Wednesday, November 01, 2006

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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.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

John Chuckman

"We do not open 'til six o'clock," the voice on the phone said with just the slightest hint of "dunna" for "do not" while I made a reservation for dinner.

That evening we arrived about five-fifty. Despite the "Open" flags snapping in the cool night air and all the little glowing panes of glass, no one else seemed to be there, and the front door was locked. Well, he did say six, so we took a brief ride around beautiful Boothbay Harbor and, returning fifteen minutes later, found cars parked, the front door open, and another couple waiting in the narrow entrance.

We were greeted by a dignified gentleman, a bit reserved in his initial manner, and shown to one of the most charming tables in one of the most charming little rooms in Maine.

Once you get past what we viewed as traditional Scottish reserve and punctilious punctuality, the Thistle Inn proves to be one of the cheeriest places in Maine.

Brown wooden booths, each with red-tartan café curtains fitted above seat backs to create the impression almost of tiny private rooms, crisp linen and candles on the tables, old prints and dried flowers, mullioned windows, and a genuine wood fire in an iron stove - these give the intimate beam-and-plaster room an authentic old-world feel. The fire, the candles, and the warm colors make it glow.

A glass of draft Belhaven Scottish ale ($4.25), wonderfully smooth stuff, and a glass of Indigo Hills California Merlot ($4.50) undoubtedly contributed to our appreciation of the ambiance.
As guests continued to arrive, the room warmed up still more, for most of them knew the proprietor and greeted him by name, and a couple of them said a pleasant hello to us as strangers.

When a mellow-voiced musician, Martin Swinger, with an acoustic guitar and a good repertoire of excellent songs took his place, the emotional atmosphere matched the warmth of the wood fire and candles. And when a musically talented guest retrieved a double bass from somewhere back in the restaurant and happily accompanied the singer, we felt we were guests at a ceilidh.

Our baked Brie appetizer ($5.50) was a pretty plate of sesame crackers, a cluster of red grapes, some slices of ripe cantaloupe, and a fine little dish of the great Talleyrand's favorite cheese baked to a dipping slurry. Granted, this is not very Scottish (unless you count the fact that Mary, Queen of Scots, was Queen of France by her first marriage), but it is delicious.

We enjoyed the cheese and fruit with a garden salad ($3.50) whose fresh greens, cucumbers, tomato, red onion, carrot, and balsamic vinaigrette provided an appealing version of a staple salad.

The menu lists Scottish lobster pie ("market," $16.95 that night) as "oour specialty." And a fine specialty it is with a delicate puff-pastry crust covering a baking dish thick with lobster chunks in a savory cream sauce. There was nothing innovative here, but it was one of the best versions of this simple classic that I have enjoyed. The plate came with mashed turnips, fresh greens, and smashed potatoes (mashed with the skins - it's getting so you just can't avoid them, my appeals for traditional creamy mashed potatoes seem to go unheard) on the side.

I could not make up my mind for Highland filet mignon (Scotch whiskey-cream sauce with Cheddar cheese), chicken Drambuie (sautéed breast with apricots, cilantro and the delicious Scottish liqueur), or roast duck with raspberry coulis. Belhaven ale-battered fish and chips were under serious consideration until we learned they were not available that night.

The duck ($18.95) proved a happy choice. The plate had a half bird, beautifully roasted and drizzled with a coulis whose flavor was raspberry and not jam. The same turnips, greens, and smashed potatoes accompanied the duck. I would object to the repetition of vegetables in a fine-dining restaurant, but in the fine-homey-dining atmosphere of Thistle Inn, it works. Altogether this was a delicious and satisfying dish.

My "Scottish" trifle ($4.95) was a dessert I had not enjoyed in years. This was authentic trifle with scoops of custard, sponge-cake cubes, almonds, fruit, and whipped cream. It was excellent.
Our other dessert choice was Boston cream pie ($4.50). This was a well-made version I am assured by my ever-vigilant research assistant whose tastes run to such New England classics - a hard chocolate shell, a soft cake, and a creamy custard.

A small card on our table suggested a glass of Manuel de Argueso Jerez de la Frontera ($5), a wonderful, mellow, nutty, thick cream sherry - just the right end to such a meal.

Our bill came to $81.91 for one of the most pleasant evenings we have spent in any restaurant, even those with greater culinary claims. Thistle Inn is an excellent, special little place where we left mainly with thoughts of our return - certainly for the atmosphere and likely for that Highland filet and the Belhaven-battered fish and chips.

The Thistle Inn
53 Oak Street
Boothbay Harbor
633-3541
Food: 4
Atmosphere: 5
Service: 4
Dinner hours: 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday
6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Friday, Saturday
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $12.95 to $23.95 with two at "market"
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: yes
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: yes, but may be tight in entrance area.
The bottom line: A delightful atmosphere with excellent cooking

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