The Palace Diner really shines on Friday and Saturday nights when it serves beautifully made dinners.
Kitchen acrobatics usually happen in much larger restaurants that lay claim to culinary largesse with A-list chefs at the stove. But when the establishment is a 15-stool diner in a Maine city valiantly in the grips of gentrification, the storyline takes on different connotations: The Palace Diner in Biddeford is no ordinary place, and the chefs responsible are hardly run of the mill.
Greg Mitchell and Chad Conley took over the Palace Diner in March, serving authentic diner fare at breakfast and lunch. I wrote about it then – separate posts on breakfast and another visit for lunch. While eggs and home fries don’t present cooking challenges, the chefs here treat everything with care. The eggs are farm fresh and the home-fries are big chunks of potatoes all crispy, smooth and creamy within. And if you order hash and eggs you’ll have a world-class rendition of this classic American diner dish: a crispy exterior wraps around a delicious mound of cured meat, potatoes and vegetables within.
At lunch, they don’t give a dish like the tuna salad sandwich short shrift either. It’s a masterfully flavorful mix of tuna, mayo, pickles (homemade), herbs and seasonings on toasted challah bread.
Mitchell and Conley both have backgrounds in some of New York City’s best restaurants (Gramercy Tavern, Jean-Georges) and at Hugo’s in Portland and Gather in Yarmouth. They’ve been farmers too, Conley once managing the Miyake Farm in Freeport.
They have hardly tossed their gastronomic batons in the air. In April they started serving dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. (Come early because it fills up fast.)
I wanted to go as soon as dinner service started, but I wasn’t able to manage a visit until last Saturday to see what was cooking at dinnertime.
It’s a small menu that has a few nibbles like cured olives and, on that night, luscious croquettes filled with jalapeno and ham bathed in a Cheddar and Parmesan cheese sauce. The salad, big enough for two, was a mound of local lettuces under a blitz of freshly grated Parmesan, with hard-boiled eggs and breaded deep-fried anchovies, which added a salient salty-savory touch.
Other than a burger platter and Bang Island mussels, the only other entrée was roast chicken. Here half a naturally raised local bird had the crispiest skin and the juiciest meat. It sat in a rich yogurt cream sauce accented with sautéed zucchini and sour dough croutons. Not a morsel was left after we heartily lapped our plates clean, relishing all the flavor and texture of perfectly roasted chicken.
You wish the menu had a few more choices, perhaps a fourth entrée. But the chefs want to keep it simple so that they can tend to each dish with total attention to the details of cooking well. The entrée list changes weekly. Beer and wine are available.
The chocolate pudding with whipped cream that we had for dessert was more like an ultra-rich mousse that was as thick as fudge frosting. This was easily one of the best examples of this homey dessert made elegant and special by the chefs. Other desserts in times past included ice-box cake served in a Mason-style jar and occasionally pies and other puddings.
My only qualm is the Palace should serve dinner every night of the week. Certainly such honestly good cooking would have a local audience in a town that has so few choice of any stripe. But for those of us a short distance away, it’s an easy trip from Portland to Biddeford and you won’t leave hungry.