Wednesday, November 01, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: SEASCAPES, CAPE PORPOISE, MAINE

Review of an outstanding restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegramwhen I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


RESTAURANT REVIEW: SEASCAPES, CAPE PORPOISE, MAINE

John Chuckman

Seascapes is at the end of a small peninsula running down from the center of Cape Porpoise, near a pier where lobster traps are stacked, the harbormaster's office is located, and a seaside chowder house draws crowds to eat under umbrellas. At first approach, you don't fully appreciate the setting, for you see an attractive newer building, trees, some of the pier and older buildings down to one side. It is only from inside with your first view of the large windows covering two sides of the dining room that you realize you are comfortably perched on a rocky rise above the water.

Your first sight inside is a grand piano, and, when we entered, people were having drinks around it - a scene truly reminiscent of a Greta Garbo movie. Near the piano is a comfortable lounge area which later filled with people waiting for tables.

We made our reservation early enough to be seated at a window. It's hard to resist craning your head around and showing a little excitement at the view, although this is almost certainly not the kind of thing you're supposed to do in a place with a piano bar. The pilings of the pier carry the umbrellas and a few ramshackle buildings out over the water. Skiffs are placidly tied up near the pier and lobster boats are moored further out. A small island, as green as Ireland with all the rain we've had, lies a short way out. The inlet that helps define the peninsula stretches across the front and around the far wall's set of windows. Dotted here and there are homes along its shore.

With the size of the windows, the view is with you pretty well wherever you sit. Actually, as the large room fills up - and it does fill up - sitting by the window gives you some sensation of being on stage. You might want to consider this when making a reservation. There is a set of French doors (not open that evening) at one end of the far wall leading out onto a little grassy area with lawn tables and chairs, nestled into trees and rock outcropping. Locations don't come much nicer than this.

Such a setting tweaks the culinary skeptic in me: a lot of artfully located eateries in this world live off views instead of cooking. And the room itself tended to reinforce this prejudice. It has a somewhat dated, slightly stodgy style even though the restaurant only goes back a dozen years.

It has the look of a place where not many years ago you would find a no-jacket-no-service policy, but gracious informality prevails (I wouldn't recommend pushing it with shorts or tee-shirts). Service is informed, attentive, and friendly, although with the hostess busy when we first entered, nearby staff were definitely a bit slow in breaking their conversation to recognize our waiting.

And some interior details are notable for lack of attention. Although tables are set with linen, a sprig of flowers, an elegant tall candle (as the room dims later, these flickering candles at every table of the big room are enchanting), the light green color of the linen makes a washed-out impression in early evening sunlight, and, more importantly, it has not been pressed crisply, light rumples being evident at the sides of tables. The dark green carpet has reached the point it needs some sprucing up. The suspended ceiling, despite being divided up by some wood beams, does not sit well aesthetically atop satiny off-white striped wallpaper, coach-lights, a fireplace, and a series of quite nice, small, original paintings.

The wine list is a nine-sheet portfolio with some very fine, and very pricey, wines, although there is a sizable section at the back with each bottle at $25. The first page provides a selection by the glass. We had a California Burlwood Chardonnay ($7.00) and a French Merlot from the Pays d'Oc ($7.50). I expected the Merlot to be nothing too much since Pays d'Oc is where the French grow a lot of their mass-oriented table wines, but this proved a very respectable, tasty Merlot. The Burlwood Chardonnay is poor, lacking the sharp fruitiness and floral quality that make Chardonnay Chardonnay.

My culinary skepticism evaporated with the appetizers, and we began to anticipate a truly exceptional meal. The crab and lobster bisque ($8.95), sprinkled with fresh chives, has house-made lobster stock in a creamy soup-base with chunks of seafood that retain all their fresh texture and flavor.

The P.E.I. mussels steamed in garlic, tomatoes, beer (Geary's, the menu advises - $8.95), and, as it proved, orange wedges - an ingredient which struck me at first as a mistake - proved sensational. The mussels were delicious morsels, and their broth was ambrosia. Grand Hotel piano bar or not, reader, be assured every drop was sopped up with bread.

Could the salads match the appetizers? We had spinach salad with spiced pears ($8.50) and spring greens ($5.50). Indeed, the spinach salad does: fresh spinach with slices of red onion, crisp-fried pancetta, slices of spiced pear, crumbled feta cheese, and sherry-mustard vinaigrette. This is an update of a traditional salad, but what an update - absolutely delicious. I fully intend to impress guests at home by imitating it.

The spring greens come with thinly sliced cucumber, long, thin shreds of carrot, bits of Roma tomato, and a hazlenut-flavored vinaigrette. This is elegant treatment for a simple salad, a good choice for those not wanting rich trimmings.

The cooking at Seascapes isn't daring or highly innovative, just superbly well done. Most dishes are versions of familiar ones that have been given an interesting twist. Thus, Christina's jumbo shrimp ($21.95) over cream-sauced fettuccine has a pleasing but unsurprising medley of feta cheese, Kalamatta olives, and tomato bits - combined with broccoli! Now, unlike a certain former president who apparently has patronized Seascapes, I enjoy broccoli, yet it is not an ingredient I would have used here.

But it works. It is used sparingly in tiny florets still with a bit of crunch. Each element of this dish has been cooked for its optimum time, the shrimp still plump and firm, the tomato bits not stewed away. Such timing of elements is a detail that characterizes first-class cooking.

Our other entrée was grilled pork tenderloin with potato pancake and apple, pear and raisin chutney ($23.50). You just wonder whether chutney suits a dish whose origins are largely Germanic, chutneys generally being preserves with the spices of India. But it does. A thick, beautifully made, coarse-textured potato pancake comes drizzled with a reduction sauce, a few large blackberries sprinkled on the side, topped with thick slices of pork tenderloin and a cinnamon-tinged chutney that somewhat resembles the fruit slices of truly excellent pie-filling. This is a superb dish - beautifully prepared with each element happily reinforcing the flavors of the others.

After such a meal, could your reviewer manage the rigors of dessert? Yes, indeed, when the offerings included vanilla-rum crème brulee ($7.95) and chocolate souffle ($7.95).

Our waitress suitably advised us that the souffle would take 15 minutes to rise. For those who make these touchy things at home, as I sometimes do, it is always a wonder how they can be offered in restaurants. We waited with coffee.

The brulee was near perfection with caramel-crusted top (I understand chiefs often use a blowtorch to achieve this wonderful effect) and an interior of luxurious, silken creaminess, accompanied with some fresh fruit. This is an old dessert, but when it is done this well, few others can match it.

The souffle had a warm, cakey-crusted chocolate shell, sprinkled with powdered sugar, an interior of oozy chocolate custard, some fresh berries on the side, and a dab of crème anglaise - well worth waiting for.

Our bill came to $134.02. Passing several happily crowded tables on the way out, we glimpsed plates with the rack of lamb and the stuffed lobster. They were beautiful. Maybe it was just the effect of candle light or the tinkling piano or the mellowness that lingers from a fine meal, but I don't think so.

NUGGETS:
Seascapes Restaurant
On the Pier, Cape Porpoise
(207) 967-8500
Food: 4 1/2 Stars
Atmosphere: 4 Stars
Service: 4 Stars
Dinner Hours: Sunday through Thursday: 5:30 PM - 9:00 PM
Friday and Saturday: 5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
(Note: Seascapes is only open from mid-April to mid-October)
Lunch Hours: Lunch only served after Labor Day
All Major Credit Cards
Price Range: Entrees: $18.95 to $29.00 with a few at "daily"
Vegetarian Dishes: A Daily Special
Reservations: Strongly Recommended
Bar: Full
Wheelchair Access: Throughout Restaurant, but None to Bathrooms on Second Floor
Simply Excellent Cuisine in a Comfortable Room with a Beautiful Setting

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