By Mr. and Mrs. Cuisine
Ever since an astonishing initial visit last year, one of my constant recommendations for people in search of new, fabulous restaurant experiences has been for them to try the Fiddlehead Restaurant (84 Hammond Street, Bangor). Not only would they be able to sample dishes dreamed up by a couple of restaurant wunderkinds, but the whole experience, I assured them, would include service and ambiance at a level found at a very small handful of restaurants in this town.
And although I've eaten dinner at Fiddlehead's several times since that premiere meal, the question gnawed at me: Are these kids really as good as I've been telling people?
Judging from two "on-duty" return trips, absolutely - maybe even better.
To reset the stage, "these kids" are Melissa Chaiken and Laura Albin. Their pedigrees are impressive considering I have ties older than their 20-plus years of experience. But that combined experience has led them to develop a contemporary American menu based on a "crossing" of Japanese flare and Malaysian influences - a style that our table attendant claims comes from "home cooking," which I take to be more of a metaphor for simplicity than for any illusion that everyday people regularly dine at home on elaborate feta and watermelon salads or stilton waffles with maple drizzle.
One major discovery of this round of visits was one of the best pamper-yourself splurge values around. The Cuisines can dine in style, enjoy a wonderful meal and still walk out with movie and popcorn money in our pocket.
First up was a laksa noodle soup, whose smooth surface was interrupted with Maine shrimp and egg. I've had laksa in Penang with shredded fish - it never tastes this good. A subtle tamarind flavor provided a long finish to the dish. Mrs. Cuisine went with the lobster spring roll, which was crispy and fresh with a touch of spice.
For better or for worse, a salad is a salad. If it says "house salad" don't bother - go for the exotic. Try the blackberry salad, a mixture of baby spinach and crumbled goat cheese flavored with a citrus vinaigrette, accented with candied pecans. It's a "for better" dish because, in no uncertain terms, this is the highest calling to which spinach can aspire; it's "for worse" because Chaiken's talents are unfairly underestimated when the chef is identified so closely with what's basically a supporting dish - in fact, she is a wizard all across the menu. A glass of Pinot Grigio was light, crisp and fairly simple but not at all in conflict with the vinaigrette in the salad.
My main course was salmon, a mild-flavored fish that has infested local menus in bland, un-thoughtful executions. Here, though, it bordered on daring, especially when the fish was given a light bath in a white wine sauce with a hint of garlic and herbs. As a steam or a saute, I think, the fish would have been overwhelmed by the wine sauce, but in this preparation, the outer layer had been seared to a fine crispness, concentrating the flavor at the edges, with the pieces of fish served over panko crusted parmesan risotto.
Finally came an off-menu nightly special: marinated grilled hangar steak served with a chimichuri sauce. Accented with red potatoes, onions and peppers, the meat had a firmer texture than your store-bought beef and a rosy interior, with the silky, translucent juices providing the main additional flavoring. A warning to the squeamish: This beef is cooked rare in the middle. Our table attendant did not disappoint with the wine, a nice Argentinian Syrah.
For dessert, a chocolate torte for me, sans flour and dairy. And for Mrs. Cuisine, strawberry shortcake cheesecake and Winterport Winery ice cream to go.
Because the Fiddlehead Restaurant contains less than 20 tables, you can see the wisdom in making reservations. On one occasion when we were rushing around town, we did get in. There are worse things in life than having dinner at the bar - you could be in a line at the drive-thru.
One year is actually a fairly long period in the restaurant world, and although some subtle evolution was apparent to us, Chaiken and Albin have rightly avoided the urge to reinvent themselves merely for change's sake. The wine list is ample, a testament to the clientele's wishes. The brick walls and hard-wood floors look just as fresh as they did on our original visit, and all meals still start with a fitting smile and the sound of chairs scraping the floor.
Fiddlehead's has successfully made the jump from outstanding new kid on the block to polished long-term player.