We love the Maine coast, especially the mid-coast, Camden, Rockland, Rockport area. After numerous years of trial and error from many visits to this area, we have our favorite restaurants in the area. The dilemma was that we were in the area for Joyce’s birthday and she (and I) wanted to find a special birthday-type dining experience for her 39++++ birthday.
In Search of a Birthday Venue
Joyce claims that birthdays are a good excuse to go to great restaurants without feeling guilty. Tom agrees as he gets to partake—even if he has to pay the bill. But we were in sleepy Camden Maine. We love Camden, but let’s face it, Camden is a tourist town. When locals want good food, they often either make it themselves or drive to other cities. We, however, wanted to spend the entire day and evening in Camden, without bothering with our car.
Although we remembered some of the restaurants at which we ate on previous trips, we never make decisions on something as important as a restaurant (not to speak of a special occasion restaurant) without performing due diligence. We search the Web, ask concierges, servers at other restaurants and people we meet, review menu books and then visit each possibility to examine the menu and atmosphere.
The Ambience and the Meal
Joyce’s birthday experience began the evening before, when we walked into Natalie’s to look at the current menu. Although the restaurant was packed with the biggest wedding of the season, the hostess (“Yelly”, who we later learned arrived from Thailand only a month before) took the time to take us into a quiet room and not only show us the menu, but tell us about some of the best dishes. Her excitement for the four-course Homard Grand Cru lobster tasting menu was infectious so we made reservations for the following evening;
When we arrived for Joyce’s big dinner, Yelly greeted us with an enthusiastic birthday greeting. When we decided to sit outside, she rushed back to the table she had reserved for us to bring Joyce a personalized Happy Birthday menu. And we couldn’t resist the $89 (in 2011) lobster tasting menu for this special occasion.
The chef, Geoffrey Deconinck, had been at Natalie’s for 9 months, coming from New York’s Daniel, amongst other places. He had recently won second place in a New York City competition for his lobster roll, which is part of the four-course lobster feast. Lobster rolls, you must remember, are very serious business in Maine (probably ranking even ahead of fried belly clams and blueberry pie). Geoffrey’s four-course lobster dinner consisted of:
- The chef’s award-winning Maine Lobster Roll with house-made mayonnaise, tarragon and other herbs from the restaurant’s garden, on a homemade brioche roll.
- Lobster Bisque served with Asparagus Tempura.
- Lobster Fricassee with squid, basil and tomato compote on black, octopus ink tagliatelle
- Butter Poached Lobster with carrot puree, local spring vegetables and a tomato foam.
Although the Fricassee, at least to our taste, paled relative to the other three, the lobster bisque and butter-poached lobster (especially in combination with the wine), would almost be enough to bring us from San Francisco to Camden for dinner alone. A rice pudding, spiced with a bit of cinnamon and shredded pistachios for texture, provided a gentle finale from the richness of our four-course lobster extravaganza. At the end of the meal, we were lucky enough to have chef Geoffrey come out and explain some of the inspirations for his selections and why he designed them as he did.
Constructing a Dining Experience
Of course, food is just a part of an experience. The right wine makes a big difference. We opted out of the wine pairings and decided to challenge Alejandro Marchesini, the sommelier (who was also the Maitre’D), to help us find a bottle of wine that would go well with all 4 courses.
Alejandro discussed the pros and cons of different varietals and appellations with each course and he brought a taste of a Cakebread Chardonnay to taste with the amuse bouche, (a slightly spiced carrot soup accompanied with a crisp topped with what seemed to us like a lobster-infused crème fraiche). Although we appreciated the wine and the reason Alejandro recommended it, we tend to shy away from creamy, oak-driven chardonnays. After another educational discussion, he brought a roughly $65, 2007 Domaine du Vieux Lazaret Chateuanef du Pape (a blend primarily of white Grenache, Claret, and Marsanne). We loved the crispness and the aromatics of the wine both on its own, and in combination with each of the four courses.
The People Experience
But a dinner experience is not made from the wonderful food and a perfect wine alone.
The table provided a filtered view of the ships and masts crowded in Camden Harbor, until the view was displaced by suitably atmospheric fog which, with emerging darkness and a background of city lights, turned into a gauzy haze. Virtually everybody with whom we dealt was pleasant, helpful and engaging—almost enough so to distract us from the length of time between courses, which, since the restaurant was far from filled, may have been intentional (to tell the truth, we were enjoying ourselves so much that we did not ask.)
Then there was Alejandro, who seemed to take it as his personal mission to ensure that we had the proper wine experience, despite our insistence on compromising with a moderately-priced individual wine for the entire meal, rather than going with the tasting. He returned after each of the first two courses to get our impressions of the food and our thoughts of the wine with the food, explained what he saw as the pros and cons of each combination and told us what he recommended and why. After that, he brought samples of the wines that he recommended for two of the courses so that we could see the difference in tastes. He, however, made us work for our tastes, by asking us to describe and tell him what we though the wines were, before he told us what he got out of each wine and why he selected it for the dish. And each time, with unbelievable patience.
Even better than this, when we asked questions for which he did not have an answer, he told us that he did not know, suggested what he thought the answer was, and then went back to research the answer. In a couple of instances, he even returned to tell us that he was wrong! When was the last time you have had a sommelier do that?
Overall, it was the most fun, educational, and painless, wine education we had since the winemaker from Acacia guided us through a blind tasting of six of his pinot noirs and one syrah—without his knowing in advance, what the wines were.
In the end, the single thread that made the evening so special was the people—starting with Yelly and Alejandro, and even with chef Geoffrey taking time to come out to talk to us. They all more than made up for our waitperson who did everything correctly but was, how shall we say..…je ne sais quoi.
All in all, Natalie’s is definitely on our list for our next visit to Camden.
Caveats and Apologies to our Readers
We have to ask readers to forgive us for three “sins” in this blog:
- Our descriptions of our Natalie’s experience are quite effusive, expansive, and flowery. While it may sound naive, this is a subjective expression of what made the evening special to us, rather than an objective evaluation of a restaurant;
- We do not drill down into the details of the components or the tastes of the individual dishes or wines. We are more interested in how they, and many other intangible elements, combine into an experience, than we are in the nuances of the specific servings;
- We are not including pictures of the food as we have found that taking them not only distracts us from enjoyment, but it is not polite to other diners around us.