It’s paradise for the palate – music in your mouth. In fact it’s hard to hold back tears of gratitude when a plate of steaming, fragrant crab cake eggs benedict is set before you, inches from a basket of fresh bread, biscuits and velvety blueberry muffins. Add a snowshoes-on-the-walls decor, views of winter fishing on an ice-bound lake, flames from an august fieldstone fireplace and a bear hug from the owner, and clearly you’re not in Kansas anymore. As the great god of gastronomy would have it, you’re right here in Poland, at Cyndi’s Dockside, the aroma of warm strawberry stick pastries running a close second to nothing.

For Cyndi Robbins, owner of Cyndi’s Dockside and a New England hospitality fixture in her own right, the journey from 16-year-old Poland Spring Inn waitress to owner and proprietor of the Poland Spring Resort has also culminated, for the time being, in Cyndi’s Dockside. Owner, chef and many other things for more than three decades at the venerated Poland Spring Resort with husband Mel, who passed away in 2007, the indefatigable Robbins deftly wears many hats, attributing her omnipresence to a team of longtime managers she calls “the Poland Spring family.”

For example, there’s John Piper, the Cyndi’s Dockside executive chef/kitchen manager, who began his tenure across the street at the resort when he was also just 16, leaving only to hone his skills at culinary school. Subsequently working in Boca Raton, Fla., and at The Balsams in New Hampshire, Piper returned home about 20 years ago largely to work with Cyndi and Mel, according to Robbins. Dockside restaurant manager Betty Campbell, also originally working across the street, has been with the “family” for seven years.

A boat, a beach and a dream

“When I was a kid living on Middle Range Pond, I’d take a little fishing boat down to the beach house, which was falling down,” Robbins said of the genesis of Cyndi’s Dockside, pointing to a structure across from the restaurant. “I used to dream of fixing it up. And when Mel and I bought the property, the beach house was the first building we renovated,” she recalled.

Upon completion of the beach house, Robbins said that though she did not initially own the real estate that is now the restaurant and grounds, she’d sit at the beach house and watch the transformation of the nearby property from marina to marina campground, as its last owner, psychotherapist and Omni Camps owner Dr. Gar Roper, created a bar and limited eating establishment on the premises. Weeks after Roper passed away on Dec. 14, 2007, Robbins bought the building that is now Cyndi’s Dockside, opening at the end of June 2008, with plans to feature only takeout food. With wait service quickly a necessity given summer seating that accommodates 200, including an outdoor pavilion and deck, and winter space that comfortably seats 110, a full service Sunday brunch (no buffets here!) was instituted in November 2010.

On this particular Sunday, the first of the New Year, Cyndi’s Dockside is teeming with activity that includes two substantial parties, one of 16 firmly established downstairs and another (table for 15!) scheduled shortly for an upper-level space. Cherie and Butch Downing of Poland, though Cyndi’s Dockside veterans, concede this is their first time for brunch and they plan to make it a habit. Suzanne and J.P. Koop of Michigan, nursing mimosas and bloody Mary’s with friends and family, explained that Cyndi’s is a tradition each time they visit Maine, with the restaurant’s new brunch something they will anticipate from now on.

Backstage at the bistro

At Cyndi’s, with prep quarters more galley-like than gargantuan, typical restaurant kitchen chaos and decibel levels have been replaced by a spirit of cooperation and organization more like synchronized swimming or a Bach string quartet. Under John Piper’s baton, there’s harmony in the home fries.

In addition to Piper, Chef John Caron (who worked briefly with Piper at Bates College), line cook Corey Oster and Jack-of-all-trades Nick Leighton finish each other’s omelets and sentences. The result: happily heaping platters of hot sweet potato fries, fresh corned beef hash, robust lobsters clutching lemon wedges (available for the asking from a big tank in front) and crispy seasoned home fries. Descended from a long line of culinary commandos, Caron revealed that his grandfather owned Caron’s Catering back in the day, and an uncle currently teaches culinary arts at Lewiston High School. Another chef, Wayne Jarboe, also keeps things humming during the week.

With four items typically on the brunch menu including towering pillows of cinnamon French toast stuffed with strawberry “creme” cheese (bread is from Harvest Hill Farms in Mechanic Falls), technology-directed Caron revealed that menu choices and special s — both for brunch and other meals — are often selected democratically with readers’ votes and ideas posted to the restaurant’s Facebook page.

“Brunch is very new for us,” Robbins affirmed, with an eye toward trumpeting the venture. Given her culinary team and the Robbins legacy, it won’t be new for long.

Cyndi’s Dockside winter hours:

Thursday 4 – 9 p.m.

Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Sunday. 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., with brunch, at a prix fixe cost of $9.99, served from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

RECIPES:

Crab Cake Eggs Benedict

1 cup crab meat (frozen or fresh)

1 cup mayonnaise

1 cup panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup minced red pepper

All ingredients below are a dash of (or to taste):

Old Bay seasoning

Black pepper

Lemon juice

Granulated onion

Granulated garlic

Worcestershire sauce

Dijon mustard

More panko bread crumbs

Fold all ingredients together, except for the extra bread crumbs. Do not over mix. Form into 2.5-ounce patties. Press both sides of the crab cakes in the extra panko bread crumbs and pan sear in butter until golden brown.

Hollandaise Sauce (for the Eggs Benedict)

4 egg yolks

Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted (1 stick)

A pinch cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce

Pinch salt

Vigorously whisk the egg yolks and lemon juice together in a stainless steel bowl until the mixture is thickened and doubles in volume. Place the bowl over a saucepan containing barely simmering water (or use a double boiler); water should not touch the bottom of the bowl. Continue to whisk rapidly. Be careful not to let the eggs get too hot or they will scramble. Slowly drizzle in melted butter and continue to whisk until sauce is thickened and doubles in volume again. Remove from heat, whisk in cayenne and salt. Cover and place in a warm spot until ready to use for Eggs Benedict.

Stuffed French Toast

1/4 pound cream cheese (softened)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup confectioners sugar

1/4 cup half and half

1/4 cup frozen strawberries with juice

1 loaf cinnamon swirl bread (sliced thick)

2 eggs

1/2 cup milk

Combine all ingredients except for the bread, eggs and milk, mixing well in mixer until whipped. Beat together the eggs and milk and soak two slices of bread in the mixture. On a griddle cook the two pieces of cinnamon swirl bread. Remove and add cream cheese mixture and strawberries between the two slices of bread. Top with whipped cream. Repeat with as many slices as desired.


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