Fine dining at — where else? — The Forks.

You’ll get no argument from me when you say that the Androscoggin River valley has its share of wonderful eateries. From linen tablecloths to sporks, and from ethnic to American cuisine, there is something here for everyone.

Every once in a while, however, I get the urge to throw an overnight bag in the car, cue up my favorite CD, toss my head back and sing out “road trip!”

Granted, having dinner at the Inn By The River, two hours north of L-A on the banks of the Kennebec River, hardly requires an overnight bag. However, with so much to do and see in The Forks, you’ll end up wishing you’d brought a few essentials so you can stay and explore.

The Inn By The River was built in 1997. Though it has the air of an old Maine farmhouse, its amenities — including Jacuzzi tubs and progressive culinary offerings — make this four-season inn and restaurant a destination for comfort and great eats. And with the opportunity for hiking, fishing and whitewater rafting, as well as ATV riding, hunting and snowmobiling, just outside its doors, it’s also a “go to” place for adventure travel.

Joe Christopher, who hails from Brunswick and Sanford and has a long history in the food and beverage business, became a river guide at the age of 21. In 1997, the same year that the inn was built, Joe, along with Kim Christopher and Tony Rinaldi, opened Three Rivers Whitewater in two locations – The Forks and Millinocket – with both locations featuring restaurants called The Boatman’s Bar & Grill. Then, in 2007, they purchased the Inn By The River.

For Christopher, “Purchasing the Inn By The River was a natural step from the adventure business. . . . As I’ve gotten older,” he explains, “it’s been nice to have a quiet place.”

According to Christopher, “This year has been a transition. . . . We’re shifting into the farm-to-table trend with unique items, and we’re continually changing the menu.”

Chef Matthew McMahon came to the Inn By The River about six months ago from Oregon. Classically trained in French and Italian cooking at Le Cordon Bleu College, he is dedicated to “an open-minded process” of food preparation, creating dishes that are “innovative and creative . . . a fusion,” he explains, “that mixes cultures, spices and different aspects of food to make a dish that crosses the normal lines.”

He adds, smiling, “I wanted to add a culinary explosion to the great work that Joe was already doing here at the Inn.”

Chef Jamie Moffatt came to the Inn By The River with “farm-to-table” ideas and aspirations. Moffatt, who has been in the restaurant business most of his life, also spent five years farming produce. Making the most of his expertise, the inn is adding to its already generous vegetable and herb garden by building new gardens.

According to Moffatt, “One of the beauties of having a garden is that I can go outside and pick fresh herbs and veggies to cook with.”

McMahon agrees: “It doesn’t get fresher and it doesn’t get better.”

“We also work with a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture farm) out of Skowhegan,” says Moffatt. McMahon continues: “They provide us with things that are local and sustainable, primarily produce, but also proteins from land and water such as eggs, chicken and other meats. . . . Working with local farmers is a great way to purchase unique produce.”

In addition to a menu that includes traditional fare such as a classic Caesar salad, choice cuts of beef and lobsters plucked from the coast of Maine, both chefs “work as a tag team, brainstorming,” according to McMahon, to create specials that are innovative, seasonal and as beautiful as they are delicious.

Rounding out the team by designing specialty drinks that pair well with the specials is Marty Griffin, the Inn By The River’s innkeeper and head bartender.

According to Christopher, “Having these guys with these skills” has helped the inn make that leap from standard fare to thoughtful, eclectic and elegant cuisine. Giving credit where credit is due, McMahon maintains that “the fusion starts with Joe, and that passion rolls downhill. . . . It’s about taking those risks and it’s in every aspect of what we do.”

An ample sample

On an easy July evening with the breezes off the river through open doors, we sat in the inn’s comfortable dining room with its fieldstone fireplace and farmer’s porch to sample a few of the unique specials created by Moffatt, McMahon and Griffin.

To begin, McMahon created a salad with Granny Smith apples, pickled radishes, fresh tomatoes, carrots and local greens, tossed with a honey and blueberry vinaigrette and topped with bite-size wedges of brie and grilled shrimp seasoned with salt, pepper and oregano. The salad was paired with Griffin’s cool moscato and strawberry shaved ice cocktail.

“All of the salad dressings at the inn are homemade,” says Christopher, “and the difference between a homemade dressing and a dressing you get from a jar is electric!”

Next, spicy garlic mussels, with a light and luscious broth, were served with a warm baguette and a glass of a Maine-brewed IPA.

Moffatt, whom McMahon describes as a “cookbook guru,” “has brought a lot of interesting innovations to the table,” says Christopher, and his unusual goat cheese-stuffed squash blossoms, cooked tempura style and served with a light dill aioli, is a flavorful example of his farm-to-table philosophy.

It is intended to be simply “an amuse-bouche” says Moffatt, with McMahon explaining, “A small accompaniment from the chef. The blossom is packed with flavor.”

To accompany the blossoms, Griffin prepared a cocktail with fresh basil, mint, cucumber and gin, followed by a homemade lemoncello to prepare us for the main course: grilled fillet tips tossed in a mushroom demi-glaze with roasted red potatoes and English peas, topped with a horseradish cream and served with a glass of malbec.

To complete our meal — and having been joined by one lucky guest of the inn who wandered in — we were served a warm cinnamon bread pudding with toasted almonds, and topped with bourbon caramel sauce and homemade whipped cream. It is a 100-year-old recipe McMahon learned from his grandmother, and on this day was offered up with Griffin’s Maine woodsman, a martini made with whiskey, fresh blueberries and maple syrup.

“We want every experience (our guests) have, from rafting or skydiving to drinking and dining, to be a great experience,” says Griffin. Quoting the Three Rivers slogan, which is: “The home of serious fun,” he continues, “We’re also the home of serious food. . . . Whether its drink or food, we like to challenge (our guests’) preconceived notions” of what a dining experience should be.

“Our No. 1 goal is to create relationships with our guests by bringing in (employees) with great skill sets,” says Christopher, who occasionally cooks in all three Three Rivers restaurants. He later adds, “It comes down to creating a fun, relaxed and comfortable — in an emotional and spiritual way — place to stay and eat.”

Spicy garlic mussels

4 slices bread (your choice, but chef Matthew McMahon suggests using a baguette)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 whole garlic clove

1 bunch fresh parsley

1 cup beer (McMahon suggests something light and not too hoppy)

1 pound fresh mussels

Salt and pepper to taste

4 tablespoons hot sriracha (chili sauce)

1/2 cup butter (whole, unmelted)

Lemon to taste

1. Heat oil in pan until hot.

2. Add garlic, mussels and beer; cover and steam.

3. When mussels open, add sriracha, butter, salt, pepper and lemon, and cook until butter is completely melted.

4. Pour mussels and liquid into a large bowl, garnish with fresh parsley and lemon wedges if desired.

5. Serve with the warm bread.

Honey and blueberry vinaigrette

1 cup fresh blueberries

2/3 cup olive oil or olive oil blend

1/3 cup apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

Salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor, combine all ingredients. Pulse until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Goat cheese-stuffed squash blossoms with lemon dill aioli

8 male squash blossoms

1/4 cup goat cheese

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon finely minced dill

1 tablespoon finely minced parsley

Salt to taste

For the batter:

12 ounces of beer

1 cup flour

Oil for frying

Open the tip of the blossoms and remove the stamen. Whisk the goat cheese and heavy cream together. Fold in herbs. Fill piping bag, fitted with a fine tip. Pipe into the blossoms until almost full; close blossoms around the mixture. Dip filled blossoms in the beer batter. Fry at 350 degrees until golden brown and remove before cheese starts to melt out.

Lemon dill aioli

1/4 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons sour cream

Juice of 1 lemon

1/8 teaspoon lemon zest

1/8 teaspoon finely minced dill

Mix together and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Inn By The River

2777 U.S. Route 201

The Forks, Maine

1-866-663-2181 and 1-207-663-2181

Inn by the River – Maine Snowmobile Lodging

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