Monday, December 21, 2015

The Velveteen Habit: A Fine Dining Tavern

For about 25 years, Arrows Restaurant was one of the most famous restaurants in Maine, embracing a farm to table philosophy long before it became trendy. However, back in 2013, the owners, Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier decided to sell the restaurant, so they could concentrate on their other endeavors. One year later, they sold their restaurant and it would be another year, in April 2015, before this new spot would open as The Velveteen Habit. Is it a worthy successor, a culinary destination you need to seek out?

The restaurant closed this past weekend for the winter and will reopen in March. In November, I dined at the restaurant, as a media guest, which was during their Post Season Supper menu. As such, I experienced a sampling of the restaurant's potential and not the full menu which they have at the height of their season. My experience was compelling, with plenty of delicious food and drink, and I certainly want to return to The Velveteen Habit. In addition, it is worthy of my recommendation and I hope you will check it out too when it reopens in the Spring.

The restaurant is owned by Benjamin Goldman, who I had the pleasure of meeting, and he used to work in the corporate world, at Goldman Sachs. However, that wasn't satisfying enough for him and he eventually became a certified sommelier with a dream of owning a restaurant. When the Arrows location became available, that dream became a reality. It was Goldman's wife who developed the name of the restaurant, a clear reference to the famous child's story, The Velveteen Rabbit. The change from "Rabbit" to "Habit" was intended to reflect the hope that people would keep coming back to the restaurant.

The Executive Chef is Chris Wilcox, a young man who began working in restaurants in 2003, including stints at Spring Hill Restaurant in Washington, ON20 Restaurant in Connecticut, and Millwright’s Restaurant in Connecticut. The Connecticut restaurants have excellent reputations, and were a great place for Chef Wilcox to acquire culinary experience.

The restaurant is located in a beautiful, 160-year-old farmhouse, sitting on four acres, with a one-acre garden. During peak season, they hope the garden will provide about 85% of their produce. In addition, they have recently installed beehives so they can produce their own honey. Local, seasonal, and sustainable food is very important to them and their menu frequently changes due to the seasons and what is available. In these respects, they are continuing the basic philosophy of Arrows.

Arrows though was also a more formal restaurant, desirous that their guests dress appropriately, such as jackets for men. On the other hand, The Velveteen Habit aims for a more casual atmosphere. They consider their concept to be a "fine dining tavern," and they want it to be accessible to everyone. There is no dress code and there is no pretension. You'll find a welcoming vibe in the restaurant, a place where anyone would feel comfortable, whether local or tourist.

We began our evening with a cocktail at the bar. You can sit at the small bar counter or at the long table pictured above, and you can also eat in the bar if you desire. We spent a little time chatting with Jeff Baker, the Bar Manager, and I was impressed with their cocktail program. Jeff is personable and knowledgeable, and this is the type of bar I would enjoy visiting on a regular basis. They create their own inventive tinctures, infusions, and bitters, and you can see the bottles stored throughout the room. You might see Crabapple Rye, Orangecello, or Orange Spiced Rum and they also make their own brandy cherries.

Local is important to their bar program too so they carry a number of spirits produced in New England. For example, they carry the Barr Hill Tom Cat, a barrel-aged gin from Vermont. Though I'm not usually a gin fan, I enjoyed this gin, as the juniper flavor was more subtle, and there was a complex melange of other flavors, herbal and spice notes. I liked it so much that I bought a bottle later when I found it at a local wine shop. They also carry the Blue Current Junmai Gino Sake, which is made in Kittery, Maine.

I opted for the Uncle CJ's Rootbeer, made from Root liquor, Old Overholt Rye, vanilla simple syrup, TVH sassafras bitters, and orange. This was an excellent and well-balanced craft cocktail, more savory than sweet. It had the taste of old-fashioned rootbeer, without the carbonation and sweetness, and a nice spicy edge to it. We also had a glass of Spanish Cava with the addition of a house-made, bitter cardomon-infused sugar cube. It added an intriguing flavor component to the Cava, transforming the simple sparkling wine to something more interesting. This was an excellent way to begin the evening, though I also could have just remained in the bar all night trying different cocktails.

There are a couple different dining rooms and their total capacity is about 75 people. There is a certain rustic simplicity to the decor and the restaurant would be appropriate for an intimate date or a small party of friends out for the evening. If it wasn't dark when we had dinner, I think we would have been able to look out on the garden.

The Post Season Supper Menu is small, with about ten appetizers (most $3-$9) and five entrees (most $14-$23). There are also seven local cheeses (most $5 each). Much of the menu would probably be considered creative American fare, with some French influences, from a Burger to a Tomahawk Ribeye, from Duck Meatballs to Roasted Wild Mushrooms. Prices are reasonable, there is plenty of diversity on the menu, and you get a sense of what the restaurant is like during its main season.

Owner and sommelier Benjamin Goldman’s has compiled an exciting and diverse wine list, and there is plenty to intrigue and delight a wine lover. In addition, the wine list does change at times too when Benjamin discovers new treasures which he wants to add to the list. There are wines from all over the world, and the mark-up seems to be twice retail on many bottles, which is a lower mark-up than many other restaurants with three or four times retail mark-ups. For example, you can find the Sean Thackrey Pleaides, one of my favorite wines, for only $65. You will find plenty of bottles available for under $50 but if you want to splurge, there are some exciting pricier wines.

There are about 17 wines available by the glass, in either a 3 ounce or 6 ounce pour. Prices for 6 ounce pours range from $8-$26, including a 2010 Guiseppe Lonardi Amarone della Valpolicella which they pour using a Coravin, a method of pouring a glass of wine without removing the cork, which allows a restaurant to pour a more expensive bottle of wine without worrying about it going to waste. They also have about 15 Beers ($5-$16), an interesting list which should also please beer lovers.

Rather than select a bottle of wine, I asked Benjamin to select some wines by the glass to accompany our dinner, and that was a fine decision as he chose some delicious and interesting wines. The 2011 Domaine du Crêt de Bine Beaujolais is a natural French wine, made from Gamay, and possesses an alluring aroma. With tasty dark cherry and cranberry flavors, it had some nice depth, a touch of minerality, and good acidity. There was a hint of a rustic edge to this light red wine, and I was very much pleased with the taste. An excellent choice.

We began by ordering some appetizers, starting with the Naturally Leavened Whole Wheat Sourdough ($3) and cultured butter. The thick slices of bread were hearty and fresh, and the butter was creamy and flavorful.

The Tater Tots ($5) with a Spanish Bravas sauce, was one of my favorite appetizers, and some of the best tater tots I've had. The crispy exterior had a clean taste and the interior was delightfully creamy, almost as if they contained a tasty portion of mashed potatoes. The balance of the two textures enhanced the dish and they would have made a great bar snack.

The 2014 Domaine des Persenades Gros Manseng was crisp and dry, with delicious melon, lemon and grapefruit flavors. There was a little tartness to the finish as well as mild herbal undertones. An intriguing and delicious white wine.

The Charcuterie ($21) plate contains house-cured and fermented meats and veggies, as well as a Parker roll. The meats included Soppresata, Fennel Sausage, Black Pepper & Red Wine Salami, and Smoked Berkshire Ham. The meats were all very good, spiced well, and the ham was a standout. The pickled peppers were also a favorite. You could almost make a meal of this plate alone.

An off-the-menu item at this time, but which is a regular on their peak season menu, is Beef Tartare, accompanied by crisps. The tartare was different than many other similar dishes as the beef was like tiny cubes, rather than finely minced beef. I think that added a bit more texture to the dish, and I thought it was a tasty variation. The crisps too added something different rather than the usual slices of bread you receive with most tartare dishes. A real winner.

The 2012 Domaine Philemon Croix d'Azal is made from the Fer Servadou grape, presenting an intriguing rustic wine, with lots of depth, black fruit flavors, a nice earthiness and mild tannins. It has plenty of character and can stand up to some heartier foods.

The Duck Meatballs ($7), with white beans, braised prunes and brussel sprouts, were very firm and chewy, with a nice flavor of duck and topped by a compelling gravy. This was an earthier dish and the Croix d'Azal was a perfect pairing for this dish.

The Salt Cod Fritters ($6), with fennel and heirloom apples, reminded me of the tater tots, how they were so crisp on the outside, yet creamy on the inside. In this case though, the fritters had that nice salty taste from the cod, enhanced by the fresh, acidity of the apple pieces.

The Roasted Wild Mushrooms ($9), with dried beef and tarragon, was another earthy dish, rich in umami, with a nice selection of different mushrooms. The dried beef added a good textural contrast to the mushrooms.

For an entree, we split the Tagliatelle Pasta ($19) with smoked short rib, preserved tomato, gremolata, and parmesan. The pasta was cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of texture, while the meaty sauce was scrumptious and hearty. Though The Velveteen Habit isn't an Italian restaurant, this dish would fit in well at any quality Italian spot.

For Dessert, you have several options, including the Chocolate Pot de Creme and the Cinnamon Pound Cake. You also can get a Scoop ($3) of ice cream or sorbet, such as the Buttermilk Ice Cream or Tangerine Sorbet. I opted for the Roasted Banana Ice Cream atop cashews, which was creamy and full of rich banana flavor. I enjoyed the crunchy addition of the cashews. If you want a small sweet bit after your meal, a scoop of this ice cream would more than please.

You can also get Cheese for dessert, and we had two different cheeses, including the Ben Nevins (a raw sheep cheese from Vermont) and the Sweet Caroline (a cow/goat cheese also from Vermont). The cheese is accompanied by lavendar lavash and honeycomb from their own beehives. Fresh honey with delicious cheese is always an excellent pairing.

With dessert, we drank a glass of their house-made Irish Cream, which will remind you of Bailey's except that it tastes far more fresh and creamy. A pleasant way to end a big meal.

Overall, The Velveteen Habit impressed, from its excellent cocktail program to its tasty & well-made cuisine, from its intriguing wine list to its impeccable service. Their dedication to providing much of their own produce from their garden and their reliance on many local purveyors is admirable. Though I experienced only an abbreviated menu, it well showed their potential when they are at their peak. The Velveteen Habit is a culinary destination you need to seek out, to make the short drive to Maine to experience their cuisine & drinks program. You won't be disappointed.

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