Eats: The Tavern at Brunswick Station

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To say that Kevin Cunningham, executive chef at The Inn at Brunswick Station, “loves food” would be an understatement. The dishes that he creates and the atmosphere that he has cultivated at the inn’s tavern speak volumes of his passion for the art of cooking, and eating.

Cunningham, who grew up in Massachusetts and graduated from Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island, has lived in Lewiston for about eight years. Though he has worked in restaurants around LA, he has been with The Tavern at Brunswick Station since the day it opened, just over two years ago.

“The tavern is for everyone, not just for guests of the inn,” says Cunningham. “Our (patrons) show up in shorts and sneakers, as well as suits and dresses . . . the public is welcome and (it’s) not pretentious or overpriced.”

Breakfast at the tavern begins every day at 7 a.m., with the “all-day menu” serving from 11 a.m. on. A number of additional entrees are reserved for the dinner hours, which begin at 5 p.m. and end late, at 11 p.m.

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Cunningham notes that “on the all-day menu we have the basics (and) simple sandwiches,” but that menu is far from simplistic.

For starters, or perhaps a lunch in and of itself, one might choose the strawberry spinach salad accompanied by the tavern’s light and fragrant homemade focaccia bread. With candied pecans, goat cheese and a honey balsamic vinaigrette, it is light and not too sweet. According to Cunningham, “the fruit changes with the season,” and this salad has sometimes been offered with a roasted peach or dried apricot.

Though the soup offerings change daily, vegan and gluten-free soups are always available and often include a carrot ginger puree or a black bean tomato cilantro. Always on the menu, the clam chowder is “lighter and brothier” than most.

Along with some standards, the sandwich menu includes creative items such as the chicken salad croissant, made with apple and walnut, and the roasted mushroom and hummus panini with roasted peppers and grilled onions, served on a baguette. Several sides are offered; the house-made kettle chips are crisp and hearty.

The tavern’s crab cakes are made with lots of crab meat and just a little onion, celery and seasoning, but Cunningham won’t give up the recipe. “We wrote this recipe when we opened,” boasts Cunningham, topping the crab cakes with a flavorful remoulade. (“Remoulade,” he explains, “is basically an egg white-based sauce . . . a mixture of salty and sweet,” that he makes a day in advance so the flavors will have time to marry.

All of the tavern’s seafood comes from the coast of Maine. “I’ve lived by the sea my whole life,” says Cunningham, and “if I can drive to the ocean, then scallops are on my menu.” And when it comes to scallops, he adds, “the bigger the better.”

Since Day 1, the sea scallops and lobster risotto has been far and away the tavern’s most popular dinner entree.

When searing scallops, Cunningham recommends that you heat the oil until it starts smoking before you put the scallops in the pan. When you turn the scallop, the top should be an attractive and uneven golden brown with ripples “like the sea,” he says. “When you start seeing moisture pop out of the top, it means they’re ready.”

“We use the claw and knuckle meat” when making the sea scallops and lobster risotto, as well as fresh asparagus, a blend of parmesan and pecorino cheeses, and a generous scoop of Cunningham’s “secret lobster cream.” “Scallop and asparagus,” he adds, “are the tomato’s best friends.”

“The sea scallops and lobster risotto is my favorite meal on the menu,” says server Mia Clark, who might recommend pairing it with a sauvignon blanc or a pinot grigio from the tavern’s wine list.

The parmesan-crusted baked hake has also been on the menu since Day 1.

Thicker than most white fish, hake cooks just like cod or haddock. Though it’s thicker, “it’s lighter in texture.” Hake is “sweet, happy, light and flaky,” says Cunningham. “It’s also local, fresh, good and sustainable.”

To cook the hake, explains Cunningham, you need to “make sure the oil is hot.” So hot, in fact, that “it shivers.” Pan searing fish isn’t difficult, but Cunningham admits that it can be intimidating: “Put it in the pan and leave it alone.” After flipping the hake, he tops it with a parmesan crust and slides it into a hot oven to finish the cooking process. According to Cunningham, “you poke beef” to test for doneness, but “you pinch fish.” If it flakes, it’s done.

Many of Cunningham’s dishes include shallots. A shallot “isn’t a garlic and it’s not a scallion,” he says. “Shallots are our friend. Onions will coat the tongue, shallots will entice the tongue.”

When preparing the parmesan-crusted baked hake, Cunningham recommends sauteing the shallots until they are fragrant, then add the salt and pepper.

When it comes to cooking with wine, Cunningham’s advice is “the cheaper the better!”

Wines with less sugar in them will burn off. “The flavors won’t stick,” he says. Whereas, when you use a “sugary white wine,” the flavor will “layer itself on the food.”

Earthy tasting and textured, roasted fingerling potatoes are served with the pan-seared parmesan-crusted hake, as well as freshly sauteed heirloom zucchini and toy box squash. The vegetable offering may change daily, depending on what’s fresh, but this popular item is always on the menu. As with shallots, Cunningham recommends that you “season after you get your veggies to become fragrant.”

From sea to land, the braised short ribs have “been around since Day 1 and is one of the more popular (choices).” It’s a boneless rib that is cooked for more than 6 hours, and its Cunningham’s favorite dish on the menu.

Likewise, the tavern’s house-cut sirloin, which sometimes changes to a fillet or rib eye “for variety” or to take advantage of what is available, is “grilled to perfection,” according to the menu, and served with side dishes and fresh vegetables.

The tavern’s fish and chips, served with “house-made tartar sauce” and generous French fries, is made with beer-battered local hake, giving this dish “a certain sweetness,” according to Cunningham.

From fresh vegetables to local honey, “there are great farms here,” says Cunningham, who say buying local and fresh is high on his list of priorities. “This is the essence of Maine,” he explains, and from our exciting local land and seafood harvests to our magnificent scenery and rich cultural heritage, it’s what people come here to experience.

For dessert, the tavern offers a number of handmade desserts, including the lemon cake, Clark’s favorite. According to the menu, it has a “limoncello mascarpone cheese filling” and is served with a blueberry compote.

Cunningham, who often comes out of the kitchen to chat with his patrons, enjoys and takes his diner’s comments to heart, and then back into the kitchen.

Recognizing that many of his patrons have dietary concerns or limitations, “a lot of (our offerings are) vegetarian, vegan and gluten free,” says Cunningham, who trains his staff to know about food allergies and to stay vigilant with respect to cross contamination.

Cunningham and the tavern also enjoy involvement in community activities. “We have ‘beer vs. wine’ dinners about five times a year,” says Cunningham. Dishes are served with a small pairing of both beer and wine, and patrons are given the opportunity to judge for themselves and discuss their preferences.

“It’s a fun and interactive event” that Cunningham says has converted some exclusive wine aficionados to beer, and vice versa.

Although “we also have a 120-seat banquet room” for larger functions, “we’re a tavern,” he says, “with a beautiful patio complete with a fire pit and jazz on Monday nights,” and other musical genres on Wednesdays.

But it’s really about the food: “It’s comfort food, done exceptionally well,” Cunningham says.

The Tavern at Brunswick Station

4 Noble St.

Brunswick, Maine 04011

837-6565 telephone

837-6566 fax

innatbrunswickstation.com

The tavern serves from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week.

Spinach strawberry salad

Serves 4

(For salad)

8 cups fresh baby spinach, washed

2 cups fresh strawberries, washed and sliced

1 cup candied pecans, chopped roughly

1/2 cup fresh goat cheese, crumbled

(For dressing)

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons fresh clover honey

2 tablespoons shallots, minced fine

10 ounces (liquid measure) balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

10 ounces (liquid measure) vegetable oil

Directions:

In a food processor add mustard, honey and shallots. Turn on food processor. While food processor is running add all of vinegar.

Slowly drizzle in extra virgin oil and then slowly add the vegetable oil until you achieve a good emulsification. Transfer dressing to a storage container. You will have extra.

In a large bowl toss spinach, pecans and strawberries with 1 cup of dressing. You can add more if you like.

Transfer to your plates, making sure to move the spinach first, otherwise the strawberries and pecans will mostly fall to the bottom. Top the coated spinach with the pecans and strawberries.

Crumble goat cheese over the top and serve.

Notes: You can change the berries out seasonally with blueberries or roasted peaches or even fresh chunks of apple. It’s a great seasonal salad you can do a lot with.

Parmesan-crusted hake with lemon blanc sauce

Serves 2

2 fresh hake fillets, about 6 ounces each

2 ounces vegetable oil, divided

Salt and pepper as needed

1 tablespoon fresh shallots, minced

1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice

1/4 cup white wine

3 tablespoons cold butter, cubed, divided

1 cup Ritz crackers

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Directions:

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. In food processor add Ritz crackers, cheese and parsley. Pulse 4 or 5 times until crackers are crushed and well blended. Set aside for later use.

Place a 9-inch heavy-bottom pan on high heat.

Season hake on both sides with salt and pepper

Get pan hot, and I mean hot! Add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil and swirl to coat. Gently add your two pieces of fish. There will be some sizzling and possibly a little flair-up, but that’s OK. Use tongs if you’re uncomfortable.

Leave the fish alone! You will be tempted to nudge it or look under it, but leave it alone for 3 minutes on high heat.

Gently work a spatula under the fish and flip it over. You should see a nice browned crust. Turn off the stove.

Top the fish with your prepared parmesan cheese and Ritz topping.

Add 1 tablespoon of cold butter and place the whole pan in the oven uncovered for 3 minutes.

Place a small saute pan over medium heat and add remaining vegetable oil.

Once hot, add shallots and saute for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Season with salt and pepper

Add white wine and lemon juice. Reduce for 30 seconds. Whisk in butter, one piece at a time.

Remove hake from oven. Remove to plates and top with sauce.

Enjoy

Notes: Pan searing fish can be a little challenging, but if you have a good heavy-bottom pan and use the oven to control the cooking of the second side you should be fine.

When checking fish for done-ness, pinch it slightly from the sides; the center should separate slightly into flakes.

Short cakes

(Yield: 12)

Ingredients:

4 cups flour

1 1/4 tablespoons baking powder

1 1/4 tablespoons sugar, granulated

1/2 tablespoon salt

1 1/3 cups buttermilk

2 eggs

1/3 cups butter, melted and cooled

Preparation

Mix dry ingredients in bowl or mixer.

Whisk together eggs and buttermilk in separate bowl. Whisk in melted butter.

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix. If using mixer, use setting 1 for 1 minute, scrapping down paddle and bowl once.

Using a greased 1/2-cup measuring cup, scoop out dough onto parchment-lined pan leaving 1.5 to 2 inches between each biscuit. Scoop should be a little mounded.

Sprinkle with natural cane sugar on top.

Bake in 425-degree oven for 15 minutes until golden brown on top.

Let cool before service.

To serve

1. Use a fork to split the biscuit

2. On bottom biscuit, ladle 2 ounces of fruit then 2 ounces of fresh whipped cream then 2 more ounces of fruit. Put top on and add a dollop of whipped cream.

Peach topping

(Yield: 1 quart)

4 cups peaches, peeled and fresh diced

2 cups peaches, unpeeled, fresh diced

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

Preparation

In a medium pot over medium heat cook peeled peaces with both sugars.

Let simmer for at least 30 minutes until topping becomes thick. Be careful: This is hot sugar and can cause very bad burns with only a drop.

Transfer topping to a heat-proof container and refrigerate until cool.

Add unpeeled peaches to cooled topping.

Keep refrigerated until use.

Strawberry topping

(Yield: 1 quart)

2 1/2 quarts fresh strawberries, diced

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup balsamic glaze

Preparation

In a medium pot over medium heat simmer 1 1/2 quarts of strawberries and the granulated sugar for 30 minutes until it starts to become thick. Be careful: This is hot sugar and can burn with a tiny drop.

Transfer to heat-proof container and let cool.

Once cool, mix in remaining strawberries and balsamic glaze.

Keep cool until ready to serve.

Blueberry topping

(Yield: 1 quart)

2 quarts fresh blueberries

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Preparation

In a medium pot over medium heat cook 1.5 quarts of berries, the sugar and the lemon juice. Let cook until it gets thick, about 30 minutes. Be careful: You are working with hot sugar. A tiny drop and burn you

Once thick transfer to a heat-proof container and let cool.

Once cool, stir in remaining fresh berries.

Keep cool until ready to serve.

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