of years ago. My mother enjoyed her meal very much and based on my first meal, I think Primo can really blow someone away if it is their first meal there. The setting also remains spectacular and it is the big trump card the restaurant offers over city restaurants. As a member of its farm-to-table category, Primo manages to distinguish itself and the setting makes it more satisfying than other related restaurants like Vie. Still, while I loved the Farmer’s Salad the fish was overcooked for my taste and the flavors were not delicate enough for my liking.

Ultimately, my feelings toward Primo are mixed. On the one hand, the setting is very stimulating, but on the other, I find it disingenuous for Chef Kelly to position her restaurant as the minimalist site of some manner of transcendent realism. From its Victorian architecture to its hillside perch, Primo is a massive institution of Maine dining and despite what Kelly might claim, there is really nothing minimalist about it. However, the restaurant still feels like no place else and even on a national scale, remains significant and a leader in its culinary genre.

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