October 25, 2012

TRAVELIN' MAINE(RS): Try out a few of our cold-weather favorites

George and Linda Smith

Yes, it’s time to think about winter. We like to break up the dreary, cold, icy, oil-burning months with nice trips. Here are a few from the past — and (hopefully) the future.

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Dinner in Hallowell at Francesca’s

Seated next to Jim Jurczak at a recent Augusta Kiwanis luncheon, I was interested to hear about his wife Francesca’s Hallowell restaurant. My mouth was watering as he described Fran’s Italian heritage and cooking, despite the nice lunch we were enjoying at the Senator Inn.

So Lin and I dined at Francesca’s Restaurant two weeks ago. Fran serves dinner only, from 4 to 9 p.m. daily. I was astonished that Fran is the only cook in the kitchen. That’s a lot of prep work, nevermind the chaos of preparing all those dinners every night.

Fran sent out samples of many of her entrees. By far, the best was her homemade ravioli. We loved both the lobster ravioli (a regular menu item) and the truffle ravioli (a special offered from time to time).
Even our small sample of meat lasagna was very filling, and the béchamel and tomato sauces were the stars of the plate. We loved the whole-grain bread, baked locally using Fran’s recipe.

Lin noticed that Francesca’s eggplant parmesan included layers of tomato and eggplant slices, unlike most versions. It turns out that Francesca tries to cater to gluten-free customers. She’s figured out how to make gluten-free pasta. This, and her version of chicken parmesan, will be of interest to all of those on a gluten-free diet.

Fran was right out straight in the kitchen, but managed to come out once to answer our questions. She emphasized that she cooks all her steaks over an open flame, and buys her meat locally at Ballard’s in Manchester.

She offers a children’s menu and we saw several tables filled with three generations of family members. It’s a quiet, comfortable place, one guy sitting at the bar reading the paper and enjoying his dinner, another couple out on the darkened patio overlooking the Kennebec River — despite the chill in the air.

And they obviously have attracted some loyal patrons. Right after one couple was seated, Jim brought out their bottle of wine — without asking what they wanted. We enjoyed a Capestrano Montepulchiano, delicious and reasonably priced at $7 per glass or $20 a bottle.

Fran is very enthusiastic about her cooking. I told her if she could marry Jim, a Polish gentleman, and turn him into a lover of all things Italian, she’d done well.

“When I married him he was 128 pounds. Look at him now!” she exclaimed.

— George


Last year's winter getaway to Matt and Wendy Polstein's New England Outdoor Center, 10 miles west of Millinocket, was spectacular. Dining in their exceptional River Drivers Restaurant, staring across Millinocket Lake at snow-covered Mount Katahdin, reminded us of why we love Maine winters -- especially when we are enjoying a fine dinner -- inside! There is no prettier dining spot in Maine.

Matt and Wendy have renovated the cabins at Twin Pine Camps, but we stayed in one of their six new environmentally friendly houses scattered along the shore of Millinocket Lake. With three bedrooms, two full baths, and a huge kitchen and living room, these houses can accommodate a lot of family members and friends. And you can snowmobile right up to them.

River Drivers has been the region's top restaurant for many years, and last year Matt and Wendy moved it to a newly constructed building at Twin Pines. With its two-story windows offering jaw-dropping views of Katahdin along with creative culinary treats, this place is very special (don't miss the Pork Ossobuco if its on the menu).

We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon snowmobiling with Matt, Wendy and their children, to the other side of the lake where we snowshoed toward Katahdin into a bog to enjoy lunch. It was a weekend we'll never forget -- and will probably repeat this winter!

Our winter weekend at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Gorman Chairback Camps, 13 miles east of Greenville, was another amazing experience. This is high-end comfort in a remote setting at reasonable prices -- just the type of adventure many of today's travelers seek -- good food and historic camps in the heart of the 100-mile wilderness.

Most visitors ski in and out, although you can hitch a snowmobile ride if you are unable to ski the 6 miles to the camps. We skied, snowshoed, were captivated by flocks of colorful White-winged Crossbills, ate hearty meals served family style, got to know other guests including a group of mostly nonresidents enjoying an LL Bean Discovery School adventure, and had all the comforts of home in one of the new camps that include indoor plumbing. The less expensive older camps are also comfortable, but guests must trudge to the lodge for toilets and showers. Been there. Done that for many years. We're into pampering now! The weekend went way to quickly.

But we got over our disappointment of leaving the camps by stopping for lunch on our way home at Mike and Kim Witham's Spring Creek Bar-B-Q in Monson. Once you've feasted on their homemade barbecued meats, you'll put this place in your GPS and never drive by it.

My pastrami sandwich, with a good dollop of Morse's sauerkraut and Raye's Old World Mustard, was astonishing. Mike's pastrami is cured for two weeks, then smoked.

As we completed our meal, enjoying Mike's stories throughout, we traded the soreness of our long ski out of the woods for the serenity of good food and good company. All was right in this winter world.

OK, not every winter adventure needs to be in the north woods. Because we didn't get to the Bethel Inn as planned last winter, or enjoy a meal at 22 Broad Street and do some cross country skiing in the area, it's on our must-do list this winter.

Bethel Inn Resort offers very comfortable rooms and suites, a ton of activities and special events, an impressive health club with a pool, sauna, a lot of exercise equipment and spa treatments, and a restaurant and pub. It's become "our place" in Bethel and we really appreciate the friendly personal service there.

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