Wednesday, November 01, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: NEWCASTLE INN, NEWCASTLE, 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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.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: NEWCASTLE INN, NEWCASTLE, MAINE

John Chuckman

These days, with the season and the clock set back, even the earliest dinner means arriving in the dark. But that is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly at a place like the Newcastle Inn where the windows glow in the evening with the charm of a lighted doll house.

What a location for an inn. The back looks through trees at the Damariscotta River and towards the lighted steeple of a church in the pretty town of Damarascotta. For those here for more than dinner, a short drive away are two of Maine's most beautiful spots, the lighthouse and rock-crashing sea of Pemaquid and the idyllic tableau of New Harbor.

Meticulous is one word for Newcastle Inn's interior renovations and decorating. The handsome woodwork is a restful, mossy green set against wallpapers or stenciling that ties the green to cranberry red: these are the kind of full-blooded colors that people during much of the 19th century and the late 18th century enjoyed, and for that reason the interior strikes one as authentic. Floors are honey pine-strip with area rugs in the living rooms.

Newcastle Inn serves dinner only at seven o'clock, but guests are invited to arrive as early as six for hors d'oeuvres and drinks, a pleasant custom that gives you the opportunity to look around or sit comfortably chatting with others before dinner. Immediately inside the front door is a fine living room used for this purpose, but guests are not limited to a single room. The hall goes back through a small bar and ends at another, more intimate room of couches and fireplace.

We accepted a gracious hostess's invitation with glasses of Benziger Sonoma Fume Blanc ($5) and Mondavi Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($10.50). Both are nice, but the Cabernet is luscious, dusky, complex stuff just made for fires and chatting. And we did have a pleasant chat with others until dinner.

The two small dining rooms are parallel to the living rooms, across the hall. Tables are set in grand-hotel style with double white linen and heavy, old sets of silver, including rarely-seen complete sets of forks and spoons. Only one room was in use, making a particularly intimate atmosphere. Tables are well-spaced but not isolating. The wall paper and bric-a-brac in this room should satisfy the most discriminating lover of quaintness.

Service is friendly and surprisingly informal, including a request that diners make selections for all courses at one time. This is surprisingly like eating in someone's home, right down to a couple of creaking floorboards as the waitress moves about.

The small menu (it changes daily) was a pleasure to read. Even though there are only three choices in each category of appetizer, entrée, and dessert (dinner is table d'hôte at $43.50/ person), all of them made delicious reading. Some descriptions are a bit frilly, but serious food knowledge is apparent.

Our scallops encrusted in potato puffs on parsnip mousse - yes, that's right, parsnip mousse - with a red wine and thyme reduction and vanilla favoring was a pretty little plate. Two large scallops, still moist and succulent inside, coated with light golden bits of tiny potato puffs. The bit of creamy mousse and reduction suited them beautifully, making this an extremely fine dish.

Wild mushroom risotto with spinach cream and white truffle oil was also a small, visually-appealing serving (indeed, this pretty-and-petite quality proved a general characteristic at Newcastle Inn and may represent a problem for hearty eaters). Here was a tiny block of cream-colored, richly-textured risotto, veined with the warm browns of mushrooms and drizzled with white sauce and bright spinach bits. The dish was excellent, but its blander flavors fell short of the remarkable scallops.

All diners were served a salad of (organic) Mesclun greens, cherry tomatoes, Julienned carrots, toasted pine nuts, crumbled blue cheese, and raspberry-Champagne vinaigrette. This was a delicious salad. While its ingredients were not unusual, there was a superb balance to them, offering almost the full bouquet with each bite. The fine vinaigrette had just a blush of raspberry, nothing to render it into the fruit sauce that sometimes passes under the name.
Entrée selections included lamb, duck, and salmon.

Herb-encrusted lamb tenderloin on roasted garlic mashed potatoes with fresh asparagus and a rosemary- and olive-infused demi-glaze is quite a mouthful to say. And this dish of juicy little slices of melt-in-your-mouth tenderloin, creamy mashed potatoes with soft, sweet, crushed buds of garlic, and thin, still-green spears of asparagus over a savory glaze offered a remarkable mouthful to eat. This dish ranked with the scallops as food from culinary heaven.

Not far behind the lamb in excellence was pan-seared duck breast with a potato croquette, autumn vegetables, and Madeira wine sauce. I thought the duck cooked slightly beyond the perfect juiciness of the tenderloin, but we are dealing here with fine gradations of difference. Tiny cubes of parsnip and squash made a happy match.

Desserts came the closest to innovative and unconventional in conception on the evening's menu. There was a tiramisu with rhubarb sauce. Our tarte au chocolate with crème anglais was the thoroughly conventional choice, and its bittersweet filling was thoroughly delicious.

Strudel with dark rum sauce would certainly be conventional with apples, but banana and brown sugar filling is something I've not come across before. This dessert both on grounds of originality and fine execution was very special. The strudel's crust was delicate and lightly, prettily sugar-crusted. It was packed, as proper strudel should be, with fruit not the least overcooked and had just enough sauce to add flavor and moisture - an altogether delicious dessert.

Cooking at The Newcastle Inn is uncommonly fine, but with limited innovation. Every dish reflects skill and judgment, excellent ingredients, and the benefit that always comes from cooking for a small room. My most serious criticism concerns the size of servings which are among the smallest I've encountered in restaurants of this quality, but they undoubtedly are adequate for most patrons, and their flavor can fail to satisfy no one.

The Newcastle Inn
River Road
Newcastle
563-5685 / 800-832-8669
http://www.newcastleinn.com/
Food: 4 1/2
Atmosphere: 4 1/2
Service: 4
Dinner hours: 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday
7:00 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday in summer
Credit cards: all major
Price range: fixed table d'hôte $43.50
Vegetarian dishes: none
Reservations: required
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: front step with assistance
The bottom line: Charm, comfort, warmth and excellent cuisine

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