While the season lasts, enjoy dinner in the fields at this outpost where the goodness of simply prepared food is sublime.
While new restaurants are popping up everywhere around Portland, one unique place leads the pack. It’s not new. Instead it’s firmly established as a seasonal restaurant — and very special.
It manages to be farm-table without undue self-aggrandizement. The menu relies on local fresh food, though not strictly organic. And the preparation of each dish epitomizes simplicity.
If you haven’t guessed by now the name of this dining idyll (or looked at some of the photos), I’m talking about The Well at Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth. Here’s the real deal, a restaurant serving local farm-fresh food and set squarely on 122-acres of farm land that’s only a few miles from downtown Portland.
I’ve written about it often, most recently last month where it was included in a roundup of summer restaurants that never disappoint.
But after four recent visits in the last month, I’ve been blown away each time by the sheer goodness of the cooking so seamlessly achieved by chef and proprietor Jason Williams. That in itself warrants this reiteration of high praise.
Williams achieves this in a kitchen not much bigger than a studio apartment galley space. His few items of sophisticated equipment ease the burden and account in part for the kitchen’s output. His grill is wood-fired by a chamber underneath. His multi-burner professional gas oven and range produce incredible heat and cooking power, and his one lone countertop for prep work can hold only 5 or 6 plates at one time.
Everything is made right there. The best rustic country bread awaits, warm from the oven with a pat of creamy farm butter. The pastas and the desserts are all made in house, and most of the produce comes right from Jordan Farm. Talk about locally sourced!
I was there last Friday night when the place was packed and the kitchen duly slammed. That night and Saturday (Parent’s Weekend) he served over 100 dinners at each sitting and sent them out to the various dining areas: the 4-stool bar in the main kitchen gazebo, the two gazebos in the fields and the smattering of picnic tables set on the lawn, flower beds and meadows. The gazebos are screened in to keep mosquitoes and bugs out, and on nippy summer and fall nights (it’s Maine, after all) clear plastic shades go down for insulation.
I like to sit in the main gazebo facing the open kitchen where watching, so de rigeur, the chef at work is like theater in the round.
Williams performs like a maestro. At lightning speed he prepares each plate with the help of a young chef to assist. First comes the salad course loaded with greens so fresh they crackle. The lettuces are bathed in a red-wine vinaigrette, with whimsies like braised radishes, tomato confit, local blue-vein cheese—a healthily delicious salad indeed.
For entrees, the plate is first warmed with a blow torch. The brined chicken or pork as well as lamb or beef when available is charred on the wood grill and plated with a cornucopia of vegetables garnishes.
For fish, it’s usually snow-white local cod, pan-seared then finished off in the oven and served with basmati rice, Russian kale and baby carrots or other peregrinations from the kingdom of local summer veggies.
And if you love potatoes, many of the meat and poultry dishes are garnished with them along with seasonal braised greens. His smashed potatoes are brilliant: new potatoes are boiled, mashed roughly (smashed) and moistened with olive oil, mixed with sautéed shallots and seasonings and set in a round mold to heat briefly and caramelize in a hot oven. His other version is roast potatoes that are finished off on the wood grill — all crusty on the outside and creamily delicious within.
Now that corn is in season many of the dishes are garnished with it in some fashion. The butter-poached lobster, for example, newly on the menu as a starter, rests on a bed of silky smooth corn puree whereas previously it had been joined by a sweet green-pea mousseline.
Besides all the local vegetables outside his kitchen door, Williams has his established sources for meats, poultry and fish. Chickens come from Serendipity Acres in North Yarmouth; pork hails from Breezy Hill in South Berwick; lamb from North Star Farm in Windham and on the night I was there earlier this week I had grilled sirloin from Harris Farm in Dayton, highly regarded for its pastured beef and veal. Fish is supplied by Browne Trading Company in Portland.
As a dessert chef, Williams is strictly a one-man band: it’s his donut that prevails and one of the best around. His dough is put into the deep fryer, where it puffs up twice the size, then shaken in a bag of sugar and set over a compote of whatever fruits are in season like strawberries or blueberries (high bush for now). With a nice dollop of chantilly cream, the discreet charms of this dessert are hardly prosaic — puffy clouds of sweetness with berry perfume.
You can bring your own libations and the kitchen supplies plastic glasses and ice. I tote my cocktail in a jelly jar and stemware for wine. BYO saves a bundle. For three courses the tab is around $35 to $45 plus tip. There’s also a 5-course prix fixe menu for $50 and a family style menu as well.
The menu changes all the time depending on what’s available. Reservations are recommended or you can take your chances. Either way, with just a few months left to the Well’s season, strike before the birds fly south.