Thursday, November 02, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: 1810 TUSCAN GRILLE, KENNEBUNK, MAINE

Review of an interesting restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


RESTAURANT REVIEW: 1810 Tuscan Grille, Kennebunk, Maine

John Chuckman

The approach to 1810 Tuscan Grille is a blend of the charming and the off-beat. The restaurant is in a small frame building - dating back to 1810, hence the name - set back by a fenced yard from all the surrounding buildings on the main street of Kennebunk. The yard has a white garden arch, a tree with Italian lights, and a handsome black metal sign (which, regrettably, owing to its placement, is not visible for any distance on the street).

There is also a series of wooden poles, each entwined with ropes of dried branches and supporting strings of large colored light bulbs from the garden arch to the building's entrance. To one side of the walkway, on the grass, is a larger-than-life stone or cast statue of a Roman goddess. This has a slightly Monty-Pythonesque quality about it, suggesting the mental image of a several-ton classical statue that mysteriously has dropped from the sky onto someone's front lawn.

Tuscan Grille's interior is a genuine hybrid of old-country and off-beat. It reminds me very much of hip or experimental places during the late 1960s in certain urban areas before they became gentrified. Spaces inside are intimate, and you are right up against a large mural just inside the front door.

All the walls are roughly decorated with the bright polychrome colors found on Florentine boxes - reds and yellows merging into gold leaf. In the small dining room there is a wine cabinet, varnished dark wooden tables (including a couple in corners shaped like large artists' palettes), a few strategic decorations including a statue, a vase, and some mounted animal heads (antelopes? gazelles?). Above an antique fireplace, specials are listed on a chalkboard.

Food lovers should not be deterred by any of the mildly eccentric appearance, because Tuscan Grille is certainly one of Maine's relatively undiscovered little culinary gems.

Service is very informal and personal, our waitress often discussing, almost as a neighbor would, points on the menu. She was genuinely interested in whether we had enjoyed each dish.

The menu is not large, featuring a few "sizzling skewers" of beef or seafood from the wood-fired grill, a selection of eight "country comfort foods" - including a Tuscan pot roast and versions of the classic parmigiana dishes - and lobster. There are several specials on the chalkboard - on our visit, these amounted to the same dish made with various seafoods at different prices.

There is a good one-page wine list. A very nice feature is the availability of virtually all selections by the bottle, the glass, or the half-glass. We enjoyed glasses of San Matteo Frascatti, 1999 ($6), a simple, refreshing wine.

Discovery of Tuscan Grille starts with the bread - a rough, crusty loaf of warm Tuscan bread served with a tray of olive oil, sprinkled with rosemary and containing some cured black and large green olives. This is absolutely delicious, and I cannot think of another restaurant offering a more pleasant or generous start to a meal.

And discovery continues with the appetizers; indeed, here is where discovery merges into culinary adventure. Beef carpaccio (strips of raw, lean beef pounded until they are very thin) with olive-oil-drizzled greens, capers, shaved Asiago cheese, and some exquisite, deep-fried onions (thin slices of lightly battered sweet Vidalias) is simply wonderful ($9). A few servings of this with some bread and wine would make a truly fine meal.

Equally delicious is what the menu calls "Tapas-style Cassoulette" ($8). This is a large bowl of thick, rich tomato sauce, a stew really of chunky, sweet plum tomatoes, roasted garlic, and goat cheese, the cheese having been baked into the sauce. It is served with wedges of warm, oiled flatbread tucked into the sides of the bowl for dipping. This appetizer, too, could provide a very satisfying simple meal with wine.

The menu whimsically mentions "amazingly great mussels" ($8), which we did not sample this time, but we had previously done so when we discovered the place at lunch, and they are exceptional - a beautiful plate of mussels simmered in wine, garlic, and lemon - sprinkled with parmesan.

Our filet mignon on roasted squash with garlic mashed potatoes and onions ($24) came in a slightly odd (what else?) but impressive presentation. This was a culinary version of the tower of Babel: a large chunk of roasted squash was topped by a thick layer of potatoes; then came the thick little steak dripping juices onto the potatoes; and then a pile of those wonderful fried Videlias - all topped with a fresh scallion standing like a tree. The edges of the plate were daubed with a pepper sauce.

How did they make the scallion stand up and, no less, the whole impressive mound? The scallion was stabbed into a clear plastic straw that pierced the entire stack, holding it in place. Interesting, but here begins a problem. How do you eat such a thing? I found it necessary to take it apart. Any effort to cut into the steak threatened to send mashed potato squishing out, endangering all nearby. Perhaps, they might want to reconsider this presentation.

I am not a great fan of grilling fine meats, and for me this fact represents one of the real limits of Tuscan Grille where the wood-grill plays an important role. But I must say the crust of the filet was indeed caramelized and not simply charred. The flesh was as I ordered it, medium rare and succulent. The squash made an excellent companion, although I would have preferred it roasted longer. The Videlias, the same as used on the carpaccio and a house specialty, were sensational.

The potatoes were less satisfying. The menu calls them "smashed potatoes," and they are literally that, cooked whole potatoes smashed with roasted garlic. The garlic is fine, indeed the flavor could be stronger, but, while fried potatoes with skins or the buttered skins of baked potatoes are delectable, bits of boiled skin are not. I remain to be convinced that mashed potatoes (flavored any way you like) should be anything but creamy and white.

Our other plate was a special, grilled ahi tuna ($19). This does not come as a Busby Berkeley production, just a nice slice of tuna grilled and topped with a wine-garlic reduction with lemon. It comes with the same smashed potatoes, and again the rim of the plate is daubed with a hot sauce. The fish was tasty, the reduction complemented it well.

The dessert menu had only four items, but they are all versions of great classics - vanilla crème brulée, a Napoleon, Maine blueberry pie, and flourless fudge cake (each $7). This is a very small kitchen, doing its own baking, and I think this selection emphasizes genuine culinary judgment. It would be difficult to select a better limited list. The flourless espresso fudge is simply as good as it gets. It's so rich you will not likely be able to finish it after a substantial entree.

The Napoleon is baked in a crockery bowl. It has the traditional, crisp, thin layers of pastry packed with creamy Italian custard. My only reservation is that the custard was somewhat sweeter than my preference.

Our bill came to $108.07. For appetizers and desserts (and bread), Tuscan Grille ranks with some of the best restaurants in Maine. The entrees we sampled are very good, but not quite the same bravura performances.

1810 Tuscan Grille
17 Main Street
Kennebunk
985-3223
Food: 4
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Service: 4
Dinner hours: 5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
Credit cards: all major cards
Price range: entrees $16 to $24 with one at "market"
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: accepted
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: limited - staff help for front stairs
The bottom line: Some excellent cooking in an off-beat environment

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