BLUE HILL – When Jeff Kelly needs to restock his kitchen at his Blue Hill restaurant, Table, he has a lot of traveling to do. There’s asiago cheese from Sonnental Dairy in Smyrna, ricotta and Cheddar from Harmony Mills Farm in Waltham, chicken breasts from Old Ackley Farm in Castine, lamb chops from Aroostook County, mussels plucked from Blue Hill Bay and produce from all over.
It’s quite a grocery list.
Kelly and the James Beard Award-nominated Rich Hanson, who owns Table, pull from the wealth of products Maine farmers, fishers and growers have to offer to restaurants willing to use them. It’s easy to go through a distributor, but there’s an art to finding the right cheese, the right bacon or the right garlic.
Think of it as the culinary equivalent of curating an art exhibition.
“We’re buying produce from six different farms locally,” said Kelly, who worked for six years at Cleonice, Hanson’s Mediterranean-themed Ellsworth bistro. “It helps out the farmers, and it allows us to put out a really quality product.”
Table opened in July 2009, just two months after the Wescott Forge, former inhabitants of the downtown Blue Hill space, closed its doors. It benefits from its centrally located spot in Blue Hill, with a cheery outdoor patio and an elegantly simple interior. The lower floor’s dining area boasts granite tabletops — including the massive granite 10-person table, held up by two polished tree trunks, from which the restaurant gets its name. A glassed-in area overlooks a small stream, which the restaurant embellishes with small lights for a dreamy, romantic effect.
The first year was a rough one, by Kelly’s account, with the quick realization that the kitchen was too small to accommodate all the seating space in the restaurant.
“There was a lot of trial and error. We had to figure out how to work with our kitchen and its limitations,” said Kelly. “I think people locally thought we were this really hoity-toity, upscale restaurant. We serve upscale food, certainly, but the atmosphere and the prices are not that at all.”
Table closed for the season in late December, and reopened the first week of April with a retooled menu and lower prices, aimed at appealing more to locals and less to wealthy tourists. The focus remained squarely on local foods, but now offers many affordable lunch options. They include the house-smoked turkey BLT, made with local bacon, lettuce and tomato and house-made mayonnaise on Borealis sourdough; a beer-battered fried fish sandwich made with Maine haddock; and a black bean wrap made with beans from Horsepower Farm in Penobscot — all between $7.50 and $9.
Kelly, a 1992 graduate of Bangor High School, got his start in the restaurant industry washing dishes one summer at the Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor.
“Somebody asked me if I could cook breakfast,” said Kelly of his early job experience. “That’s really where it all started.”
Kelly moved on to restaurants in San Francisco and Fort Myers, Fla., before returning to Maine to cook at Havana in Bar Harbor. Kelly then went to work for Hanson at Cleonice, which opened in 2002 and was among the first establishments in eastern Maine to serve tapas. Cleonice and Hanson’s profiles have risen steadily over the years, with Hanson receiving two James Beard Award nominations for his almost entirely Maine-grown and raised menu. Kelly learned all he could from him.
“I learned so much from Rich,” said Kelly. “He was my culinary school.”
Having his own kitchen to run means Kelly has put his stamp on the menu. The farmhouse pizzas feature a pleasingly chewy naan bread crust, cooked in a cast-iron skillet. There are two styles — one topped with an Amatricana sauce (a type of marinara with pork belly in it), as well as bacon, Cheddar and caramelized onions; the other with ricotta, asiago, garlic, kalamata olive and broccoli raab. The ceviche changes daily, and is made with whatever fresh, local fish is available that day, mixed in with citrus, pineapple, peppers, corn and carrots. Velvety, perfectly textured vanilla creme brulee made by sous chef Tim Bingham tops the dessert list.
Kelly’s favorite item on the menu is the cast-iron pan-roasted free-range chicken ($17.50), inspired by a dish his fiance made over the winter.
“It’s chicken thighs cooked in with chorizo sausage, rutabagas, red onion, butternut squash, fennel and tomatoes, cooked until it’s stewed together and falling apart,” said Kelly, a look of delight crossing his face. “It takes the longest to cook of anything on the menu, but it’s just delicious. It’s just wonderful.”