A moose and two businessmen walk into a bar . . .

OK, well not exactly a bar, but the bourbon steak tips, fresh Mako shark, St. Louis-style BBQ ribs and lobster club sandwiches on thick-cut bread at Moose Creek Grille are just as intoxicating, and the two businessmen who own it, brothers Mike and Claude Cloutier, clearly want you to let your hair down and just have at it.

Located on the former Little Dan’s BBQ site across the street from Lewiston landmark Marden’s, and a convenient mile from RC & Sons Paving — the Cloutiers’ family business since 1976 — the brothers conceded they opened the restaurant in May largely because they like to eat. They’re also deeply inspired by the sight of a good moose now and then (hence the name) at their family camp in Rangeley, and in fact have been known to drive around scouting for them. A stuffed toy moose trophy hangs over the back bar.

“I look at it that restaurants are not much different than the paving business,” Mike said of their virgin venture. “You need to have at least a good product, good customer service and good people. We actually have a great product, great customer service and great people, and a chef/kitchen manager who is completely imaginative.”

To that end, Bill Mellish, 32, a trained Johnson & Wales chef who apprenticed with celebrated German chef Heino Koberg in Pennsylvania, and in his 20s took over Koberg’s restaurant for 18 months when his mentor was called overseas, mandates that staff be passionate both about food and people.

Feeding four young children — William, Justice, Jasmine and Alexa — at home with fresh, inventive, from-scratch recipes (“You can’t feed them chicken nuggets three times a week,” he says), Mellish maintains that giving customers the best meal they can get starts from the ground up. In fact, in the beginning, he recalls the Cloutiers ordering pre-cut meat from their food supplier.

“I wanted to stop the truck when I found out what was coming,” Mellish said, opting to hand cut his protein. “I don’t want pre-fab anything.”

He also relies largely on regional produce and vendors including Vincent Fruit Company, Town & Country Foods, Gendron Farm, Blackie’s and Bourque’s. “It’s essential that we all help each other out,” Mellish said of the local economy.

Smoke and eggs

The child of a bitter divorce, at age 5 Mellish entered and spent six years in the system before being returned to his alcoholic father, now in recovery. Left considerably alone in his father’s house, he taught himself to cook at age 11 by “burning a lot of eggs and water.”

After about a year, he’d learned to make pasta and so much more. Since that time, Mellish explained, food has been a consuming passion to the extent that he had two food industry jobs throughout high school, one from 3 to 7 a.m., and another after school from 4 to 9 p.m. The same work ethic followed him to the Moose Creek Grille, where the Cloutiers say their chef worked almost round-the-clock, seven days a week, for months to design the menu and help establish the staff, never taking a day off until mid-July.

At a recent staff meeting, Mellish freely gave out kudos to employees, including about a dozen kitchen staff who were lauded for giving 100 percent, though he asked them to consider ratcheting it up to 150.

Crediting Mellish with the depth and scope of the 85-plus item breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, and the panache of their ever-changing specials (think sweet eggplant rollatini made with fresh ricotta), the Cloutiers also acknowledge lead waitress Crystal Jacobs and General Manager John Thibeau (both Mellish and Thibeau came over from the Ramada Inn) with motivating a staff that includes Claude’s daughter Taylor, 18, a college student.

“We didn’t see ourselves being day-to-day managers. We didn’t want a second job for ourselves, we wanted a second business,” Claude said, adding that assembling a dedicated team like the one they have was integral to the endeavor.

Of moose and men

Regarding his predilection for all things moose, Mike avowed he is definitely not a hunter.

“I went hunting once, walking through the woods like Elmer Fudd,” he recalled. “I had a gun and all of a sudden a bird took off — a partridge. Scared the heck out of me.”

Preferring to train their sights on the people of Lewiston/Auburn rather than the animals, the brothers and Chef Mellish have instituted “twofer Tuesday” (couples can dine on a multi-course meal for about $25 plus tax). A $29.99-plus-tax family grille that serves four is always on the menu with chicken, ribs, steak tips and three sides, and a 7-day-a-week policy is in place where diners bringing in a pay stub from a local company get 10 percent off a meal.

“My vision of food is that anybody can make a meatloaf,” Mellish said, “but why not make it different.”

Imagination in hand, the chef identified an overstuffed meatloaf soon to be on the menu that’s all-Angus beef, 3 inches high, cut in half, with Monterey Jack cheese, bacon and fresh green onions in the center, and baked.

“You’ve got to find that little purple area in life. It’s not all black-and-white,” Mellish said of his colorful food philosophy. “Thirty years from now, I’d like to still be sitting here and have seen this place blossom.”

Fruits de Mer

Ingredients:

Four puff pastry shells, each 3 inches in diameter

10 ounces fresh swordfish

1 pound (21 to 25) raw shrimp

10 ounces scallop pieces

8 ounces clear meat lobster

2 pounds fresh mussels

2 cups heavy cream

2 ounces butter (for sauteing)

Flour for dredging

1 small shallot, minced

1 teaspoon white pepper

1 pinch kosher salt

2 teaspoons lobster base

2 ounces cognac

fresh chopped parsley

Directions:

Heat a 12-inch saute pan. Add two ounces butter. Dredge the swordfish, shrimp and scallops in flour and add to saute pan. Season with white pepper and salt and saute for about two minutes. Add mussels and one teaspoon minced shallots. Saute an additional two minutes, making sure not to overcook scallops and shrimp. Gently add two ounces cognac. Deglaze pan. Add two teaspoons lobster base, two cups heavy cream and lobster meat. Cook for another three minutes until liquid is reduced by half — sauce should be creamy and silky in texture. Remove from heat. Place heated puff pastry shells on plate and divide seafood mixture evenly over tops of puff pastry. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley.

Note: To heat puff pastry shells, put in a 350 degree oven for about three minutes. Serves four.

Moose Creek Grille

757 Main St.

Lewiston

207-376-4990

Open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.


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