Wednesday, November 01, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: MARKET ON MAIN, 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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.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: MARKET ON MAIN, ROCKLAND, MAINE

John Chuckman

The section of brick buildings along Main Street in Rockland is arguably the handsomest urban landscape in Maine. Its several blocks of graceful late 19th - and early 20th - century stores and office buildings gently curve along a street with plantings and fine, stately street lights. The entire stretch deserves protection as a national historic site.

For some years past the street suffered economic decline, but, project by project, new life has blossomed. Oddly, the Farnsworth Museum's brutalist façade was once the ugliest thing to be seen, but a sensitive and thoughtful reconstruction, including antique-looking bricks, has now fit the Museum perfectly into the street. The graceful building of Coffin's department store, closed not very long ago, is now preserved as the Island Institute. A number of charming new stores and restaurants have opened in the last few years, and one of these is Market on Main.

The first thing that strikes you on entering Market on Main is what an urban feeling it has. This is a restaurant that would fit comfortably into Portland or even Boston. It has wood floors, one brick wall, small galvanized steel-topped tables, comfortable wooden chairs with striped cushions, a cabinet of wines, some framed floral prints, a community bulletin board, and a little vase with a flower on each table.

Most beautiful of all is a huge showcase window looking out onto Main Street. The window is outlined with little Italian lights and features seasonal decorations, pumpkins and corn stalks now.

The back of the restaurant is a fine food shop selling many of the items featured on the menu plus baked goods, cheeses, olive oils, jams, teas, and refrigerated specialties like sauces, pancetta, and venison. The sights and smells give clues that these are people who appreciate good food.

The menu does not change for lunch or dinner, although there are daily specials. It reflects influences of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Mexico, and even a touch of the Orient mixed with some traditional American deli favorites. Talk about globalization - all this in one restaurant in a small city in Maine. There is a fine selection of gourmet sandwiches, salads, and entrees that feature fish, pasta, and beans. There are no steaks or chops, but some fancy burgers are served on foccacia.

Market on Maine has a pleasant little wine list with most selections around $17, and only one reaching $20. Every wine but the sparkling ones is available by the glass. So it is quite economical to enjoy watching the world go by through that beautiful window accompanied by the chatter and clatter of the dining room. We tried glasses of an Australian we had not tasted, Tyrell's Long Flat Red ($3.75), a very decent blended wine. Wine is served in water glasses in keeping with the informality of the place.

My initial reaction to this kind of eclectic menu is culinary skepticism, particularly in places away from a big city where cosmopolitan influences are common and more widely tested in cooking. But the displays in the shop were very reassuring about food knowledge. A fried Szechwan dumpling appetizer ($6) was the perfect test of Market on Main's skill at its cosmopolitan approach. The plate had fresh greens - and I do mean fresh - drizzled with a dressing whose deliciously pungent ingredients are apparent immediately and five sautéed dumplings on top. The dumplings are stuffed with pork and Napa cabbage; the dressing is reminiscent of Thailand (rather than Szechwan) with cilantro, chili, lime, and ginger; and the whole combination is just delicious.

Our "Eye-talian" salad ($6.50) had the same fresh greens plus artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, and sizable lumps of genuinely fresh mozzarella cheese all dressed with a vinaigrette flavored with basil and garlic - a very fine salad.

Without having already tested M.O.M.'s (that is the acronym they use) skills, I think I would be reluctant to order an entrée with a name like "Go Greek." ($8). This proved to be a kind of Eastern Mediterranean macaroni and cheese with fusilli (the spiral pasta) baked in creamy feta cheese, tomato bits, and a large slice of roasted eggplant with a crumb topping. It was very enjoyable, and the serving was generous. My small criticism is that it might have had more eggplant, perhaps another layer in the middle rather than just on top, but it is a small criticism, for this is an attractive, tasty, and satisfying dish.

Market on Main's plate of fish cakes ($8) is one the finest values, considering both quality and price, you will find anywhere. And I emphasize quality since inexpensive food that is poorly prepared is not good value.

This is a very pretty dish with two beautifully sautéed, golden fish cakes on a ragu of white beans and more of those fresh greens on the side. It has the simple elegance of a plate you might get at a fine café in Boston for nearly twice the price. The fish cakes are made from haddock, laced with spinach; the ragu has white beans, tomato bits, and onions; the greens are dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. The colors are appealing, the taste is excellent, the nutrition is unbeatable, and the price is amazing.

There are no desserts on the menu, but M.O.M.'s offers several each day. Our slice of chocolate bunt cake ($4) came drizzled with chocolate sauce and topped with a lump of house-made whipped cream. The cake had the proper moist, dense texture of a bunt cake, and the chocolate flavoring was pleasingly on the slightly bitter side. It is remarkable that a small, informal restaurant like this prepares real whipped cream rather than using squirt cans of sugary stuff. The result is of course delightful.

M.O.M.'s apple crisp with ice cream ($4.25) comes baked in a crockery bowl with a crumble topping as good as I've had on this traditional dessert. The apples are not cooked to a pulp, nor are they sugared to the state of jam. It is altogether an excellent dessert.

Our waitress was very friendly and helpful, but she was alone on this particular evening so that service was a bit slow.

Our bill was $54.30. Market on Main is a small culinary gem with some remarkable values. While the menu doesn't change regularly and prices are modest, there is no sense of formula or assembly-line or stinting on quality in their food. This is excellent, honest cooking. And if Market on Maine were in Portland, it's just the kind of place I would consider a favorite local restaurant.

Market on Main
International Deli & Café
315 Main Street
Rockland
594-0015
Food: 4
Atmosphere: 4
Service: 3 1/2
Dinner hours: 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday to Saturday with same menu for lunch
and dinner; 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Sunday for brunch only
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard
Price range: entrees $7.50 to $9.50
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: accepted
Bar: wine and beer
Wheelchair access: yes
The bottom line: Excellent cooking in the kind of comfortable place every
neighborhood should have

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