Tuesday, May 10, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: STAGE NECK INN IN YORK HARBOR MAINE

Review of an enjoyable 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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


Stage Neck Inn is on a rocky spit at the mouth of the York River. One side faces a small inlet and the most scenic section of Highway 1A, beautiful old homes nestled along a rocky coast. The other side faces the quiet York, the occasional lobster boat gliding by. Ahead is ocean, clear to the horizon. If you look carefully, it is flecked with tiny floats of lobster traps.

The dining room at the Stage Neck is called Harbor Porches, a suitable name for this handsome, comfortable room. Tables are set with smooth peach-colored linen, fresh flowers, and small, shaded candle stands. There are wicker chairs and dark oriental-style carpet. Creamy white beams and railings divide the space and suggest a charming gazebo. Floor-to-ceiling windows, arched on top with hatch-work, cover three sides of the room and provide its other primary color, the blue sweep of the ocean.

The effect is somewhere between a grand-hotel dining room - complete with piano music from the bar and grill - and the freshness of an ocean resort - an altogether pleasant place.

The staff at Harbor Porches is friendly and helpful. They dress a little more formally than what you generally find today, but service is informal and I noticed some patrons dressed as though they'd come from the golf course.

What better way to appreciate the view than a glass of wine? Harbor Porches has a respectable four-page wine list with a number of by-the-glass selections on the first page. We had two California reds, Rutherford Merlot ($5.50) and a David Bruce Pinot Noir ($6.75), both perfect for ocean-gazing.

The selection of appetizers is appealing, stretching as it does from spring rolls to blackened crab cakes. We had baked onion soup gratinee ($4.25) and smoked salmon with capers, pumpernickel toast points and horseradish cream ($7.95). The soup had beef stock, not a lot of salt, and plenty of sauteed onions, but it lacked the richness that simmering with traditional seasoning and wine bring to it.

The smoked salmon had that just-slightly-tired look of a plate kept refrigerated too long. There were nice slices of salmon, but the lettuce underneath was tired, and the toast points looked and tasted as though they had shared its accommodation.

Our tossed salad ($3.50) came wearing the same expression as the salmon plate, clearly stored too long. Its dill-yogurt-cucumber dressing was good, but the vegetables lacked sprightliness. The Caesar ($3.50) had that look too, although Romaine doesn't suffer as badly. The dressing needed more garlic, more lemon, and the flavor of anchovy was not apparent.

The lobster scampi ($27.95) came poorly presented - a pile of pasta with a few chunks of lobster on top and some peas and baby carrots to the side. The menu entices with, "Sauteed fresh lobster meat, with fresh vine-ripened tomatoes, green onions, garlic, white wine, and butter, served on fresh pasta." But the plate had a pretty small serving of lobster. The vine-ripened tomatoes were pinkish in color, and their skins were left curled back. The peas and carrots were fine, but vegetables don't come more lacking in imagination than this. The pasta sauce was good, but the dish overall was unsatisfying.

The glazed duck breast ($22.00) was to be "pan-seared with star anise, honey, and peppercorns, served with fresh raspberry vinaigrette, grilled asparagus, and four grain medley." This made my mouth water, but I could tell before it was set down that the duck flesh was lifeless. The raspberry vinaigrette, resembling loops of ketchup squirted in the nouvelle-cuisine style, only heightened the unappetizing impression. There was no asparagus, green beans and peas having been substituted without mention.

The duck tasted just as it looked, the slices clearly having been cooked another time (day?) and warmed up. The skin, which must be crisped because of the fat, was rubbery. The flesh, which should be fairly rare to preserve juiciness, had the appearance of yet another helping of grandma's leftover pot roast. There was a generous serving, but I couldn't help the impish thought the cook might be clearing the fridge.

Our desserts were flourless chocolate cake ($5.95) and strawberry shortcake ($4.50). The chocolate cake (from a local gourmet bakery) is served over crème Anglaise and is absolutely delicious. It is has some of the bitter taste of raw cocoa, with which it is dusted, and the texture of dense, rich fudge. The menu-advertised crystallized violets never made it to the plate.

Strawberry shortcake is one of those simple classics impossible to improve, but not so with Stage Neck's version. It comes, looking rather like a butterfly, with two large, dry slices of short biscuit spread over the sides of the bowl from a small squiggle of berries and whipped cream. Now, for lovers of strawberry (or peach) shortcake, the essence of the dessert is the shortcake drenched with the sweetened juice of the fruit. One wonders at a culinary imagination that sees anyone enjoying two dry slices of biscuit.

Our bill came to $110.85. During the course of the evening, the sky went from bright blue to dusky pastels with a nearly full moon rising and casting its reflection on the water - truly memorable. It is too bad our meal did not come near to matching that experience.

Needless to say, we required a return visit.

Our appetizers this time were a cup of clam chowder ($3.95) and the spring rolls ($8.95). The clam chowder was delicious, creamy with plenty of clams and some chunks of potato - entirely satisfying. Not so the spring rolls, which resembled in appearance and taste the ones found in a box at the supermarket freezer. Two skinny rolls were accompanied by a dab of coleslaw and a container of soy-sauce-based dipping sauce.

We again sampled the garden salad ($3.50), this time with a balsamic vinaigrette. It was a fresh salad and a good dressing.

Our approach to ordering entrees this time was to select solid basics that do not involve a lot of elaborate preparation or fancy sauces, thinking that maybe in such cooking was Stage Neck's strength. We had boiled lobster ($22.95) and a filet mignon ($27.95). The lobster came with a generous pot of drawn butter, some pretty spears of grilled fresh asparagus, and a baked potato. I am pleased to report it was all quite excellent. The asparagus was in that blissfully happy region of flecked with brown but retaining its beautiful green and some crunch. The baked potato was buttered and fluffy. The lobster was, well, what lobster is supposed to be, delicious.

The filet plate was handsome - a thick, bacon-wrapped filet, nicely seared and topped with a grilled tomato slice, the same beautiful, fresh asparagus spears, and a piped portion of mashed potatoes, the plate having been first glazed with a brown sauce. The steak came as ordered, medium rare, and was a truly fine piece of meat, lean and fine-textured. The asparagus was again perfect. The mashed potatoes were so-so, not as nicely done as the baked one.

A detracting note was the sauce-glaze with an under-taste resembling a preparation such as Swiss-Knorr. I still enjoyed the beautiful meat and vegetables.

I couldn't help reflecting with what a vastly different impression we would have left the first time had we selected these entrees. Except for the spring rolls, we had a very good and satisfying meal with touches of excellence.

NUGGETS:

Stage Neck Inn's Harbor Porches
York Harbor
363-3850 (or) 800-222-3238 (or) www.stageneck.com

Food: 3 Stars
Atmosphere: 4 Stars
Service: 3 Stars

Dinner Hours: Sunday through Thursday: 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM
Friday and Saturday: 6:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Lunch Hours: Sunday through Saturday: 12:00 NOON - 2:00 PM

All Major Credit Cards
Price Range: Entrees: $21.00 to $29.00
Vegetarian Dishes: No
Reservations: Accepted

Bar: Full
Wheelchair Access: Throughout (Elevator next to hotel's front stairs)
Casually Elegant Dining in a Beautiful Room with a View

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