Ok, first step is to go back to my 5/25/2014 post: "the BBQ that lead to the food coma." Read that. Now jump to present day. Pivotal experiences, like working for my good friend Layne in Wisconsin and meeting Chef Paul back in May, have opened the door to trying new things put in front of me, no matter what they are. Meeting Chef Paul also opened up the opportunity to visit the new restaurant where he is the executive chef. Last night I went to Rails, the BEST new restaurant in Maine.
The understated but remarkable building itself was built in 1874 and was once the Grand Trunk Railway ticket office. It was considered the "Ellis Island" of Lewiston as numerous French-Canadian immigrants passed through this railway station. Everything from its interior decor to its historical past, (not to mention the mind blowing, "Oh-my-god" thought inducing menu) was perfect from start to finish. I drove up with Chef Paul's wife and their good friend last night to get the full experience.
We started with a tour: downstairs to the basement and the location of the brand-new and very clean kitchen! It could not have been a better set-up, the whole place proclaimed productivity and perfection. There were endless spices (and speaking of spices, not one piece of food we consumed need a touch of salt, pepper or otherwise) above the prep table and an assistant shucking Brussels sprouts for their signature Brussels chips (deep fried Brussels sprouts leaves, brown butter, fresh herbs, and Parmesan cheese) nearby. I could have stayed down there to watch everything unfold but there was food to be eaten!
Next, we went upstairs to tour the dining area which consisted of one large dining room, a small room in the back (for future private events, I'm told) and a small bar area as well. The bar space was my favorite area because, even though it was small, its character was immense. There was a full bar, including three sparkling wines, nine whites, thirteen reds, local Maine Craft Distillery Artisan Spirits (located on Fox Street in Portland), plus "normal" stuff like Malibu rum, Pinnacle vodka and others, numerous beers and non-alcoholic options. There is also an incredible "Rails" sign in lights and pieces of the old railroad worked into the decor, which was fascinating and beautiful. And this is going to sound very strange but the bathrooms were the most simple but lovely restrooms I've ever been in.
When it was time to sit down, we were at odds about what to order. There are ten entree options and we wanted seven of them. The other three were only discounted based on personal tastes as I'm not in love with haddock, mushrooms or ratatouille. But knowing Chef Paul, those three could have been placed in front of me and I would have swooned over them. After much debate and the urge to order a bottle of sauvignon blanc (Infamous Goose), we chose The Southern Rail ("duck breast with a touch of smoke, savory apple-cranberry crisp with sweet potato pecan crumble, seasonal roasted vegetables, vanilla chard sauce), Maine Line Surf & Turf ("blueberry porcini dusted filet, single-malt marinated mussels, wild mushrooms") and the unique and unstoppable Chicken Scratch ("fried Common Wealth Farms chicken breast, short-stack of corn cakes, soft-poached egg in potato hay nest, BBQ syrup, bacon butter"). The runners up were the Grand Trunk Pork ("bacon-wrapped Berkshire pork tenderloin, scallion rice patty, sweet chili-almond-date chutney") (I saw this on the line when we were in the kitchen and knew I had to have it someday) and Field & Stream ("venison and pork meatballs in Swedish gravy, barley-crab-smoked Gouda fritter").
Mais oui, this was a special occasion so Chef Paul had something up his sleeve. After ordering the wine and settling in, Chef himself brought up our first course: a deluxe charcuterie plate. This consisted of so many dreamy things: sweet Wee Bit Farm sausage, roasted garlic cloves, house-made boursin cheese, McLelland scotch soaked cranberries, cara cara navel orange sections, sweet chili glazed almonds, house-made pate (pork and black truffle mousse with a layer of duck and pink peppercorn throughout), a venison and pork Swedish meatball, house-made sweet jerky and dehydrated Swiss chard stems (think sweet veggie jerky!), cold-poached filet mignon, grilled oyster mushrooms (I don't love mushrooms but..........yum!!), mango and sweet shallot gastrique (a favorite taste sensation) plus anything else I may have forgotten!! This course was eaten in so many different combinations both alone and on grilled toast pieces.
Our second course, hand delivered and created that night by the genius himself, was a funnel cake with fois gras and maque choux. Hold on, let me explain: First off, I haven't had funnel cake since I left Texas for good over a decade ago. All Maine has to offer is fried dough...not the same. This funnel cake was laced with cumin and Old Bay spices. The fois gras was seared on the grill and oh so tender. The maque choux is an accompaniment of corn and jalapenos. The whole scene was surrounded by coconut sauce with roasted garlic/parsley oil and hazelnut mustard. This dish knocked it out of the metaphorical park.
My dinner companions started to get full before I did and dinner was still to come. As I watched other dishes brought to other tables, my excitement to taste even more creations grew. When Chef Paul and others brought our entrees to our table, I physically salivated. I'm not going to lie, I'm an incredible order-er so my meal was my favorite. I opted for the Chicken Scratch. This locally sourced chicken, marinated in buttermilk and stuffed with herbs, is Chef Paul's take on chicken and waffles. The "waffles" are actually corn pancakes with bacon butter on top (salty and food-gasmic in itself) and the dish is served with BBQ maple syrup. I wanted to eat the whole dish at once but saved myself from a food coma as I still had dessert and a drive ahead of me. J and L were served the Southern Rail and Maine Line Surf & Turf. The former was a medium-rare duck breast blessed with a glass dome "smoking gun" device that gives the meat a slight smoky flavor without overpowering anything. It was incredibly tender and served with Peruvian Blue potatoes, Fingerling potatoes and Brussels sprouts with a vanilla Anglaise rosemary sauce. This meal wouldn't be complete without its surprising apple-cranberry crisp with black truffle mousse below and a sweet potato pecan crumble above. Finally, rounding out the table was the Maine Line Surf & Turf. This creation was a pan-seared Sous Vide filet mignon (sous vide is a water bath that cooks eggs, meat, whatever to PERFECTION), mussels poached with garlic and Maine Craft Distillery single malt and butter (of course). The Wisconsin-sourced filet was dusted with porcini powder and all was served alongside oyster and shiitake mushrooms and a blueberry demi-glaze all around.
You would think that by dessert, I would be ready to fold but no!, I was made for this. I should have been a competitive eater. But I can't eat fast, only slowly, enjoying each bite. Dessert options were numerous but we settled on the Velvet Monkey ("bittersweet chocolate mousse, caramelized banana, caramel sauce"). This rich 82% Belgium chocolate created mousse was served deluxe style, with Chef Paul's famous truffles (he had his own truffle business in Cape Cod for years!), fresh raspberry sauce, passion fruit sorbet (with and without cayenne pepper), and pina colada sauce draping the board. The two types of truffles were masterful and were "Porky Pig" with apple smoked bacon fat and chocolate and the "Duke Ellington" with single malt scotch and cranberries. Yes, I will admit to actually licking the board clean once we (read: I) finished off the desserts. Other desserts we did not try this time include items like rosemary ice cream, key lime/goat cheese cheesecake, and an incredible-sounding Grand Marnier flourless chocolate tart. All dreamy in their own way!
As a whole, this place does not throw much out and, if you know me at all, you know how much I'm excited by the fact that Rails feeds its extra food waste to the owner's pigs. They are also proponents of the local food movement as well as everything being made from scratch. Is it slightly more expensive because as much a s possible is sourced from local farms, communities and economies? Perhaps, but that only means you are paying for a quality you can't find everywhere. Even the serving boards were custom-made by local carpenters (McIntosh and Tuttle Cabinetmakers) who also did the finishing work for the place. Cage-free, range-free, hormone-free are all in their everyday vocabulary and the Lewiston community should be proud to have such a sustainable and responsible business in their midst.
When you're at Rails, I'm so sorry, but the night is not about you. It's all about the food and how it makes you feel, how it brings you and your companions together and how happy you will leave. The decor is low-key and historically saturated with pictures and pieces of the old railroad, church and more. It's a beautiful location in an incredible building that I will visit again and again to sample all that Chef Paul and his talented staff have to offer. I urge you to make the drive and do the same!
You can find the lunch, bar and dinner menus here: http://railsmaine.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2014/12/Rails-Menu.pdfs