After spending several months away from Maine, Fore Street was one of the restaurants I missed most. This affection didn’t always exist; when I first dined there four years ago, its reputation as Maine’s most famous restaurant led me to expect a more ‘white table cloth’ fine dining experience. In fact, it was only after spending most of the last few years out of state that it really went up in my estimation—this isn’t a backhanded compliment so much as a testament to the lasting impression that Fore Street makes. The cooking isn’t always the most precise (I’ve had pork belly and arctic char with burnt skin), and my blog post from two years ago wasn’t glowing, but one simply won’t encounter a restaurant that feels like Fore Street anywhere else in the country and that counts for a lot. I’ve now dined there roughly 10 times and my family congregates at Fore Street each December for a holiday meal. Father’s Day was a good excuse for a nice dinner out and I treated my dad to celebrate the occasion.
Our reservation was for 5:30 and so there was the usual nervous energy one finds at the start of a dinner service. We could see the waitstaff slicing the bread and reviewing notes. Natural light circulated throughout the space. Normally, I prefer dining at one of the four-tops that flank the windows, but this was impossible with just the two of us and the bright sun might have been tough to handle anyhow. The centerpiece of the restaurant is the kitchen; what makes this open kitchen so memorable is that there is no boundary between kitchen and dining room, making for a most immersive experience. Years before it got trendy with Joshua Skenes or Sean Brock, Fore Street embraced cooking with fire and one of the pleasures of dining there is watching the flames and proteins roasting on the spit. The fire imparts a cozy feel that is mitigated somewhat during the summer and for this reason I think Fore Street is best appreciated in winter.
Tasting menus are out of the picture at Fore Street. Instead, the menu is organized primarily by preparation method, with 11 categories that include “Garden,” “Grilled, Pan Seared and Oven Roasted Meats,” Turnspit Roasted Meats,” and “Vegetables to Share.” This latter category refers to vegetable side dishes that one can order to supplement the main plates. The menu is much larger than it needs to be and invariably overwhelms, but that is just part of the experience. Many of the ingredients, particularly the vegetables and seafood (including the halibut, as well as the Seussian duo of redfish and bluefish) were sourced from Maine, but I wouldn’t categorize Fore Street within the legion of elite Maine farm-to-table restaurants—a category which included the late Arrows and is now spearheaded by Primo. One senses that Fore Street seeks the very best of a particular item, embracing Maine’s premium ingredients while celebrating other ingredients as well. For example, the superb Columbia River King Salmon was on offer, and they also source Kansas beef, which I know from experience is excellent. I like this approach more than a dogmatic approach to farm-to-table. I’m not the first to say this, but one of the issues with treating farm-to-table as if it were an article of faith is that it forecloses many of the best seasonal ingredients that one can find elsewhere (this has hampered my dinners at Primo, for example.) At Fore Street, I feel like ingredients are chosen discriminatingly rather than because they are readily available.
Fore Street should also be commended for offering ingredients that are at least one standard deviation from the norm in Maine. One can find roasted sardines, veal sweetbreads, esoteric offal, and foie gras, none of which enjoy much visibility in this state. When Fore Street opened its doors in the mid-1990s, I believe that the menu was much more conservative. The restaurant’s success seems to have given Chef Sam Hayward the confidence to branch out, with his demographic growing more ambitious accordingly. It is in this sense that Fore Street could be said to have constructed the palate of its audience.
For this meal I returned to some of my favorite proteins. I knew from experience that the mussels come in a Ruthian portion and so my dad and I split them as an appetizer. For our main plates, I chose the halibut and my dad ordered the hanger steak. We also chose the ‘grilled and chilled’ asparagus to supplement our more substantial offerings.
Breads were sourced by Standard Baking, which is owned by Fore Street. This has always been my favorite bread service and I’m glad that there isn’t a supplemental charge.
While enjoying our bread, we watched the cooks in action. Open kitchens seem to be popular now but I don’t always find them enjoyable. This is because oftentimes they just expose how overworked the kitchen is, to the point that each cook is not so much an ‘artist’ as a laborer. I think this kitchen overcomes this on two counts: first, the cooks face frontally, which makes it look more as if they are performing. When kitchens are viewed in profile, by contrast, there is more of an alienated feel as they seem to work in a separate spatial register. Second, there is the awesome spectacle of the kitchen equipment, particularly the spit, the grill, and the giant oven. Of course Fore Street is as invested in maximum efficiency as any other kitchen, but these aspects at least made the action seem less like a Fordist assembly line.
We’d ordered these mussels many times in the past and so we knew what to expect. The fantastic recipe contains lots of butter and garlic, which is pretty standard, but also almonds. They are cooked in the oven, which makes the mussels very easy to open. Serving them in the skillet is a trademark of this restaurant and reflects the Fore Street style. On the one hand, this is a minimalist approach, since the dish is served exactly as it was cooked in the oven, but the novelty of the skillet is also quite showy—this is the balance that makes Fore Street so distinctive. An outstanding dish.
My halibut was also cooked in the oven and so it arrived in its cast-iron pan. The halibut is sourced from Maine, and I ordered this as I wanted to take advantage of the narrow East Coast halibut season. Accompaniments included yellow lentils, broccoli, onions, and good chive blossom butter. This is not manicured cuisine; as with the mussels, the intent, I think, is to serve everything as it appears while cooking. This rehearses the same paradox that we saw with the mussels, in which the dish looks quite stunning even though no trace has been left of the chef’s hand. Everything looks so simple, even though lots of thought went into it.
The hanger steak was cooked to the medium temperature that my dad had specified. This is a preparation that Fore Street has served for several years and the beef is served with cipollini onions, chard, and an oxtail reduction. Hanger steaks are ubiquitous now but Fore Street distinguishes themselves through excellent butchering, as there is none of the connective tissue that one often finds with this cut.
We also shared a side dish of asparagus. These were the most pristine asparagus I’ve ever seen and the ricotta salata was just right in this context. With Fore Street, side dishes are never an afterthought. In the winter months, they often serve butternut squash with molasses, for example.
Dessert was amazing. I ordered cherry tarte tatin with caramel sauce and coconut chocolate chip ice cream. In the past, I’ve never been that impressed with Fore Street’s desserts since they’ve always seemed like gussied-up versions of the pastries at Standard Baking, and I guess this fit within that vein to some extent. What made this so special, though, was the fresh caramel and it was hard not to feel inspired. Coconut is normally something I stay away from but it mixed with the chocolate nicely—if anyone has ever wondered what German chocolate cake ice cream would taste like, this was a decent approximation. I’ve had some strong desserts this year but this might have been my favorite.
My dad ordered the “Bite Size Dessert,” which on this evening was bourbon chocolate cake with dark chocolate glaze and needhams ice cream. It was good but not in the same league as my dessert.
As a veteran Fore Street customer, I thought I knew what to expect but this meal blew us away. The ingredients were well-sourced as always, but this meal displayed a level of precision that I’ve never seen from this restaurant and so this was my favorite meal of the year to this point. Past favorites were perfectly executed, while new plates confirmed that the kitchen’s creative faculties remain intact. The one clear area for improvement is the vegetables. Considering the kitchen’s facility with the vegetable side dishes, I would love to see what they could do with proper vegetarian main dishes (here I’m not talking about pasta plates but rather courses that are predicated on bringing out the best in a core vegetable.)
This meal was contemporary, and American, but I wouldn’t give it the “Contemporary American” label, at least as the label is commonly constituted. Indeed, there was none of the inappropriate fusion that characterizes so much of American cuisine these days. This was food that was grounded in New England but with a glance, rather than a fixation, toward other regions of the country. Also, after months of railing against the overabundant garnishes that seem to be everywhere in contemporary dining—specifically pea shoots, micro greens, and edible flowers—it was nice to be served food that I could actually discern. Everything looked very blatant but in the best possible way, and what the cuisine may lose in complexity it gains in lucidity. Whether or not Fore Street is a fine dining restaurant is open for debate, but it’s refreshing to dine somewhere with such a clear and confident approach.