Review: Francine's

Coastal magnificence
By BRIAN DUFF  |  June 10, 2011

TENDER, BRINY, SALTY Francine’s stuffed squid.

Some days Maine is so nice it seems like a theme park version of a state. Last week offered such a day, especially if you drove to Camden to hike the big hill, see the famous view, and stop afterwards for dinner at the remarkable bistro Francine. That day even the convicts at the prison store in Thomaston seemed upbeat and immune to recidivism. The hilltop view seemed to deserve the poem that Edna Millay wrote about it, with its simple Disneyesque rhymes and rhythm.

On such a day the many charms of Francine combine into something transcendent: the Christmas lights on the patio out front; the adorable hostess who earnestly answered several questions a little wrong, finally admitting it was her first night on the job; the little "yes" printed on the door to what you suspect might be the bathroom. The space is both cozy and beautiful. The talented chef is a handsome surfer and former rocker — the sort of chef a script-writer might make up. The house red is dry with tannins and pungent with peat. Fish is local and line-caught. The menu makes liberal use of unusual ingredients (nettles, shore greens) supplied by the eclectic house-forager. I mean, come on!

Francine | 55 Chestnut St, Camden | Tues-Sat 5:30-10 pm | Visa/MC/Amex/Disc | 207.230.0083

The waiters are the sort of total professionals that you don't miss until you encounter one, offering descriptions of each dish that were imaginative and spot-on — including the one that talked us into a great choice: the stuffed squid. The white pouch of the body had been roasted to a toothsome-tender, and stuffed with a rich, salty mix of sourdough and chewy soppressata. Crunchy ramp mingled with a bright green sage sauce, and a few purple tentacles that were soft and briny. More modestly great was a pizza made with mild and crunchy sauerkraut, a creamy mustard aioli, and big slices of fatty kielbasa. With its light, soft-and-crisp crust, it was just as our waitress had described it: like a really great hot dog.

A deep-red rock crab risotto, topped with more crabmeat, was so utterly crabby it was like a crab had crawled into your brain, or perhaps you had been reborn as Sebastian from The Little Mermaid and could taste your own palate. The aforementioned shore greens — goose tongue — were seawater-salty and delicious. They were prepared like a sort of refined green-bean casserole, with plenty of cheese and chewy country ham. The line-caught local fish was a halibut, simply prepared with minimal roasting, and simultaneously delicate and meaty. On top was a tomato confit, and beneath a divine sauce made from wild green garlic (foraged, of course). Dessert: a dark, rich chocolate and malbec pudding. Seriously, come on!

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