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Finding The Lost Kitchen

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Finding The Lost Kitchen (edge photos by Sheridan Adams)

One of Maine’s most extraordinary dining experiences

FREEDOM – 192. That was my lucky number.

It was April 1 and I was frantically dialing, over and over, trying to get a reservation for The Lost Kitchen. Me and a LOT of other people, as it turned out.

It’s all very simple. Reservations to the acclaimed off-the-beaten-path restaurant in tiny Freedom are on a first-come, first-served basis. So when midnight rolled around, people started calling. And calling. And calling. It was reported that the restaurant received as many as 10,000 phone calls in the first 24 hours.

There’s just one seating a night, Wednesday through Saturday from May through New Year’s Eve, a three-and-a-half hour culinary experience whose easy pacing encourages a depth of gustatory enjoyment not often found. There’s also one menu. Everybody eats the same thing … and they don’t know what that will be until they get there; the bill of fare is determined by what Chef Erin French’s network of farmers and suppliers provides on a given day.

Frankly, I’m grateful it only took 192 tries. I heard some numbers that were much higher – 300, 400, 500 calls. All in an effort to get through to leave a voice message which would in turn be returned in the order that it was received so that you might reserve a few of the 40 coveted seats for one of French’s delicate, dynamic multi-course feasts amidst the exposed wood and rustic charm of the converted grist mill that serves as The Lost Kitchen’s home.

It took days to hear back; thousands of phone calls can generate an impressive backlog. But I got my reservation, and chose my date – July 26. So how would I find The Lost Kitchen?

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There’s a lot to Erin French’s story. She grew up in the area, working at her family’s diner. She founded The Lost Kitchen in 2010 as a supper club operated out of her Belfast apartment; a year later, a restaurant of the same name in the space downstairs.

That first restaurant was highly acclaimed, but unforeseen struggles led to its eventual closing. From there, French operated a version of The Lost Kitchen out of a converted Airstream trailer before landing in the Mill at Freedom Falls, opening in June 2014.

The chef’s focus is on the multitude of local options when it comes to food. Her menu differs from day to day based on what sorts of things are made available to her by the many farmers and foodmakers in her locally-sourced network.

In short – you get what she’s got.

French’s latest endeavor has drawn attention from all over the food world and beyond, with various national publications taking notice of the experience being created in the one tiny Maine town.

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When you arrive at The Lost Kitchen, you’re directed to a parking lot across Sandy Stream from the restaurant. From there, you walk a path cut through tall grass that leads to a footbridge that spans the stream, the water’s gentle rushing serving as a soundtrack to your approach.

The mill itself – The Mill at Freedom Falls – was built in 1834, but had since fallen into disrepair. The town decided to restore the building; the process began in 2008. In 2012, the mill was entered in the Register of Historic Places and the physical rehabilitation of the space began not long afterward, taking approximately one year.

It is this lovingly-restored, unique space that Chef French has chosen to bring her vision to fruition.

After you’ve made your way over the footbridge, your first stop is the wine cellar. Due to outdated laws that remain on the books in Freedom, The Lost Kitchen is not legally allowed to sell alcohol. So you’ve got to buy it elsewhere and bring it yourself.

And it’s perfectly fine if “elsewhere” is “downstairs.”

This is when you get your first look at the menu for the evening, with copies placed at the door. A couple of people are performing sommelier duties, helping to guide you toward wines and other beverages that will pair well with the coming meal. Your purchases are rung up and placed in wicker baskets for you to carry with you upstairs to the restaurant proper.

(Also – there’s a fun little historic detour; a door off the wine cellar that leads to a display where you can learn about the mill’s workings and see some of the old equipment.)

The restaurant proper is one open room, with a large community table in the middle and a scattering of tables around it. The open kitchen is to your right as you enter, a space that somehow seems both plenty big enough and far too small for what will be asked of it. The walls are exposed wood, the windows are open to the breeze and the sounds of the stream passing beneath.

The tables and chairs are rustic and rough-hewn. The place settings are gently worn and not-necessarily matching. The pace is leisurely as we make our way to the six o’clock hour and the beginnings of dinner.

And just like that – it began.

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Starters

So it turns out that while the menu we had been presented downstairs featured detailed descriptions of four courses – soup, salad, entrée, dessert – there was much more to our upcoming experience than just that.

Our Lost Kitchen experience began with not one, not two, but three different starters – all presented and described at each table by Chef French herself - including one that was made special just for little old me.

Cheeseboard

This elegantly-constructed collection of delectables came out first. It was all very simple. A few cheeses from various local cheesemakers – a couple of soft cheese, a hard cheese, a delicious goat cheese. An assortment of salty-sour pickled business – some carrots, some olives. Perhaps the best sweet(ish) pickles I have ever had. And some still-warm soft crusty bread.

A nice, easy and above all delicious beginning to our dining experience.

Oysters

So one of the things that The Lost Kitchen asks when setting up your reservation is whether anyone in your party has any sort of food allergies. And we had one – no shellfish for me. This meant that I wasn’t able to participate in this one. My loss, apparently, because the consensus was that these oysters, topped with herbs and trout roe, might well have been the best oysters anyone of our party had ever had.

Don’t cry for me, though. Chef French delivered a little something special – a boiled egg featuring the same seasonings and such (minus the roe). She made a passing reference to “land oysters” that made us laugh. A small thing, but it really drove home the idea that she was fully and genuinely invested in giving every one of us a high-quality experience.

Stuffed Zucchini Blossom

Part of wanting to experience The Lost Kitchen was a desire to try and move out of my culinary comfort zone. I’m not a picky eater, but I’m not a particularly adventurous one. This was a chance for me to enjoy new things and/or familiar things in a new way.

Which brings us to these stuffed zucchini blossoms. Breaded, fried, filled with a rich ricotta blended with herbs – there was a richness in flavor that I would never have anticipated. Savory with just a flicker of sweet, this was easily my favorite of the starters.

From there, we received a tiny jadeite chicken filled with a dollop of lemon-basil sorbet; the perfect palate cleanser to prepare us for what was to come.

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Dinner

At this point, after all 40 places had been cleared, Chef French took to the front of the room and called for our attention.

After welcoming us all, she proceeded to walk us through the story of each dish that was coming our way – what ingredients inspired them, her personal feelings regarding them. In essence, it was a chance to find out where this food was coming from, both in terms of how it was raised and how it was prepared.

She also expressed her gratitude, thanking us for joining her on her journey and sharing this experience. She was charming and warm; the place was briefly transformed into what one imagines those earliest supper club nights must have been, with a feeling of genuine joy at being able to share that is obviously of incredible importance to her.

And with that, she raised her glass. We raised ours. And then? The hits kept coming.

Soup

Cold pea soup w/smoked ricotta, lobster, crème fraiche and mint

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I wasn’t apprehensive when I saw that the first course was going to be a cold pea soup. Particularly one in which one of the primary ingredients is something I shouldn’t eat.

But French had received a load of sweet peas – a big one – and so pea soup it was.

But oh, what a pea soup it was. Even without the lobster (thanks again for looking out, TLK), the fresh sweetness of the peas served as a compliment to the creamy base. The smoked ricotta balanced things nicely. And it was fresh as all get out.

Salad

Baby iceberg lettuce, first of the season cherry tomato, pancetta, blue velvet cheese and herbs

So this was apparently a Lost Kitchen first.

See, French apparently hates iceberg lettuce – residual resentment from her diner days, she said – but was given some heads of baby iceberg. Rather than fighting it, she embraced them, splitting them into the base of a lovely salad.

The cherry tomatoes – first of the season – were juicy. The pancetta added some texture and spice, while the blue velvet was smooth and just dense enough.

Entrée

Buttered black bass w/new potato, radicchio & olive, summer squash, dandelion & arugula, cucumber & basil

Full disclosure: I am not a regular eater of fish. This was another moment – perhaps the biggest – when I worried that the menu would somehow disappoint me.

So naïve.

These black bass filets were tender and moist and as buttery as any fish I’ve ever eaten. There was no trace of fishiness; the freshness ensured optimum flavor. Well – that and the preparation. The new potatoes were especially good, though the summer squash was also a highlight.

This. This course was why I wanted to eat here. To be drawn out of my culinary box by the sort of beautifully-prepared food that I might otherwise have missed.

Dessert

Frozen vanilla custard w/salted hazelnut brittle, blueberries & gooseberries, cream & honey

Last, but certainly not least – dessert.

This delight – with a consistency almost-but-not-quite like ice cream – made for a sweet end to the evening. There was an airiness to the vanilla flavor that contrasted with the salty crunch of the hazelnut brittle. The early blueberries were a bit tart, though not as tart as the gooseberries, a fruit of whom I had never before made an acquaintance. This flavor combination – particularly when set against the whipped cream and the hint of honey – was dynamite.

I’ll admit to lingering a little over this dish – despite having been there for over three hours, I still wasn’t ready to leave. But eventually, there was nothing left to spoon up.

Dinner was over.

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But the experience wasn’t. Not yet.

See, it isn’t enough for Chef French to extend her gratitude to the group. She wants to speak to each individual who made the effort to be with her on a particular evening – one of scores that she’ll do over the course of the season – and say thanks.

And so she did.

She is undeniably sincere in those feelings; one gets the impression that she’s still not altogether convinced it’s all really happening. My wife said that it was like eating with a friend, so genuine is French’s affection for her diners.

She signed a couple of copies of her cookbook - “The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine” (Clarkson Potter, $32.50) is for sale on site and wherever books are sold. She took plenty of pictures – both with people and for people. She even dutifully laughed at my stupid joke about finding the place that she has likely heard approximately one trillion slight variations of over the years.

While all reservations are long since booked, a wait list is opened each month. Follow The Lost Kitchen on Facebook to keep abreast of what’s going on. And who knows? You might just get lucky.

Meanwhile, you better believe that I’ll be marking April 1, 2018 on my calendar. And I’ll be more than happy to make another 200 phone calls if it means I get the opportunity to enjoy this again. All of it – the effort, the cost, everything – it’s a thousand percent worth it.

The Lost Kitchen is a beautiful place. Erin French is a brilliant chef. It truly is a dining experience unlike anything you’ve done before.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 August 2017 10:19

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