Even though Shepherd’s Pie opened less than two months ago, it has been hard to get a table at the establishment. James Beard Award-nominated chef Brian Hill premiered the new restaurant in downtown Rockport in May, and it has been popular with locals and in-the-know tourists from the get-go. They don’t take reservations, so obtaining a table during the Saturday dinner rush is for those with good timing — or who get there early.
Shepherd’s Pie is the second venture for Hill, who also owns the tiny, delightful Francine Bistro in Camden. At Shepherd’s Pie, both menu and decor combine the casual elegance of a French brasserie with a decidedly Maine attitude. A gorgeous view of Rockport Harbor out the back window, warm wooden walls and a gunmetal gray tin ceiling illustrate this perfectly — it’s an old, coastal Maine building housing a restaurant that serves gourmet comfort food.
The long wooden bar ends at an open kitchen, so patrons can watch Hill and his chefs prepare the food. The wine and beer list is long enough to be diverse, but short enough to be accessible and very affordable. One can snack on spicy peanuts or big plates of aromatic french fries straight out of the fryer.
There’s a small but intriguing list of bar snacks and sides. A chicken liver paté served with toast points was smooth, creamy and savory, coupled with a small pool of horseradish sauce for extra-hot dipping. Baked beans were served with irresistibly salty-sweet chunks of candied bacon floating in it. The beans could have gone for a bit longer slow cooking, as they were slightly on the firm side and also were served with a totally unnecessary handful of cilantro. After removing the offending herb, however, they were sweet and hearty despite the odd texture — especially paired with the bacon.
One cannot have baked beans without hot dogs, and one of the menu items receiving the most advance buzz is the duck meat hot dogs. Two fat dogs are served on a hearty roll, topped with caramelized red onions, mustard and horseradish. The hot dogs are a unique experience, pairing the spicy snap of a dog with the rich, gamey flavor of duck. Chef Hill certainly loves meat of all kinds, especially those less-common parts, such as pork belly, liver and small, oily fish like mackerel.
Smaller plates include the salad made with a pleasingly fishy smoked alewife Caesar dressing, with big, crunchy croutons and most of a head of romaine. Crab ceviche, fried clam tacos and two oyster dishes highlight Maine seafood, as does the halibut entree. Other main dishes include skirt steak prepared with Brazilian chimichurri sauce, a decadent pork belly sandwich and baby back ribs.
Oh, and shepherd’s pie — as if a place partially named for the aforementioned meal could get away with not having it. The name of the block of buildings that house the restaurant is called the Shepherd Block, though, so the name has double meaning.
The majority of the items on the menu are priced between $10 and $20, with a handful of entrees reaching above $25. While it might be a stretch to call Shepherd’s Pie a “gastropub” — a trendy name for a pub that serves high-end food — it is just as easy to grab a couple of under-$10 dishes and a few drinks and chat with friends.
Shepherd’s Pie is on Main Street in downtown Rockport, next door to Bay Chamber Concerts and Maine Media Workshops. Hours are 4-11:30 p.m. daily; for information, call 236-8500, or become a fan of Shepherd’s Pie on Facebook.