Editor’s note: Starting this week, Emily Burnham brings you Today’s Special, an occasional series about dining spots in eastern and northern Maine. It will appear in the Lifestyle section.
The Fiddlehead Restaurant on Hammond Street in downtown Bangor may be the coziest dining spot in the area. Even if every seat in the place is filled it still holds only 46 people — so it always seems busy. And the place has been humming since owners and operators Laura Albin and chef Melissa Chaiken opened it in late August.
“Honestly, I never really saw myself with my own place, originally,” said Albin. “I never thought this would come to fruition. I take a lot of pride in my work, but if I hadn’t met Mel and hadn’t found the right people, this never would have happened.”
At The Fiddlehead, housed in the former location of Cafe Nouveau, operators embrace the idea that simple is better. Most of the restaurant’s dishes have only a handful of ingredients. The water is served in Mason jars. The bread is a fresh, crumbly, moist cornbread, served with molasses. The decor is elegant, featuring warm, wooden tables with mint green runners and a changing array of work from local artists.
“Simple, yet elegant,” said Albin. “That’s what we like, and that’s what we did.”
Albin, 29, has worked in the restaurant industry since she was fresh out of high school — first catering in and around her hometown of Skowhegan, and then as a bartender at local watering hole Moose Alley in Bingham. Eventually she became maitre d’ at the New Moon Cafe on Park Street in Bangor, a position she held for nearly four years and in which she learned the ins and outs of wine, fine dining and what makes a restaurant work.
Chaiken, also 29, worked as the chef at the Asticou Inn in Bar Harbor before coming to Bangor to take the position as head chef at the New Moon Cafe. It was there that Albin and Chaiken met, and formed a fast friendship as well as a professional relationship.
“Mel has a fantastic skill. She never went to school for it. She just knows how to make incredible food. Her mom is Malaysian, she grew up in Japan. She has an inherent sense of what tastes good,” said Albin. “And we support each other. We complement each other. Where I’m uptight, she’s laid back. Where I’m loud, she’s quiet. We’re a good team.”
When they decided to open their own place, they agreed that they wanted to offer fine cuisine at a reasonable cost.
“We followed the idea that there is nowhere in town where you can go and have a really fine meal for not a lot of money,” said Albin. “We know how to cut corners without sacrificing service or quality. You can easily have a really fine dinner, with a glass of wine, for fewer than 25 dollars.”
They also knew they wanted to highlight local foods. Chaiken and Albin put the emphasis on local beef, eggs, goat cheese and seasonally available produce, which they buy themselves at weekly farmers markets in Orono and Brewer, and from friends with small farms.
“I love knowing that my food is fresh and from a few miles down the road,” said Albin.
Chaiken’s signature Maine lobster spring rolls grace the appetizer list, along with a spicy spinach curry dip, delicate lamb croquettes and a tomato and goat cheese tartlet. Entrees include trout en papillote, a whole trout baked with herbs in parchment paper served over a hearty three-bean soup, a gourmet burger topped with a fried egg, and Albin’s favorite, the pork chop with peas and cream.
“Bar none, my favorite dish on the menu is the pan-seared pork chop. Mel brines them for two days and cooks it so it’s still tender. Pork can be so dry,” said Albin. “Then she serves it with fresh peas sauteed with cream. It is so gorgeous, and so simple. That’s really what we go for.”
For dessert, the orange polenta cake, with a scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream, comes highly recommended. A carefully selected wine list and a creative cocktail menu are perfect for the after movie or theatre crowd. The “I’m Your Huckleberry” cocktail — it has fresh blueberries and huckleberry-flavored vodka — is a favorite of Albin’s, as is the Maine Martini.
And what’s in a Maine Martini?
“Allen’s Coffee Brandy and heavy cream,” said Albin, speaking of the classic Maine concoction she served quite often when she was bartending at local watering holes. “You have to stay true to your roots.”