Wednesday, November 01, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: AMALFI, ROCKLAND, MAINE

Review of an outstanding 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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date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: AMALFI, ROCKLAND, MAINE

John Chuckman

If you weren't paying attention, you might easily walk right by Amalfi, for despite its handsome overhead sign, it is a modest place - essentially, two bay windows with café curtains separated by a door.

Inside, every bit of space is used by a vestibule, a tiny European bar, and two small dining areas of mixed tables, booths, and cushioned-bench seating. Egg-yolk wood trim, violet tablecloths, raspberry napkins, purple café curtains, and a large painting of vineyards, all set in contrast to raw brick walls, reinforce Amalfi's Mediterranean theme.

Amafi has a wine list of about 25 selections, most priced at under $25 and nearly half available by the glass. We settled in to our cozy table with Secco Bertani Valpolicella ($5), a fruity wine whose beautiful name always adds to my enjoyment of it.

Amalfi serves a complimentary amuse-gueule (a savory or hors d'oeuvre traditionally served with an aperitif or before-dinner drink), a pleasant practice that is all too uncommon. Ours was eggplant crostini with a small bowl of Niçoise olives - very nice.

Soon we received a pretty breadbasket with a slice of a foccacio, a slice of baguette, a hard brown breadstick, and a slice of "red bread" (crusty bread whose top is soaked with diluted tomato puree) for each of us. Delicious olive oil was provided for dipping.

Well, all this came before we had our appetizers and provided a good insight into Amalfi's food philosophy which may best be described as delicious generosity.

I was intrigued by a special appetizer, butternut-squash ravioli in a brown sugar sauce ($6.50). These were absolutely delicious, very fresh-tasting ravioli drizzled with a buttery, herbed, sweet sauce that was not just a syrup, a happy match for the squash filling.

Our other appetizer, again intriguing, was seafood sausage ($5.95). The sausage is house-made from haddock, scallops, and shrimp, and it is served with two flavored mayonnaise dips plus some fresh greens with a smooth balsamic vinaigrette. It was just as good as it sounds.

And we had an unusual salad, roasted beet and arugula ($5.95), only our friendly, helpful waiter advised that the kitchen wasn't happy with the arugula that day and had substituted baby spinach. This made a very tasty, refreshing salad with its blood-orange dressing and crumbled ricotta. My only complaint is that it was quite huge, more beets than I'm capable of eating at a sitting.

Tomato and fresh mozzarella salad ($6.25) is very familiar, but this was an excellent version including red, juicy tomatoes and the smooth taste of a very old balsamic vinegar.

Entrees included steak, lamb, chicken, seafood, and a Spanish paella available in several flavor combinations. I was tempted by the paella, but with a bouillabaisse ($17.95) on the menu and having established already that Amalfi seemed likely to do it justice, my choice was virtually predetermined. Our other choice was a special of phyllo-encrusted salmon with a rosemary filling ($15.25).

The bouillabaisse looked sumptuous, its tomato sauce thick with bits of fennel and chunks of seafood, including the beautiful shells of opened mussels. The traditional taste of saffron was there, although I failed to detect the contribution of wine, which also is traditional. Still, this was a fine bowl of stew that should satisfy all lovers of seafood.

The phyllo on the salmon was golden, yet visibly moist with steam and juices. It nicely preserved the moisture of the flesh, making this one of the most satisfying servings of salmon I have enjoyed - melt-in-your-mouth tender, infused with the flavor of its rosemary filling. The bounteous plate included a serving of rice with wheat berries, winter vegetables, and mushrooms, and while these were all good, they were not at the same superb level as the salmon itself. The plate had enough food to fill a hungry woodsman who hadn't eaten for two days.

I truly did not want dessert after this substantial, delicious meal, but, being dazzled by the sound of the offerings that evening, I relented, comforting myself that I was doing my journalistic duty.

The first of these was a Belgian chocolate soup with caramelized bananas ($5). This is a shallow bowl of delicious, bittersweet chocolate syrup with a huge island of fresh whipped cream, a logjam of two banana halves (surface caramelized with a blow torch in the traditional fashion of créme brûlée), and - yes, there was still more - fresh pistachios and almonds scattered over it. We finished the whole thing.

The other dessert, equally impressive and delicious, consisted of slices of house-made hazelnut, yogurt cake topped with a serving of chocolate mousse and fresh whipped cream on a plate glazed with caramel sauce ($5). Were Amalfi located in Portland, the after-theater crowd would be rushing over there just for the desserts.

The goodies kept coming - we received two buttery biscotti with our bill, which was $97.21.

We left Amalfi's warmth and walked along Main Street's beautiful brick facades in a gently falling snow. The store windows, many of them decorated for Christmas, made the light coat of snow glow for the length of the street. A group of carolers with candles passed on the opposite side. This was truly "It's a Wonderful Life."

Amalfi is my favorite kind of restaurant - cozy, personal, and with excellent, unpretentiously sophisticated cooking. It is a culinary gem. Some dishes or parts of dishes rise to the superb, and a few don't quite reach excellent, but everything is enjoyable. The menu and specials offer imaginative selections. For hearty eaters who also care about quality, there is no more highly recommended place in my experience.

Amalfi Mediterranean Restaurant
421 Main Street
Rockland
596-0012
Food: 4
Atmosphere: 4
Service: 4
Dinner hours: 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
Lunch hours: 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $12.95 to $25.00
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: recommended
Bar: wine and beer
Wheelchair access: yes
The bottom line: A charming place with excellent, interesting cooking

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