Wednesday, November 01, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: CLAY HILL FARM, CAPE NEDDICK, 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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.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: CLAY HILL FARM, CAPE NEDDICK, MAINE

John Chuckman

"Turn at the flashing yellow light and drive 2 1/2 miles into the woods. We're on your right," said the helpful woman giving me directions on the phone. Well, Clay Hill Farm is definitely in the woods - a gently winding, rural road thick with mature forest and, as you get closer, a lot of granite outcroppings. The farm property is quite beautiful with manicured gardens and a rambling, terraced white building reflecting various additions and changes over time - all surrounded by tall, dark forest.

Inside, Clay Hill Farm feels a great deal like a luxurious golf club, a number of different rooms and areas decorated and furnished in varying styles and a great many windows onto gardens and woods. It has rooms and terrace upstairs, but horizontal lines dominate like the interior of a prairie-style mansion.

I was a little disappointed we were not able to sit in the first of the windowed rooms near the front with its wood paneling and lush green view. Our room was further back, but we couldn't have asked for a better table, in a corner next to a bay window looking out on a lighted terrace with gardens beyond.

This room's decoration, despite its handsome views, took some adjustment. The chairs are covered in tufted, burgundy-red velvet, the carpet too is burgundy-red, and the tables have a cloth of that color with another, pale pink, on top. It all made a first impression somewhere between Victorian parlor and 1960's steakhouse. Our chairs had tall plush backs, armrests, and swiveled around - quite unlike anything I've seen in a restaurant before. After our first giggles over these Victorian-lounge chair hybrids, we agreed they were extremely comfortable.

Clay Hill has a portfolio-size wine list representing many points on the world's wine map. There is a page of by-the-glass selections. Our Macon Lugny Pinot Chardonnay, a French Burgundy ($4.50), and Bernardus California Chardonnay ($7) were both satisfying, the California Chardonnay especially so with robust Chardonnay characteristics.

The appetizers that nicely complemented our wine were a bowl of lobster bisque ($7.50) and a plate of artichoke dip with broiled pita ($6.25). The bisque is a very good soup, and would be an excellent one but for excess salt in the stock detracting from its smooth, creamy base and fresh chunks of lobster.

The pita plate was beautifully done. The pita wedges were nicely flecked with brown from the broiler, lightly oiled and salted. These were quite tasty on their own, but even better coated with the baked artichoke dip that was one of the richest I have tasted - sinfully rich, I'm sure it was half mayonnaise.

Our salads were garden tomatoes and Caesar (each $5.50). The garden tomato plate was not nearly so attractive as the pita appetizer, the tomato slices being a little pale and the serving of spinach rather small. The tomatoes, despite their appearance, proved very flavorful, the spinach was all tender baby leaves, and the blue cheese vinaigrette was tangy without drowning the flavor of either vegetable.

The Caesar was not so successful. Having confirmed with our helpful waiter that the dressing contained anchovy, a sine qua non for lovers of classic Caesar, I happily received a plate whose crisp leaves also contained a nice serving of whole anchovies. But the basic dressing, which is the very essence of this salad, was a disappointment. Some years ago, I was given one of the world's great recipes for this dressing, and I have only once, in Toronto as it happens, tasted its equal, so I necessarily have a high standard here. But this one doesn't come close. The dressing, having failed to be beaten into mayonnaise-consistency, missed the full richness of egg yolks, lacked some lemon-and-wine-vinegar tang and enough fresh garlic.

Despite one disappointing salad, we looked forward to our entrees, delicious-sounding as they were, sauteed lobster with sun-dried tomato sauce over a puff pastry ($26) and a potato pancake covered with roasted vegetables and aïoli ($18.50). The sauteed lobster was beautiful, a luxurious gourmet twist on lobster pie, and it was excellent. The plate included a serving of fragrant Basmati rice and some steamed broccoli. The broccoli was the only discordant note, for although this is a delicious vegetable, a simple lump of it steamed on an otherwise elegant plate looks rather sad. Something a bit more imaginative was definitely called for.

It is not often I order a vegetarian plate, but the menu made this one sound delicious. And its appearance when served was just as appealing as its description. The edge of a golden potato pancake just showed under a colorful melange of roast vegetables, drizzled with creamy aïoli (heavily flavored mayonnaise, usually lemon-garlic, but here horseradish) and topped with a mass of the most beautiful twig-like golden brown, sweet-potato fries. The vegetables included zucchini, summer squash, red pepper, and onion. My first bite was wonderfully enjoyable, but two things prevented this dish from being the truly excellent one it potentially is. The potato pancake was rather soggy towards the middle. The roasted vegetables, while good, lacked the suety-sweet flavor that comes with longer roasting to a crisped-edge state. Longer roasting also would reduce the vegetables' moisture, which undoubtedly had contributed to the soggy pancake. Still, this was a good plate for vegetable lovers, and the tiny sweet-potato fries are heavenly.

Our desserts were lemon, cream-cheese flan ($6.25) and blueberry pie à la mode ($6). The flan is light, creamy, heavily flavored with lemon - a kind of gourmet cheesecake without any cake - and highly recommended. The blueberry pie did not rise much above the ordinary - a good berry taste, not heavily sugared, but, as is so often the case, too much pasty filler and too few berries. The crust, while not heavy or cakey, was not the thin one of a fine blueberry pie.

Our bill came to $109.15. After dinner, we strolled the grounds a bit. The lights from windows, light fixtures on terraces, and little Italian lights in some spots make it a charming place in the twilight. We had mentioned to our waiter that the window views must be very beautiful in winter. He advised that on the forested side of our room, people often saw deer come out of the woods in winter - something to keep in mind for a special winter occasion.

Clay Hill Farm
220 Clay Hill Road
Cape Neddick (York)
361-2272
www.clayhillfarm.com/
Food: 4
Atmosphere: 4
Service: 3 1/2
Dinner hours: 5:30 to 8:30 Sunday through Thursday
5:30 to 9:00 Friday and Saturday
Lunch hours: none
All major cards
Price range: entrees $16 to $26
Vegetarian dishes: one
Reservations: accepted
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: throughout main floor - portable ramp for front stair
Fine dining in a pleasant, elegant environment

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