All photos by Ted Axelrod
A couple of weeks ago, a sunny day inspired us to load up the dogs and our house guest and head up the coast to Rockland. While the community was bracing itself for the annual Maine Lobster Festival, we had something else in mind — seeing what our friend chef Michele Ragussis was up to at The Pearl.
At the end of a pier on Rockland harbor, The Pearl is perfectly situated to be the quintessential Maine waterfront restaurant. Ragussis’ presence in the kitchen, however, means that the fabulous view is accompanied by equally stellar food, (not always the case, as you no doubt know). Now in her third season at the Pearl, Ragussis is fully in charge, having leased the property from owner James Fanning. She’s extended the restaurant’s hours, adding happy hour, brunch and late-night offerings, as well as theme nights — Greek, Italian (reflecting her heritage) — and live music.
Before she began to make her mark in Maine — as a celebrity emcee at Portland’s Harvest on the Harbor in 2012 and last year’s Claw Down in Boothbay Harbor, Ragussis was already a TV star. A finalist on the eighth season of Food Network’s Food Network Star, winner of 24-hour Restaurant Battle, veteran of Chopped (she lost after the entree round) and more recently, NBC’s Food Fighters, she’s clearly comfortable in front of a camera. But she also has a deep interest in New England cooking. All of that TV stuff is cool, but what matters to her right now is her Rockland restaurant, which is serving up Maine coastal food, with a few twists, in a professional, we-care-about-what-we’re-doing way.
What we experienced at The Pearl for lunch stood in stark contrast to the dinner we had in what we will diplomatically call another “midcoast community” the night before, where the venue had just as much chance to get it right, but fell short with a huge menu, poor execution and sloppy service. When a chef of Ragussis’ caliber is in the kitchen, it makes a difference.
The three of us started with local oysters on the half shell, clam chowder and The Pearl’s “fish dip,” which on this day was smoked trout. Served with water crackers, it was a delicious nibble with pints of local beer.
We followed up with a traditional and nicely done lobster roll, fried haddock sandwich and an unusual and delicious salad with a deep fried, poached egg over grilled asparagus with crabmeat, shaved Parmesan and olive oil.
There’s nothing especially groundbreaking about what Michele Ragussis is doing at The Pearl (except that deep-fried egg, with its perfectly runny yolk, is pretty exceptional). But in addition to her effusive personality, it’s that old chestnut, “attention to detail,” that sets her —and the restaurant—apart from the summertime crowd.
Who: Chef Michele Ragussis plus Food Network chefs Nikki Martin, Martie Duncan and Linkie Marais
What: The chefs will do cooking demos and offer tastings, live music, wine, Allagash beer.
When: Wednesday, Sept. 3, 6 p.m.
Tickets: $100. maine.wish.org