Saturday, January 29, 2011
Most of the time when there’s a lot of hype surrounding a restaurant, I’m immediately inclined to regard the reviews with skepticism, especially when a large percentage are overwhelmingly positive. I feel this way because, honestly, so many people are just plain wrong about things. With Primo, I had heard “best restaurant in the state” so many times, that I actually never bothered to find out for myself until a couple weeks ago.
It all started while Melinda and I were watching the Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations episode filmed in Maine. During the Primo segment, she expressed great interest in dining there, and I, being fairly drunk at the time, automatically went into “hater mode.” An argument ensued, with myself becoming belligerently adamant that I have no desire to jump on the “fucking bandwagon.” The next morning, during my usual routine of replaying in my head all of the stupid things I’d said the night before, I decided that it was high time for me to see what the fuss was all about.
We opt to make the drive out to Rockland town on the first Sunday in January, which turns out to be Primo’s last night before closing for the season. Figuring that it would be a great way to unwind after having waited tables throughout the holidays, we get a hotel room and make a night out of it. Unable to locate a W Hotel in the surrounding area, the next best option seems to be the Hartstone Inn in Camden town. The “Carriage House” suite looks nice online, and the major selling point is the large in-room Jacuzzi, even though I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll someday drown in one after passing out. I envision empty Champagne bottles and chocolate covered strawberries bobbing gently around my lifeless body, as a Pavarotti’s Greatest Hits album blares on the stereo...
Keeping this possibility in mind I pick up a bottle of N/V Trouillard Champagne Cuvée Elexium Rosé, because I want to be horking down flute after flute of delightful pink bubbles before slipping into the darkness. Additionally, I purchase a 2005 Domaine Gourt de Mautens Rasteau from Jérôme Bressy, a gem of a bottle that seemed to be suffering from years of neglect on the shelves at Whole Foods. Knowing that I’m opening the Rasteau about 13 years too early, I pop the cork around 1 P.M. to give it a little time to come alive.
On the way up scenic Route 1 we pass the Monstweag Roadhouse in Woolwich town, as Danzig’s “Mother” is blasting on the car stereo. For some reason the combination of these two things makes me hungry, and we decide to stop for a quick snack, as I’ve always heard good things about this place but have never checked it out. Once inside, I immediately feel at home with the mix of customers, which ranges from bikers to old people, to old bikers, to me, hunched over the bar with my ass most likely hanging out of my pants. The wine selection is pretty damn good for a “roadhouse,” so I forget about trying to impress the bikers and order a glass of Selbach Riesling along with a cup of chili. As I’m finishing glass number one, I notice the football game on the TV, where there’s a player laid out cold on the field. In an attempt to blend in, I reference the film “The Craft” by whispering “Light as a feather, stiff as a board.” No one seems to know what the fuck I’m talking about, and I order another glass of wine.
After getting back on the road, we pass the Hannaford supermarket in Waldoboro town, which, in case you’ve never witnessed it first-hand, is the most uninviting supermarket on the planet. The exterior suggests that it may have been a carwash in a past life. I was forced to shop here for provisions for the past summer’s ill-fated “camping trip,” and I think I’ve seen a better selection of food in a vending machine. They don’t even have Doritos. Can you believe that shit? They don’t even have fucking Doritos! All they have for chips are crap brands like Bachman’s, and I personally wouldn’t have been surprised to stumble upon large displays of Pepsi Clear, Bud Ice Dry (though this would have made me happy), E.T. Cereal, or any other foods that time forgot.
At this point, Melinda feels that it’s probably best to stare blankly out the window as I launch into a tangent about how they should have based the book “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” in Maine, and called it “Cloudy with a chance of Newburg.” I am only able to get her on board with the idea when I begin suggesting that she imagine what it would be like to be caught in a storm of Newburg, and just how awful that could be.
Though definitely leaning towards the “quaint” side for me, the Hartstone Inn turns out to be quite comfortable. While inspecting the suite my nerves start to inexplicably flare up, which I finally determine is due to a Joe Cocker CD playing on a stereo by the fireplace to “set the mood,” or as I interpret it “get me all bent out of shape.” I shut it off, take a deep breath, and begin organizing my thoughts in a calm fashion. We have about an hour until we need to leave for dinner, which is just enough time to slaughter the bottle of Trouillard rosé. It goes down real easy, with aromas of toasted brioche and strawberry jam followed by flavors of candy apples, tootsie rolls, and purple horseshoes.
Being ever-conscientious, law-abiding citizens, we cab it to Primo. While in the mid-coast I would highly recommend the Schooner Bay Taxi Co. (207-542-2076) to get around. They are very prompt and the cars are quite comfortable. When we arrive at the restaurant, the parking lot is total chaos, but that doesn’t stop our driver from flawlessly driving his Prius through a gap that I think I’d have trouble shimmying my fat ass through.
As it is their last night of the season, the restaurant is booked solid. We are seated downstairs, which I like because it seems to be the calmer of the several dining areas, and I wouldn’t want to risk not being the loudest person in the room. I recognize many of the patrons from MySpace and Friendster, and am relieved to see that our table is in the corner by the fireplace, a little out of the way.
To get things started I order a bottle of 2004 Georg Breuer Riesling Berg Schlossberg from the Rheingau, seeing as the theme of the day is “wines that should be cellared for at least ten more years.” It takes a moment to open up, but is delicious, with razor sharp acidity pairing beautifully with flavors of limestone and white peach. At this time I also request a bottle of 2004 Alejandro Fernandez Tinto Pesquera Riserva to be decanted.
Ok. Dinner time. First course is Cold Springs Farm steak tartare, served with white anchovy, quail egg, onion sprouts and black pepper rosemary crackers. This proves to be a perfect beginning, and an excellent companion to the Riesling.
I assume, like an idiot, that the wine will pair equally well with the next course, Hudson Valley Foie Gras Two Ways, but the rich and fatty duck liver completely demolishes the Riesling. This is only a momentary distraction, however, from how delicious this plate of food is. The cold preparation is a torchon, with quince paste and Marcona almond brittle, which compliments the healthy portion of seared foie served on pannetone pain perdu. Our server, Sarah, actually suggested that we end with this course, which in hindsight would have been a stronger move.
Next up is sunchoke soup with Nantucket Bay scallops and black truffles, and we switch over to the Pesquera that has been decanting for about forty five minutes. This wine represents what I love most about Tempranillo, silky fruit balanced out by dirty, smoky, and leathery flavors. The winemaker, Alejandro Fernandez, is not unlike a god in Spain. He makes stunning wines from the Ribero del Duero, Toro and La Mancha appellations, and I would highly recommend you seek them out.
The soup smells so good that Melinda and I immediately dive in without even thinking about taking a picture. Three bites in I consider it, but decide that it’s just not that important to have photographic documentation of everything—as long as there are enough pictures of me. The earthiness of the sunchoke and truffle are damn near perfect together, and bring me to the unavoidable conclusion that this meal was well worth travelling for.
Clearly getting loved up and a little drunk, we begin eavesdropping on the conversation underway between our server and the couple seated at a neighboring table. It seems that the pretty young lady has a very serious “gluten allergy,” and because they are celebrating their thirteenth anniversary, although they look to be all of twenty-five years old, insist on relocation to a nicer table. I am relieved to see them go, so Melinda and I can begin speaking freely about the pitfalls of pre-arranged marriages, and what it must have been like to have a gluten-free wedding at twelve years old.
Sarah suggests we take a break between courses and go upstairs to check out the bar area, since it’s our first visit to the restaurant. I heartily concur, and declare that maybe I’ll have some tequila while I’m up there, “you know, like a gentleman.” Sarah gives me a look, implying that I may have a hard time getting a drink, but to go see it anyway. The moment I reach the top of the stairs, I see what she means. The second floor, almost like a different restaurant altogether, is a shitshow. I take a look around, run into a few people I know from Facebook, but then start getting claustrophobic and, missing my wine, head back downstairs just in time for the next course.
Wood grilled squab with wild huckleberry gastrique, the first of two dishes to arrive, is accompanied by braised red cabbage, sautéed liver, and sweet onions. Though we’re “sharing,” I greedily slide the squab my way, a decision that I immediately regret upon tasting the other dish, lemongrass braised pork belly, now safely situated on the other side of the table. Don’t get me wrong, the squab is fantastic, but the pork is just plain ridiculous. I’ve eaten plenty of pork belly in my time, but this is more meltingly tender and flavorful than any I’ve ever encountered. Topped with a cardamom and sweet potato mousseline, and garnished with a nero tondo radish salad, I could have easily annihilated two plates all by my lonesome.
While trying to figure out desserts, we split a glass of 1996 Broadbent Colheita Madeira as well as a glass of thirty-year-old Noe Pedro Ximinez, a wine that seems custom designed to pair with chocolate. We settle on the butterscotch pudding with caramel fleur de sel, baci (a chocolate hazelnut semifredo), zeppole (Italian style donuts), and mini cannolis dipped in chocolate. I like the zeppole so much that I track down Melissa Kelly’s recipe when I get home, and proceed to fry donuts for three straight days, causing my entire house to reek of frying oil
One of the best parts about dining at Primo on the last day of the season is the energy in the air. Not only is it very busy, but you can also sense the excitement of the staff, knowing that they only have one more dinner service to get through before starting a four month vacation. Personally, I admire this because, if it were me, I would most likely redefine the term “already checked out.”
I take a moment to chat with Price Kushner, one of the owners, amidst busy servers darting in and out of the kitchen with plates of food. Having someone as large as myself positioned right outside a kitchen door during service is not unlike a car, or more accurately a bus, broken down in the passing lane on the highway. Price seems unfazed and invites me into the kitchen to “chat” with Melissa, who is of course right in the middle of a very busy rush. I quickly say hello and back off, not wanting to impede things further. I know my first reaction when someone foreign is in the kitchen and it’s slammed would be “who the fuck is this asshole, and what in Christ are they doing here?”
We leave completely satisfied, and though I could say I regret not dining at Primo until now, I’m glad I waited for the perfect occasion. On the way back to the inn, I begin badgering the infinitely patient taxi driver to somehow cause “Out of Touch” by Hall & Oates to magically play on the radio. Unfortunately reality prevents him from making this happen, but he humors me a little, so I spare him a personalized a capella performance.
Back at the hotel, the Rasteau has come around nicely after being open for nine hours. The flavors of blueberry and stones are brilliant even after all of the wine I’ve already consumed. I decide to celebrate how much I like it by accidentally smashing my full glass all over the floor in a fit of joy. Though I love Spiegelau stemware, it always amazes me just how many pieces they can break into, and how little I enjoy cleaning them up when I’m drunk.
Once resting comfortably with another glass of Rasteau and watching season two of Breaking Bad, one of the best shows of all time in my opinion, I’m much happier. After dusting that bottle, I open a 2002 Kerpen Riesling Spatlese Wehlener Sonnenuhr. I begin to suspect that something may be horribly wrong as it smells not unlike rotten apple and farts. One sip confirms my suspicion, but luckily I never travel without backup. Though completely confident that I don’t need to drink any more, I pop the cork on a 2008 Cascina Ballarin Langhe Rosso “Cino”, and proceed to careen through about two glasses before “resting my eyes for a moment”, which resulted in “opening them the next day.”
I always drink plenty of water, at least four liters per day, but it wasn’t enough to save me on this particular morning. In a daze, I exercise bad judgment and decide to use the Jacuzzi tub. The heat combined with the massaging from the jets immediately makes me nauseous and twice as hung-over. This leaves me no choice but to get out and lie motionless on the bed, under the ceiling fan, for twenty minutes. I come to the conclusion that the only remedy for me at this point is breakfast at Home Kitchen, in Rockland.
If you’ve not been there, it’s well worth the trip. They make enormous and delicious sticky buns, grilled before serving, that pair perfectly with a cup of black coffee from Rock City Roasters. I contemplate getting a beer as well, but know exactly where that decision is going to lead, so I refrain. “Better to wait until at least three in the afternoon”, I noddingly confirm to myself. After a delicious breakfast of lobster eggs Benedict, it’s time to head back to Portland and reality. On the drive home, Melinda and I discuss the usual “I’m not drinking for X amount of time” and “gym this and that,” with the occasional pause for self reflection. Of course upon arrival back home, I immediately crack a beer and get started.
Another year begins—the right way.