YORK, Maine — Michael Fennelly has started his own restaurants in New Orleans and San Francisco, and has been head chef in Santa Fe, Hawaii and Provincetown, Massachusetts. He’s prepared dinners with the James Beard Foundation, was named to Food and Wine’s Top 10 New Chefs in 1994, and has been a guest chef on the PBS show Great Chefs and on “lots” of Food Network shows.
And now he’s bringing all those years of knowledge, experience and culinary mastery to York. He and partner Steve Couch are making quite a splash at the town’s farmers’ market these days with the regular appearance of their food truck, and discerning gourmands have already made their way to their “modern Zen cuisine” restaurant, the Wabi Café, for lunch or Saturday night dinner.
“It seemed like the right time to do something interesting like this,” said Fennelly. The couple bought an historic 1880 house on York Street near Route 1 six years ago, with the intention of opening a restaurant in their place, as well as a gallery for Fennelly’s Japanese shibori fabric artwork. “Small speakeasy-type restaurants are popular right now, and this seemed like a very good venue for that to happen.”
In fact, Fennelly said he thought he was going to pursue his artwork after graduating from Parsons School of Design in the late 1970s. But while living in Santa Fe, he said, “I needed work. I had to eat,” so he landed a job at the still-popular Santacafe. With previous experience as a server at high end restaurants in New York City, he was asked by the owners if he would want a chef position. “I was an accomplished home cook. I’m a good intuitive cook. I was always able to decide what tastes go together.”
“Way before Asian fusion was popular,” he created a menu of such dishes as Chinese dumplings and smoke pheasant spring rolls. “I was doing something way outside the box for that time.” His work earned him the attention of “the big magazines” and launched his career.
But after more than 20 years as both owner and head chef of restaurants around the country, he decided to “do something completely different” and move to Provincetown to paint. There, in 2007, he met Couch, a flight attendant for Delta Airlines. Together, said Couch, “we decided we wanted to live in a year-round community close to Boston” as Couch flies out of Logan Airport. Couch had a friend in Eliot, and Fennelly’s father is from Augusta, “so I sort of had an affinity to Maine.”
They fell in love with the York Street house in part because of its age, and in part because it was also in a commercial zone. So when they were thinking of opening a restaurant, “it seemed like a good opportunity without adding rent or another mortgage.”
Fennelly is the chef, and Couch, exactly the kind of friendly person you’d want as a flight attendant, is the baker and runs the front of the house — an outdoor café that can seat 15-20 people.
Wabi is an eighth-century Japanese Buddhist philosophy, said Fennelly. Buddhist monks of that period appreciated things that were “less ornate, simple and plain, more natural. What it means is the opposite of everything manmade, asymmetrical instead of symmetrical, a vase with a crack in it, a tree limb without leaves. Imperfectly perfect.”
The menu he’s crafted reflects that. The café is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday through Friday. The menu includes items like handmade turmeric wrappers of potato, corn, carrot, peas and garam masala and umami sauce that Fennelly makes fresh. A Maine seafood or vegetable spring roll, tacos with tempeh or Hawaiian pork, and miso soup are also on the menu.
Many of these dishes and others, including a wonderful vegetarian burger, also are for sale at the Wabitruck, a food truck that the couple brings to the Gateway Farmers’ Market every Saturday. The lunch and truck menu is reasonably priced, with most dishes $10 and under.
On Saturday night, the café offers a prix fixe menu, a five-course, typically themed meal for $35 per person. On July 14, it was a “Wabi Goes Greek” menu which included a Greek salad, chilled Greek yogurt soup, several entrees all seared with rosemary and a cashew and almond baklava.
“I do everything from scratch — all the noodles, all the wrapping. And to the best of my ability, it is all local and organic,” he said.
The café also offers beer, wine and sake. Fennelly also makes sauces and rubs that are available for sale in the small, second-floor gift shop and gallery of his work. The goal is for the café to remain open through the fall.
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