Cafe Sorpreso is exactly what its name suggests. It’s a surprise and a pleasant one, from its downtown Presque Isle location to its ever-changing menu filled with fresh produce, made-from-scratch bread and homemade desserts to its accommodating owner-chefs.
Perhaps Sorpreso’s founders, two local couples known in different parts of the world for their cooking skills, could have considered another Italian word for its name — singolare.
No, Cafe Singular doesn’t have the same ring as Cafe Surprise. But Sorpreso is a singular restaurant in the Star City, where the dining choices for the most part include buffets, chain restaurants and pub food.
Cliff and Judy Boudman, known for their cooking at the well-regarded Rum Rapids Inn in nearby Crouseville, and Roger and Jan Lucas, who moved to Aroostook County from England in 2004, opened the restaurant in November 2007. Cafe Sorpreso quickly proved popular among diners who wanted more from their dining experience than Presque Isle previously had to offer.
The Presque Isle Chamber of Commerce named Cafe Sorpreso its 2008 Business of the Year.
“We wanted something different,” Judy Boudman said recently, taking a break after a busy lunch rush. “We didn’t want fried foods. We didn’t want hamburgers. Everybody does that. We wanted a European-style cafe. And we wanted to change our menu often.”
The Lucases and Boudmans also wanted a different kind of dining experience; one that was more relaxed and akin to a European way of dining that the Lucases knew from their home and that the Boudmans discovered on their travels.
“The one thing we noticed in traveling [in the United States] is that dining seems to be rushed,” Jan Lucas said. “Only if you go into the really, really expensive restaurants are you not rushed. There’s pressure to leave. From our point of view, that’s something we didn’t want to happen. We wanted people to come and enjoy lunch and-or dinner at their own time.”
It’s ironic, however, that a restaurant whose owners pride themselves on a relaxed environment, an unusual menu and warm atmosphere got its start in a building that previously had housed a national chain.
The idea for the restaurant began when the Boudmans started to consider expanding their Rum Rapids business, Judy Boudman said. They had served a few reservation-only dinners a night at the inn for 20 years, but had room for just a few tables. Meanwhile, the Boudmans met the Lucases in 2003 and 2004, when the latter couple stayed at Rum Rapids while visiting family in the area.
The Lucases moved to Maine for good in April 2004 and opened Take Two Catering, while Jan Lucas helped Judy Boudman at Rum Rapids.
When the couples started looking for a downtown space, they didn’t think of 415 Main St., which at the time housed a franchise of Curves, a national fitness chain. The building soon became available, however, and the Lucases and Boudmans rented the bottom floor.
“The location was perfect,” Judy Boudman said. “It had lavender walls, which had to go, but we realized we didn’t have to do a lot to get the restaurant up and running.”
The couples formed a corporation in June 2007 and spent that summer and part of the fall readying the space. The foursome would do all the cooking, with a few sous chefs, other kitchen assistants, and a wait staff.
The two couples also determined what kind of food they wanted to serve, based on the cafe meals with espresso coffee and pressed sandwiches the Boudmans enjoyed in their travels to France and Italy, and what the Lucases knew from their own cooking experiences and travels.
And that’s where the surprise comes in. Rather than basing the menu on a season or refreshing the menu once a year, the owners make weekly changes. There are some mainstays — for lunch, expect a dose of paninis, wraps, salads and soups, while dinner usually will include a variety of meat entrees with a pasta dish or two — but Sorpreso is different all the time.
It’s a challenge, and it means the Boudmans and Lucases constantly are searching for new items and recipes.
“Roger and I, in England, we worked for the titled and rich, so I was probably a little more used to constantly having to change things for dinner parties,” Jan Lucas said. “I mean, it’s not good form to serve the same thing twice. And there’s such a wealth of foods out there we’ve found people don’t know about. We experiment. We’ll introduce a food, see something, be out somewhere and think, ‘that will work well.’”
One disadvantage of an ever-changing menu, however, is that dishes disappear from the menu quickly. That doesn’t faze the owners, who say they will willingly cook up a favorite lunch or dinner from a previous menu if they have the ingredients on hand or know in advance.
Cafe Sorpreso’s flavor combinations are a surprise, too. Imagine, for example, biting into a roasted chicken sandwich and getting a taste of guava cream cheese. Or ordering a pork tenderloin with a glaze of tequila and hot pepper. Ever try a Caesar salad with pink grapefruit?
Then there’s Boudman’s flourless Boca Negra (black mouth in Spanish) chocolate torte. It’s very dark, and not too sweet, which allows the chocolate to shine, and finishes with a kick of rum — another Sorpreso surprise.
So considering all of that, the final surprise at Sorpreso will be the bill, right?
Yes, Boudman concedes, Sorpreso is pricier than some of the eateries in town. But lunch can be had for less than $10 — including a bowl-sized cup of soup and hunk of fresh-baked bread — and appetizers and salads are also generously portioned.
And, Boudman said, Sorpreso tries to take advantage of local resources, such as people who forage in the fall for local mushrooms for the restaurant, and the SAD 1 Educational Farm, which has a farm store on State Street.
“I just got a call from them the other day and they said, ‘I hope you need some produce.’ They had strawberries, spinach, greens … they grow hydroponic tomatoes in the winter for us,” Boudman said. “So we’re using the local produce.”
Sorpreso appears to be appealing to local diners, which is a sentiment many patrons have expressed since the restaurant’s opening.
“Every week people say, thank you for being here,” Lucas said.
Follow Cafe Sorpreso at www.twitter.com/sorpreso