In previous blog posts, I’ve elaborated on the dynamic wherein the fanciest restaurant in a college town becomes a kind of ‘default-fine dining’ outpost. That is, such restaurants would not qualify as fine dining were they in large cities, but advance a standard deviation in the (perceived) generic hierarchy by virtue of their relative exclusivity. These restaurants depend on the patronage of students and staff, and are where search committees take prospective faculty to dinner following job talks. Fare characteristically includes baseline luxury ingredients (filets of beef, duck), nicely-prepared but without taking the diner out of her comfort zone.
Perched in close proximity to Bates College, Fuel is the Lewiston, ME example of this genre. While I consider these college town restaurants to benefit from a captive audience, one still has to admire the longevity of Fuel in light of Lewiston’s economically-depressed condition. Expanding the geographic horizon, Central Maine has proven a most challenging region for anything pricier than the pub or chain; neither Augusta nor Waterville boasts a restaurant of Fuel’s (still modest) ambition or price point. As an undergraduate, I twice dined at Fuel, but this was a number of years ago and so the Robert Indiana exhibit at the Bates Art [Gallery] motivated my family and me to venture off-the-beaten-trail to this now well-tenured Lewiston institution.
By Lewiston standards, Fuel claims a prime location, situated on the relatively busy, but not particularly attractive, Lisbon Street. Yet the dining room stands at a far remove from the street—no windowside tables or natural light (a couple of outside tables are available, though I can’t imagine anyone choosing to dine al fresco in such a setting.) This segregation from the street registers as a slightly aberrational gesture, particularly given the undramatic mise-en-scene of the dining room; with its low ceiling and narrow confines, the space feels as if it may have been a banquet hall in a prior incarnation. Decorating the walls are (reproductions of) French lithographic posters in the Lautrec style; this is pleasant-enough (if a trope), but also called attention to the contrast between the dynamic iconography of the posters and the relative blandness of the space.
Fuel bills itself as a “modern French bistro,” but in Maine, “bistro” has become an ambiguous signifier, co-opted to refer to anything from upscale, chef-driven cuisine to gastropub fare. Perhaps as a result of such elasticity, very few restaurants in Maine serve bistro cuisine in its native context. So, Fuel distinguishes itself from other restaurants in this state by staying relatively faithful to proper bistro fare, offering such dishes as braised pork shank, steak frites, charcuterie, and escargot. Other dishes, such as the burger, French onion soup, and fries, claim French provenance but have obviously been absorbed by American cuisine. Fuel seems to frame the pork shank as its signature dish, declaring “A dish that truly defines our French Country heritage. Using all aspects of traditional French cooking, we sear the shank, then slowly braise it in red wine, aromatic vegetables, and balsamic vinegar. The braising liquid is strained and reduced to make a rich, flavorful sauce. The shank is fall-off-the-bone tender, and served atop Brussels sprout, bacon, and sweet potato hash.” This dish isn’t earning high marks for creativity, but the granularity of the description reflects a serious approach, as well as, perhaps, an attempt to educate the diner uninitiated in French cuisine.
With advance notice, one may order a four-course tasting menu. I understand that the chef may not have the time to compose a tasting menu a la minute, but requiring advance notice also suggests that perhaps the menu doesn’t showcase the best of what this chef has to offer. This suggests that what we have isn’t a case of an auteur chef developing his voice in spite of external constraints, but rather an instance in which the chef’s ambition has acquiesced to the exigencies of surviving in this setting.
For this midsummer meal, pork shank seemed too heavy, although there weren’t many light offerings either. I shared the charcuterie plate with my dad, and my mom chose the beat salad. My dad went with the burger for his main, while my mom and I chose mustard-glazed salmon with lentils. We also added the broccoli appetizer to augment the main courses.
Warm bread with butter made for a great opening.
The charcuterie consisted of four cured meats: duck prosciutto, coppa, speck, and fennel sausage. Only the duck prosciutto was actually cured in house, and it was the highlight. The gaminess of the duck shone through, tempered by black pepper that accented the sides of each slice. We were very satisfied with the meats and the generosity of the presentation, although some other textures would have been welcome; I would expect a charcuterie plate to include a terrine or pate, for example. The intensity of the duck also would have benefitted from a berry compote, rather than the texturally-incompatible dried fruits accompanying the meats.
The beat salad boasted red and golden beets, adorned with a champagne vinaigrette, candied walnuts, blue cheese and baby lettuces. The opacity of this dressing challenged expectations, but my mother expressed her satisfaction.
Here we have the salmon, a generous (~10-12 ounce) portion atop a lentils. The menu listed this as “Glazed with Dijon and bread crumbs,” and while more than serviceable, I’m not sure this was successful. Cooked to medium temperature, the fish was cooked more than my preference, and while the bread crumbs offered textural contrast, they overpowered the mustard. To my mind, a more enticing preparation would forgo the bread crumbs altogether, prepare the fish to a rarer temperature, and achieve a mustard crust. Ostensibly the lightest course on the menu, this became very dense. The heaviness of this course was only amplified by the lentils, and the dish became boring. Ordering the broccoli (pictured below the salmon) proved a savvy move insofar as it lightened the salmon and lentils, although the chickpeas rehearsed the starchiness of the lentils and bread crumbs. On its own merits, the broccoli dish was quite nice and we enjoyed that the chick peas seemed to have been treated with chili oil, but the overabundance of chick peas actually resulted in a rather heavy dish.
Fuel offers an 8-ounce, ground ribeye burger. Served with cheddar, fried onions, and horseradish mustard, complementary textures and flavors made this a favorite with my dad.
Dessert options included pot de crème, profiteroles, crème brulee, and my choice, apple tarte tatin. I ordered the tarte a la mode, while my parents chose the crème brulee with grand marnier.
The tarte boasted a classic texture, although it was served with maple syrup that proved a bit cloying. My preference would have been to serve this with caramel. The real misstep here, to my estimation, was serving this with chocolate ice cream, which overwhelmed the dessert, as chocolate is wont to do. Considering that the menu did not specify chocolate ice cream but rather mentioned simply that the tarte could be served “a la mode,” why would they serve chocolate? I find this particularly baffling in light of the fact that this was the only fruit-based dessert on offer, so we may conclude that to order this is to deliberately eschew chocolate. A satisfying dessert, but forgoing a la mode would have been wiser and cheaper.
My conclusion is that Fuel serves comfortable cuisine free of gratuitous complexification. Certain components, such as the bread crumb crust and chocolate ice cream were unwarranted, but perhaps reflect capitulation to a local palate. As for Fuel’s enduring popularity, the restaurant seems to have hit on lucrative cross-pollination between French cuisine and pub fare. A menu item like steak frites, for example, carries a kind of ‘double consciousness’—existing as both highbrow cuisine (by Maine standards) and meat-and-potato pub grub. Consequently, Fuel purports to provide a certain luxury (through declaring a French orientation) without taking the diner out of her comfort zone. Better appreciated within the college town genre than within the broad category of French cuisine, we emerged from this meal satisfied with the cuisine and content with the knowledge—not at all intended as a backhanded compliment—that this was the best we could have eaten on this evening, in this town.