Wednesday, November 01, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: PRIMO, ROCKLAND (AT OWL'S HEAD LINE), 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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.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: PRIMO, ROCKLAND (AT OWL'S HEAD LINE), MAINE

John Chuckman

Driving near Rockland late last summer, we spotted Primo's strikingly handsome sign and turned into the driveway to investigate. The restaurant is on a slight hill in a renovated older home, but other than its artful sign, there is little outside to identify its nature. The discovery of a beautiful, extensive herb garden, however, immediately put this place on my must-do list.

It was near Christmas when we returned to Rockland, and, I much regretted the herb garden would be unavailable for our visit, but, as it happens, there is a greenhouse to provide the same fine culinary advantage throughout the year.

Primo has three small dining rooms on the main floor with a bar and another dining room upstairs. The room upstairs is rather European in feeling with banquette seating, the rooms downstairs all have tables and chairs. Other than warm yellow walls with a hint of polychrome at the edges, refinished floors, and simple diaphanous material over antique iron drapery bars, the room in which we were seated retains the look of Granny's pleasantly faded dining room.

The wine list - which certainly could be better organized than the "red, white, sparkling" that is becoming distressingly common - has about seventy listings with a nice balance from major European producers and the U.S. West Coast. There is a fair choice under $30/ bottle, although most are well above that price. About ten listings are available by the glass. We were tickled by the fairly unusual availability of glasses of sparkling wine, and toasted the season at our cozy window table with Bossard-Tuaud Sparkling Muscadet ($8).

Primo serves an amuse-gueule, undoubtedly with two purposes in mind: the traditional one of providing a pleasant savory with wine; and another of providing a teasing hint of what is to come from this extraordinary kitchen. And ours provided quite a hint: a pair of perfect, small puffed pastries with a creamy, whipped smoked-trout filling on a plate strewn with very tender and tasty baby stems and leaves - these I was advised were Clintonia (from the greenhouse), which is actually a wild lily not often regarded as food.

The menu's appetizers included crisp cheese crepes with chard, wild mushrooms, and mushroom syrup; grilled goat cheese in grape leaves with herbes de Provence; and a salad of escarole, chicory, and endive with garlic vinaigrette, smoked bacon crisps, and soft-boiled egg.

Our swimming (a la nage) lobster ($12) was an extraordinary appetizer with a whimsical title - a bowl of rich broth, flavored with roast squash, green onions, and Roman chicory, containing an artichoke-bottom island supporting a fine chunk of lobster. How good was this? The truth is that the broth with its swirl of vegetable bits was so exquisite, the lobster served almost as garnish.

What are oysters "Rockefeller" ($12) as opposed to the more familiar oysters Rockefeller? They are fried oysters with the most delicate, golden coating, each set into a shell full of pernod-flavored creamed spinach, and they are utterly delicious.

Some of the appealing entrees offered that night - the menu changes regularly - were duck breast with squash gnocchi and black truffle; peppered venison with a gratin of aged goat cheese and broccoli and a Pèrigueux (Madeira and truffles) sauce; and goat-cheese encrusted lamb loin with dried cherry-port sauce and grain pilaf. Of course, the words of a menu are one thing and the actual dishes sometimes quite another, but from this kitchen, dishes seem only to surpass words.

Primo's beef tenderloin with fricassee of wild mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes ($27) was the most exquisite beef dish I have ever tasted. A beautiful chunk of perfectly seared beef accompanied by savory wild mushrooms and tiny, steamed fingerling potatoes - all drizzled with a broth or natural gravy as wonderfully flavored as that of the lobster appetizer. With the first bite, romantic silliness drifted through my mind,

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace….

Lord Byron, of course, was writing of a woman, but somehow the words suited this magnificent dish. It just couldn't be improved, and it couldn't be changed without damaging its perfection.
Primo's kitchen has a wood-fired oven, so it is able to offer the flavorful cooking of wood-oven roasting. Our other entrée was cooked in this fashion. A fillet of daurade (a kind of bream or porgy, only with a more romantic French name) was served with toasted cous cous, caper berries, tomatoes, and olives ($23). The flesh was succulent inside and delightfully crisped outside, and everything was rich and moist and savory.

The dessert menu is a pleasure to read and includes house-made ice creams and sorbets. My choice was immediately fixed by the presence of pear tarte tatin ($7). This was a classic crust under a circle of juicy pear slices, not overly sweetened, with a scoop of ginger-and-walnut ice cream - made, unmistakably, with fresh ginger - sitting in a tiny brown sugar basket. Is it even possible this could be anything less than scrumptious?

Our other dessert ($7.50) was slices of Taleggio - a creamy, salty, and richly scented, aged cheeese - with toasted walnuts, slices of roasted pear, and a slice of Italian Christmas bread full of dried fruits (they were selling these whole at the front). Again, is it possible this would be less than perfectly delicious?

Our bill came to $126.80. This is a remarkable kitchen whose dishes in not one instance fell below superb. The talent at work here is obvious and exceptional.

But this magnificent kitchen is not supported out front by the service it deserves. Service is quite mixed. The woman who ran plates from the kitchen did her work extremely well and with pleasant humor. Others, too, did a fine job, but a number of things happened that just shouldn't happen in a restaurant of this quality.

A great fuss - quite disturbing to the ambiance of a room with about six tables and the kind of thing one might expect in a family-restaurant chain with televisions blaring scratchy cartoons - occurred at one table as a waiter lengthily demonstrated some sort of small plastic car to a boy and his family. The mother and the waiter loudly performed for a considerable time, and, in the end (one could not avoid the play's last act), the child didn't want the proffered toy.

A waitress asked patrons whether they wanted a bucket for sparkling wine, something that should be supplied as a matter of course, rather than putting the onus on guests. Removing an unwanted bucket is easy and gracious.

When we arrived, we were asked whether we preferred upstairs or downstairs. Never having been there before, we had no idea what the differences were. The host, friendly enough, suggested we go upstairs to look, but I felt a more helpful response would have been briefly to characterize the differences ("Banquette seating upstairs, tables downstairs - do you have a preference?") before asking guests to look upstairs. This is small, but it was an awkward moment for new guests in a fine place. Enough small things add up to service that doesn't match the superb food and tends somewhat to diminish the pleasure of this restaurant.

Primo
2 South Main Street
Rockland (at Owl's Head line)
596-0770
Food: 5
Atmosphere: 4
Service: 3
Dinner hours: 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday to Monday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $17 to $27
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: recommended
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: yes, but washrooms on second floor
The bottom line: Absolutely superb cuisine but service that needs work

No comments: