Fuel: Lewiston ME
I don't trust web pages to handle accent marks and the like, so I'm omitting them here.
Coming from the Brunswick area as I do, I've had a lifelong relationship with the Lewiston/Auburn area and have watched its decline with great sadness. Lisbon Street, once one of the state's principal commercial avenues, is now home to a handful of Somali groceries, substance abuse centers and storefront ministries. To the best of my recollection, the area hasn't had a restaurant of note since No Tomatoes closed decades ago. So when Fuel and Gritty McDuff's started being featured in public radio sponsorship messages, I checked them both out.
Gritty's: fuggedaboudit. You'd do much better at the chain restaurants near the Auburn Mall. It's too bad: they have a wonderful deck overlooking the river and the Lewiston riverfront.
Fuel: a place of deep contradictions, so essentially Lewiston in its naivete and eagerness to please that it almost hurts to write about it.
Fuel presents itself as a bistro and is a fairly large restaurant, decorated in a kind-of-hip style. The ambience is warm and welcoming. They don't just offer dinner in the dining room and from the menu: other options include "Private Dining" (a single secluded alcove behind curtains), meals served to you in the "Chef’s Table... in the middle of the kitchen, so guests can get a real feel of what goes on in a true, working kitchen. The kitchen can get hot, loud, and busy, but that is part of the fun." and finally "Feed Me Justin.. a 4 course tasting. The chef will prepare 4 special courses for the table, with your recommendations." In all honesty they should strip all this out and concentrate on the details of what's going on in the dining room.
We went there on a Saturday night and it was quite busy by 6:00. People do not dress to go to Fuel: I was the only patron in the restaurant who wore a sport jacket. The staff is uniformly friendly, welcoming and informative. The service is downright odd.
Our meal was constantly being interrupted by interrogatories: would we like this napkin removed, how about that one, here is your amuse-bouche, here is what an amuse-bouche is, how did we like the amuse-bouche, was it OK to take that glass away; how about this one? Are you done with this, finished with that? It never, ever stopped. Our waitress was so sweet that it was hard to get upset about what was going on, and we certainly got to know her well, but the overall approach was completely unprofessional and worked totally against any sense of dining as a private or intimate experience.
The food was excellent at times, and sad at others. We started with a stellar charcuterie plate featuring excellent meats: there was a very nice rough pork pate and paper-thin cured sausage. Fuel's signature fried green tomatoes were also wonderful, but at eight quarter-inch deep-fried slices per service, waaay waay more than should have been put before a single diner. This turns out to represent a pattern.
My main course was terrible: I'd ordered the house's featured coq au vin because it's pretty hard to screw up. This one was served with tiny cocktail onions tasting strongly of vinegar from their jar. They played a Mutt-and-Jeff act against full-size unsliced mushrooms. The sauce, seriously overthickened with something like cornstarch, tasted like nothing so much as barbecue sauce: it had a downhome smoky flavor, presumably a nod to the salt pork that was supposed to be in there, and an unexpected sweetness. Just totally wrong. My wife's lemon-flavored chicken entree was presumably better: I couldn't get past what I was dealing with to evaluate it very well.
The coq au vin was a meat-and-potatoes-only entree, so I ordered a salad to accompany it- one of the best salads I've ever had. A simple combination of very fresh lettuces spiked with a touch of arugula and a perfectly-balanced dressing with hints of lemon juice and mustard, sadly it was enough for a party of six. I kid not about this. So most went back to the kitchen, and I felt terrible since so much of the chicken went back uneaten as well.
For dessert we had a tarte tatin based on puff pastry, just about perfect. We really enjoyed it.
I ordered a cognac with dessert: a bit later the waitress came back to ask if I wanted it on the rocks or straight up.
Further notes: the breads are decent at best. The wine list is well thought through, quite reasonably priced and makes a remarkably generous selection available by the glass. The coffee was first-rate.
I wish Fuel the very best, but we won't make a point of returning.
Searching the web reveals a second Lewiston restaurant with significant aspirations. Called Fishbone's, it is run by culinary-school grads who talk in a website promotional video about mouth-feel and the like. Their approach to cooking fish is to "paint" it (their term) with many stripes of sauces: what appears on the video comes across looking like plates of nachos.
I have no particular problem with the review but if Lewiston's main street is as bad as described I'd be thankful for both restaurants and patronize them in hopes they succeed and attract others. Sounds like both took a risk and could use a little constructive criticism and support. But, that's just an urban planner talking, not a foodie.
Dual, thanks for the thorough review.
RC51Mike, I thought that what Dual was offering was indeed constructive criticism. Adding a dose of "professionalism" to the service and modifying portion sizes would seem to go a long way to improving the dining experience. Dual is also (indirectly) suggesting that we can support Fuel by enjoying dessert, a glass of wine, or an after-dinner drink.
As someone who is excited at the prospect of "revitalizing" historic riverfronts (Lewiston, Saco/Biddeford, Augusta, etc) I agree that it is important to support the "pioneering" retailers, restauranteurs, galleries, etc. Nevertheless, the pioneers cannot expect blind loyalty; they must offer something worthwhile to keep us coming.
A followup on Fishbones ( http://www.fishbonesag.com ): a friend recommended checking it out so I went there solo last night. Not good, I'm afraid (sorry Amie!).
Fishbones is in the former Bates Mill complex, which is undergoing an impressive renovation. The restaurant is attractive, the kind of exposed timbers-and-brick look you'd expect here. (One odd structural note is the complex steelwork in place apparently reinforcing the original wooden columns: maybe they moved very heavy equipment into the mill in its later years.)
Fishbones makes a point of its founders' backgrounds: Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales. Service is friendly, efficient and informal. Fishbones has no pretensions to being fancy or hip; it's a contemporary-American seafood restaurant whose menu also offers a substantial nonfish complement. As mentioned above, they emphasize 'painting' meals with stripes of colored sauces (check out photos at the website). I sat near the open kitchen and saw the chef's aresenal of squeeze bottles: they must have 20 to choose from. On the plate the sauces have the odd gloss of food industry product: I don't think these sauces are made on-site.
I'll make this as short as I can: Maine shrimp dumplings were presented in a large pool of the stuff, which was sweet and overpowered the mild-flavored seafood mixture in the dumplings. (No taste of Maine shrimp whatsoever, but it would have been frozen at this time of year.) Presented 80's-style on a wide-rimmed plate with chopped parsley dusted onto the rim.
Halibut wrapped in prosciutto and pan-roasted, with Provencal vegetables: cooked so long and at such high heat that billows of steam rose from the fish when I cut into it. Thus wildly overcooked to toughness. The prosciutto had gone armor-hard. Placed over a large unidfferentiated helping of rice and vegetables. Presented 80's sprinkle-style again. There wasn't much painting going on with this entree.
Dessert: fruit crisp- wasn't so, in the least.
This is just not my type of restaurant. It seems more engineered than anything else- at least Fuel seems to be coming from the heart.
(PS: wandering around the mill complex after dinner on a wonderful late-July evening I found a 2nd restaurant there: DaVinci's. Looks like mass-market Italian.)
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