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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: August 29, 2014

Rockport dining: The mystique of Salt Water Farm Cafe & Market

Don’t miss the magic of dining at the Salt Water Farm Cafe overlooking picture-perfect Rockport Harbor.

Written by: John Golden

In the fast world of swell food, from new dishes to dives, farm-to-table dining rocks. In Maine especially if any restaurant worth its local salt did otherwise, whisk be thrown in the drink!

Consider the Salt Water Farm in the tony harbor village of Rockport, where this extravagantly fine local-eats establishment holds significant sway since it opened several years ago. Though I’ve written about my prior dining experiences there at breakfast and lunch, I can now report on dinner.

The open kitchen flanks a popular dining bar; general manager Andrew Kesselring  emerges from the rear dining room

The open kitchen flanks a popular dining bar; general manager Andrew Kesselring emerges from the rear dining room

Housed in the village’s old Union Hall, it’s managed to commandeer a culinary place in the sun, no mean feat since it sits next door to chef Brian Hill’s gastrotheque bastion, Shepherd’s Pie. While Hill serves stylish, locally sourced pub fare, the café at Salt Water is the precious, prettier sister.  The patina of white walls, stainless steel and wood bathed in natural light makes for an exceedingly attractive place. The kitchen is under the direction of chef and owner Annemarie Ahearn and head chef Sam Richman — a well-traveled duo of culinary daring-do who paint a worldly canvas for local cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The open kitchen lauds over the rear dining room

The open kitchen lauds over the rear dining room

At breakfast time, the cafe basks in the backdrop of the morning sun sparkling over Penobscot Bay — a dazzling visual creating a mood that is uplifting and magical.

Morning bites could include a breakfast egg sandwich on housemade focaccia to fig and anise seed scones. On past visits I’ve had Jonah crab claws as a bracing brunch starter to eggs poached in chicken broth.  Lunch is significant with such lofty dishes as  steamer clams bagna cauda with drawn butter and spring vegetables to a ripping roast hake sandwich wrapped in butter lettuce and ramp remoulade.

Until a few days ago dinner, as I mentioned, had eluded me. But I rightly figured that the evening meal would be the apogee of the Salt Water Farm dining experience.

The popular dining deck overlooking Rockport Harbor and Penobscot Bay

The popular dining deck overlooking Rockport Harbor and Penobscot Bay

Since I was spending a few days near Rockport I made a beeline for the place with my foodie friends friends visiting from New York, the renowned Hampton’s real estate attorney to the high and mighty, Leonard Ackerman,  and wife Judy.  They had previously hit all the Mid-Coast hot spots (The Pearl, Shepherd’s Pie, Natalie’s—their favorite so far—40 Paper, 3 Crow and The Slipway).  They went to the Café for breakfast, then lunch and finally dinner, making it their prime spot for all three meals.  As persnickety diners, they nonetheless deemed it “perfect.”

I chugged along with bated breath indeed to experience the Salt Water Farm mystique at sunset. Whereupon my friends suggested that I must have the poached local halibut in a spicy borscht.  I was also intrigued by two other dishes on the menu–the roast lamb ribs and the local poached chicken breast and roast leg.

To start, a first course of smoked swordfish was nothing less than a revelation.  Though I’ve had other versions of this dish on prior occasions, this time it was poached in a seafood broth, embellished with local melon, cucumber, red onion and basil. The smoky nuances of the fish were so beautifully balanced by the sweet, smooth flavors of melon and cucumber.

Another starter of tomato salad with lime juice and fish sauce was pitched in perfect flavor balance—the sweet tomato coddled in the far-flung flavors of lime and fish sauce that rendered the dish its mystical umami magic.

Two stunning first courses: smoked swordfish and tomato salad

Two stunning first courses: smoked swordfish and tomato salad

The brief drinks and wine list is a beautiful collection of craft cocktails and unusual bottlings. The Remember the Maine is a concoction, for instance, of Old Overholt Rye, Cocchi Vermouth, Cherry Heering and Absinthe, certainly a dead ringer for a stiff drink.

Wines are such diverse pickings as an Oregon Pinot Noir to an interesting bauble of viticulture called Octagon from Barboursville Winery in Virginia.

We chose a lusty French white, Cotes de Gascogne.  Our waitress said it was a favorite and described it as being similar to a Pinot Grigio, a wine that I generally find predictably dull.  This, however, displayed complex strong fruit, moderately acidic with the perfect characteristics of a fine summer wine.

The halibut was everything my friends described.  First impression is the pure snow white of the fish poached in fumet. Set in a mildly spicy, vinegar splashed borscht with fresh beets, it was an ingenious blend of sweet and sour.

Poached halibut in a spicy beet borscht

Poached halibut in a spicy beet borscht

The lamb was a pile of ribs swathed in a romesco sauce that gave it incredible oomph and power.  The gamey lamb was fall-of-the bone tender and set on a bed of grilled broccoli, dandelion, spinach and olives—a hint of the Mediterranean in Maine.

A lust dish of lamb ribs Romesco and the house-made brown bread

A lusty dish of lamb ribs Romesco and the house-made brown bread

The side plate of dense brown bread was the kind of dish that after one taste you immediately devour.  Made with a mix of brown flours, molasses and raisins, its savory components were also sweet and delicious.

Dessert was a local cheese— Prix de Diane from Rockport creamery Lakin’s Gorges.  It’s a bloomy rind cheese with a bouquet of milk and hints of citrus–creamy and perfectly ripened.

Lemon verbena panna cotta

Lemon verbena panna cotta

Another dessert was the lemon verbena panna cotta served with local blueberries and citrus-spiked shortbread.  This displayed incredible finesse of texture and taste — sweet herbaceous creaminess nonpareil — and the final shining moment of a superbly crafted meal.

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