Portland may be lavished with attention as a food destination in New England, and deservedly so, but per capita, one town in Maine beats the others for its concentration of excellent restaurants serving year round. At first glance, you might not suspect this of quaint Camden, population 4,800 — a number that grows in the summertime. But take a closer look. We're not talking lobster shacks, delis, and diners, but elegant gems and ethnic surprises.
Over the last couple of years the village has enjoyed a flurry of new or reimagined restaurants. These range from Latin fusion to inventive wood-fired pizzas by a James Beard nominee. A few of these establishments are set cheek by jowl, filling in the charming downtown between retail shops and harbor. And they are astonishingly good as well as varied. One could spend a week indulging and never repeat a visit in Camden and nearby Rockport.
Newest among the lot is Comida Latin Kitchen, open since February. Occupying a shoebox-sized storefront, the bright, 20-seat restaurant serves a varied selection of excellent dishes. Among the small plates chef-owner Tom Sigler creates are a tower of shaved brussels sprouts with daikon and manchengo cheese served with a guajillo vinaigrette, and a pumpkin and lager soup with roasted hatch chiles. Cod with coconut milk and onion escabeche, flank steak with red mole, or enchiladas with cremini mushrooms and kale are delectable entrees.
Seabright, new last spring, is set below street level along Camden's in-town harbor. Central is the wood-fired oven, where chef Brian Hill, James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef Northeast in 2013 for his work at his nearby Francine Bistro, turns out hand-tossed 10-by-14 rectangles of slightly charred and bubbled crusts. Adorning these pies you'll find creative toppings using local seasonal ingredients. Sweet corn puree with caramelized leeks and trumpet mushrooms was a late-August beauty. It's not all pizza; wood-roasted mussels and house-made capicola are among the offerings. Find this cozy and casual spot by spying the log pile in front.
Long Grain, open since late 2010 and the oldest on this list, deserves mention for how grateful it has made the locals, who can't seem to get enough of the traditional home- and street-style dishes that Thai natives Razin "Bas" Nakjaroen and Paula Palakawong create using seasonal Maine ingredients wherever possible. Here is inexpensive and terrific Asian comfort food for a long winter: stir-fried kale or collards in a pad seaw, kimchi with pork belly and tofu in a chili-flecked broth topped with a poached egg, tender beef massaman curry with coconut milk. It's a small and busy dining room, so make reservations and don't expect the swiftness of a big-city Chinatown.
Adding to the ethnic mix is 40 Paper, an Italian bistro in a contemporary space with a popular happy hour. Mingle with visitors and locals from 4-6 p.m. and enjoy a half-price cocktail from an intriguing list or a glass of wine, perhaps adding a food item such as the daily risotto, stuffed baby artichokes, or half flatbread pizza with marinated calamari. Each is only $5. Sit at the bar, lounge on a leather sofa, or move to a table for dinner, to sup on such dishes as burrida fish stew or pasta carbonara with house-made guanciale.
Natalie's, the restaurant at the Camden Harbour Inn, recently welcomed new co-executive chefs Chris Long and Shelby Stevens. The 1874 Victorian inn remains traditionally appointed on the outside, but the interior mixes the refinement of table linens and roses with riotously red fabric-and-fringe-covered pendant lamps and bright cushioned seats against a fresh, white background. Dinner here is a top-drawer event, dressy but not stuffy, with expert service and excellent bar offerings. The chefs, trained in classic French technique, bring a contemporary approach to cooking, adding Italian, Catalan, Asian, and Indian twists to fine dining. A four-course lobster tasting menu continues through the winter. The inn was named a Relais & Châteaux property this fall.
In July, chef-owner Michael Salmon of the Hartstone Inn and his wife, Mary Jo Brink, changed from serving a single-entree prix-fixe meal each evening to offering a full a la carte menu that includes such dishes as hazelnut-encrusted rack of lamb and Maine crab cakes with lime aioli. Dine in the atmosphere of an elegant home surrounded by tasteful antiques and vintage furnishings. The chef, known for dessert souffles, comes to each table to crack the steamy bubble and ladle it with spiced crème anglaise. Open for dinner every night, the bed-and-breakfast is another excellent pick for the holidays, when other establishments may be dark.
Slightly set apart from these selections but also new and terrific, is Salt Water Farm Cafe and Market, located about two miles from Camden's center, in tiny Rockport. A renovated Union Hall melds farm rusticity with performance-hall spaciousness and contemporary airiness. The entirely open kitchen is set behind counter seating like an extended bartender's space, taking up half the restaurant and fostering an easy exchange between chef and diner. Several tables overlook the water. Try a bowl of spelt and greens soup, papardelle with lamb ragout, or wild oysters — these were recent lunch options. Finish with a fig and anise scone. In addition to serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the restaurant frequently hosts communal meals. The spot carries a bit of that hipster back-to-the-land vibe, but there's no irony in sight. After all, Maine is where farm-to-table cuisine has been operating for centuries.
What to do about all those calories consumed in a food lover's tour of Camden? Bundle up and go for a walk or hike. There are plenty of options for easy or arduous trips. Views are spectacular from the summit of Mount Battie in Camden Hills State Park, accessible by foot, car, or cross-country skis. Flat terrain awaits at Fernald's Neck Preserve. The Camden Snow Bowl offers snow tubing as well as ski runs. You'll find indoor skating, fitness classes, and tennis courts at Midcoast Recreation Center. And a stroll around Camden's downtown Amphitheatre and Harbor Park is a gentle way to stretch your legs and make room for that next meal.
Nancy Heiser can be reached at www.nancyheiser.com.