He may not play bass in a punk band anymore, but ask Josh Heikkinen if he’s still a rock star and he answers in the affirmative, accompanied by a sly grin. It’s just that now he’s in the kitchen at his new Bar Harbor fine-dining restaurant, Fathom, rather than onstage.
“Oh, I’m definitely still a rock star,” said Heikkinen. “I think chefs and artists and musicians and creative people in general all have that kind of attitude and personality. You don’t lose that if you go from one outlet to another. You just shift your focus.”
Before he and co-owner Tracy Pattershall Hallett came together to open Fathom in May of this year, and before he devoted his life to being a chef, Heikkinen, 31, played in Old Town punk band Dugen for eight years. From 1997, his senior year at Old Town High School, to 2005, when he left to work full-time in the kitchen, Heikkinen lived the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. Even as he performed around the northeast with Dugen, however, he was still learning the tricks of the trade, working summers in Bar Harbor at the Fishhouse — from dishwasher to fry cook to, eventually, kitchen manager.
After leaving Dugen, Heikkinen dove into the life of a chef, picking up his considerable skills everywhere that he cooked, among them the Excelsior Inn and Lodge in Eugene, Ore.; Red Sky in Southwest Harbor; Rendezvous Catering, part of Fiddler’s Green in Southwest Harbor and with his mentor, Michael Anderson, at August Moon Catering in Bar Harbor.
“I definitely went to the hard knocks school of cooking,” said Heikkinen. “I never needed to go to school for it, because I just learned it on my own, from everyone I worked with.”
By the time he met Hallett while both were at August Moon, Heikkinen was ready to take the jump from sous chef to executive chef. Fortunately, Hallett had already set her sights on opening a restaurant. She just needed a chef, and Heikkinen fit the bill.
“It dawned on me that Josh would be a perfect fit for what I wanted to do,” said Hallett, who is originally from Belfast and graduated from Hampden Academy. “I don’t think anyone knew what an amazing chef he was, though, because he worked in catering and most people didn’t get a chance to try his stuff. Everyone just assumed he was great. And they were right.”
When longtime MDI fine-dining restaurant Maggie’s, located on tiny Summer Street in downtown Bar Harbor, closed over the winter, Hallett and Heikkinen scooped up the property. Fathom quietly opened in May. The ambiance is one of relaxed fine dining, with Victorian-era etchings of nautical scenes hung on the walls, soft, low lighting and small glass globes containing Siamese fighting fish placed here and there around both dining rooms. The wine list is thoughtful, and there is a short list of specialty cocktails including the classic British concoction Pimm’s Cup, a blend of the gin-based citrus and spice liqueur Pimm’s with orange, lemon and cucumber. A throwback, for sure, but a welcome one. A plate of house-made anadama-foccacia swirl bread with maple butter is salty and sweet. Do not feel bad about asking for more — it’s wonderful.
The menu highlights local ingredients, though Heikkinen is most interested in making food that is first and foremost satisfying. The drunken shrimp ($12) first course exemplifies this; a mound of perfectly cooked shrimp and roughly chopped tomatoes, swimming in a spicy tequila cream sauce. The sauce is so good that the accompanying slices of house-made bread are simply not enough to get every last bit of it into your mouth. It is a dish befitting a chef who still maintains his credentials as a rock star.
The ever-changing menu means that what you eat in September will probably not be available two months later, but one can hope that things like the decadent zucchini blossoms ($10) — stuffed with herbed ricotta, tempura fried and served with cucumber-scallion coulis — will make a return appearance. Salads pop with lively, unusual flavors, such as one featuring pleasantly gamey braised rabbit, crunchy toasted pumpkin seeds, chewy dried Maine blueberries, pungent goat cheese and delicate greens dressed in olive oil and cider ($10).
Entrees lean heavily on seafood, though seared duck breast and Maine tapenade-crusted pork chops — using dilly beans, dandelion greens and salt cod instead of olives and anchovies — make their way onto the menu as well. A delicate dish of perfectly pan-fried sole fillet ($24) is a highlight, served with a rich beurre blanc, Israeli couscous and broccoli rabe. Another rock star dish is the sweet potato gnocchi, made in-house and served with the meat of a whole lobster, tomatoes and butternut squash, topped with a parsley brown butter sauce ($30). If you have room, dessert looks decadent and imaginative, such as a maple bread pudding made with that addictive anadama-foccacia bread, topped with MDI Ice Cream ($8).
Fathom has received rave reviews online — it’s in the top 10 rated restaurants in Bar Harbor on tripadvisor.com — and has been a consistently popular dining choice since it opened. Hallett and Heikkinen plan to stay open seven days a week until October, when it will close on Mondays. It will close for a brief amount of time in November, and reopen in December, open Thursday-Sunday through the winter. For reservations, call 288-9664.