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Just me, my wife, and Wyeth: savoring Maine's appetizers

Dining can be fine art, too

By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent, 11/2/2003

ROCKLAND, Maine -- Sometimes a couple just needs to get away and spend a little time alone together. With a baby due in February, those opportunities are about to become scarcer for my wife and me. Which is why Kim kept gently reminding me how nice a quick trip to Maine would be while we still had the chance.

Where in Maine was left up to me, but with her in mind I zeroed in on Rockland, the self-proclaimed gateway to Penobscot Bay. The Farnsworth Art Museum there maintains one of the better collections of Wyeth family paintings in the country, and Kim, I knew, has cherished the dark, earth-toned landscapes of Andrew Wyeth since viewing an exhibition of his work toward the end of the five years she spent living in Japan. A framed poster of Wyeth's ''Lawn Chair" hangs in the guest room destined to become our baby's nursery, and Kim still rues having left a handful of inexpensive Wyeth reproductions on her walls in Tokyo on the erroneous assumption that they could be easily replaced back in the States.

What I did not realize when I phoned for a room was that tiny Rockland, population 8,000, is home to some excellent restaurants. If there is anything Kim returned from Japan more passionate about than Wyeth, it is good food. When Elizabeth Henkel at Captain Lindsey House Inn told me about Primo and offered to make us a reservation, I was certain we were headed to the right place.

We arrived midafternoon the Monday before Columbus Day, and repaired to our room to rest and plot the next day's activities. I thought a drive up to Camden, eight miles to the north, might be worth making for lunch. It didn't seem right to come to Maine, even for just one night, without eating some lobster.

Further reading revealed that the little food shack we had passed in Wiscasset on the drive up, with its clump of a half-dozen or more patrons lined up at 2:30 on a chilly weekday afternoon, offers some of the best lobster rolls in the state. Maybe the thing to do would be to skip Camden and grab a couple of lobster rolls from Red's Eats for a light supper on the drive home.

We got our answer that night at Primo. Co-owner and pastry chef Price Kushner greeted us inside the clapboard Victorian and led us to one of its several cozy dining rooms. The star here is Melissa Kelly, winner of the 1999 James Beard Foundation award as best chef in the Northeast for her work at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn in New York's Hudson Valley. She and the constantly updated seasonal menu of locally raised fish, meat, and produce, much of the latter from the restaurant's adjoining garden and greenhouse. (Kelly is Primo's other co-owner, and Kushner's fiancee.)

Our waiter approached. Bill Paradis moved back home to Rockland in 1985 from Beverly, Mass., and has been working at Primo since the day it opened -- three years, four months, and nine days ago, he told us. He had met Kushner and Kelly serving them dinner at another, now defunct restaurant, when they were in town scouting potential locations.

We settled on my ordering the pheasant, served on a bed of farrotto (a grain) with leeks, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and thyme, and accompanied by baby Brussels sprouts. Kim chose a pasta dish of locally foraged wild-mushroom linguine with braised leeks and shaved caciocavallo cheese. She also sampled my pheasant as much as she dared to, infatuated by that exquisite farrotto and those homegrown baby sprouts.

As we ate, we kept sounding Paradis on the local dining scene. He agreed that Amalfi, in Rockland, is very good, and recommended we try to get a seat at the bar at Cafe Miranda for the view of chef-owner Kerry Altiero working his magic at the stove. In Camden, Paradis likes the unpretentious, off-the-beaten-path Francine Bistro Cafe.

Paradis highly recommended the lobster rolls at Red's Eats, noting that The New York Times's roving gourmand R.W. Apple Jr. had helped put Red's on the map with a passing mention in a story on Maine cuisine.

After breakfast the next morning, we hurried to the former Methodist church housing the Farnsworth's five-year-old Wyeth Center. That day the third floor was devoted to an exhibition focused on pirates. N.C. Wyeth shouldered the heaviest load, with numerous full-size paintings that illustrated such books as Robert Louis Stevenson's ''Treasure Island" and ''Kidnapped."

N.C.'s son Andrew's and grandson Jamie's contributions had more oblique ties to piracy. Among Andrew Wyeth's works was his ''Dr. Syn," in which a nautically attired skeleton sits gazing out the window of a fighting ship. The skeleton was said to be painted from an X-ray of Wyeth himself, and the tongue-in-cheek ''self-portrait" was a tribute to his father and Howard Pyle, several of whose paintings were also on display.

Downstairs another special exhibit of Andrew Wyeth's work was underway. ''Andrew Wyeth: Ericksons" featured portraits of his neighbors Siri and George Erickson in nearby Cushing, which he began painting after Christina Olson, subject of his renowned ''Christina's World," died in 1968. The series of nudes Wyeth painted of the teenage Siri were precursors to his famed Helga nudes, and this exhibit showed Wyeth building toward such portraits as ''The Virgin" and ''Black Water."

Over lunch at Market on Main, Kim recalled how she had wept as she moved from painting to painting when she viewed Wyeth's landscapes in Japan. ''That was when I realized it was time to move back," she said. ''They don't have anything that looks like that over there."

We had just enough time after lunch to drive to Olson House and catch Dudley Rockwell's daily 2 o'clock lecture. Rockwell is Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, and at 90 he remains quite the raconteur. Rockwell seasoned his history of the place, the Olson family, and how Wyeth had come to paint here with a series of entertaining tidbits. One involved Wyeth hoodwinking Christina's notoriously reluctant brother, Alvaro, into sitting for a rare portrait by feigning interest in the object Alvaro sat beneath as he read a newspaper.

''Sit there and read your damn paper," Wyeth supposedly told him. ''I'm going to paint that lamp."

Wyeth had painted ''Christina's World" in a room upstairs, flicking eggshells out the window for recycling by the chickens patrolling below (egg yolks being tempera's main ingredient). We went up to see it when Rockwell's talk was done, and the rooms that produced such works as ''Wind from the Sea" and ''End of Olsons." Then we walked the hundred yards or so to the family plot overlooking the bay. Christina and Alvaro share a headstone, where someone had recently left flowers.

We stopped and ate lobster rolls from Red's in the car on the way home. They were awfully good.

Bill Beuttler is a freelance writer living in Swampscott.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

© Bill Beuttler