The Maine course
September 20, 2007
A confession. I dine out a lot.Whether at home in Aspen, or, sadly on the all-too-many days that I am on the road, a restaurant frequently is a mainstay of my day. Not that I am complaining, mind you, as I love both food and drink and the people who prepare and serve it. Still, it is all too rare when one finds the perfect restaurant. On a recent Monday evening on the southern coast of Maine, I stumbled into what may become, for this week at least, my favorite restaurant in the known universe. Understand that what makes a great restaurant is a very subjective thing. While one person might prefer crusty sweetbreads and ever-so-lightly-cooked sea bass with their chardonnay, another’s idea of a tiptop meal might be spicy buffalo wings and a seared burger.I’m somewhere in the middle, which is what made this place so perfect. The restaurant is called The Ramp Bar and Grill, and it sits just off the lobster pier on Cape Porpoise, Maine, a spit of land not far in miles from Kennebunkport, but light years away in terms of attitude. Opened four years ago by chef Peter Morencey and his wife, Kate, who left San Francisco after cooking at a series of high-profile, high-pressure kitchens, The Ramp is located below the main restaurant called Pier 77, which features a little more upscale fare and music most nights.First the atmosphere: You park in a dirt lot that overlooks the fishing harbor that is filled with boats. Not the yachts you’ll find around the corner past the Bushs’ (as in No. 41 and No. 43) Walker Point compound, but honest-to-goodness New England lobster boats. To the east is Goat Island, and to the west, the best sunsets in all of Maine. You walk down a ramp, hence the name, and enter the packed Bar and Grill, which has just eight tables and maybe eight seats at the bar. With a dark wood ceiling, no higher than 10 feet, and dark wood floors and walls, it’s cozy, to say the least. The windows wrapping the place afford a view of the rising tide just below the bar.But it is the décor that attracts attention. Chris has put together a collection of sports and political memorabilia from both his days in San Francisco and New England that is first-class. There, above you, are Mondale-Ferraro posters, and above the bar a signed license plate from the Dominican Republic bearing San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal’s scribble. In the back is a poster for Charles Mingus headlining the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and a lineup card from a Red Sox game in 1976, signed by Don Zimmer with Fergie Jenkins getting the start. This stuff may not mean much to you, but they are the times of my life hanging in a bar in Maine.Then there is the food. Chris is a Culinary Institute of America grad, and his food reflects his passion for fresh, local ingredients. The clams, steamed in beer, thyme and oregano, were simply the best I’ve ever had – moist, meaty, chewy with the taste of the sea. The heirloom tomatoes, fresh from upstairs waitress Cookie’s gardens, with fresh mozzarella and a truffled balsamic vinegar were, hands down, the best tomatoes I have had in this, an excellent, tomato season.Add to that the equally serendipitous meeting of an old friend who sat next to me at the bar, a guy I had not seen in 25 years, and it was the perfect evening. The only downside was the loss, one in a continuing series of devastating losses suffered by the Boston Red Sox. Yet even that was poetic, as the Red Sox have a history of beautiful heartbreak.It was one night. One meal. But one day I shall return to The Ramp.