Celebrating local farms

Ondine: Brine, swine, dine and, of course, wine

Posted:  Monday, November 13, 2017 - 7:15pm
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Story Location:
108 Main Street
Belfast  Maine  04849
United States

BELFAST — The first item on every Ondine Oyster and Wine Bar menu is a short accolade to the shellfish, and reads: “Oysters once carpeted the rocky inshore banks and mouths of Maine’s saltwater rivers. Cultivated oysters in Midcoast Maine have reintroduced a population of succulent filter feeders that taste great and keep our waters clean.”

Immediately following is Ondine’s oyster menu. Not only are the dishes unique, so too are the variety of oysters found at the restaurant, with six or seven types on hand on any given day, according to Chef and owner Evan Mallett.

Mallett said his affinity for oysters was shaped when he was a child. The texture of the mollusk simply never bothered him.

“A lot of kids are squeamish about the idea,” he said, adding that many Americans also share the aversion.

“I think it’s somehow now been bred into us, generation to generation, that slippery, or snotty food is icky,” he said, noting the same cannot be said of almost any other culture.

Though most oysters have a similar texture, Mallett said there are a plethora of flavor varieties, due to a wide variety of growing methods, in addition to a smaller array of types of oyster.

“When you taste an oyster from one end of the Damariscotta River that is farmed as a top-cultured oyster, versus one that is at the mouth and bottom-’cultured, there is a huge difference in salinity, a huge difference in minerality,” he said.

Mallett, who was juggling a wine-tasting during his interview, said it’s common to hear minerality discussed with wine, but that it can also be used interchangeably with oysters and their flavor.

While there isn’t an exact agreed upon definition of minerality with respect to wine, many equate the term with the taste of wet stones, crushed rocks, salinity, or an overall “earthy” flavor.    

The flavor profile of oysters is something that also factors heavily into the restaurant’s wine selection. The more common pairings involve as Muscadet, but Mallett said he likes to offer lesser known wines that also pair well with oyster.

“There are actually tons of other great oyster wines from all over the world,” he said.

The vast majority of the oysters used by Mallett are grown and harvested from nearby farms in the area, which typically take between a month and years to grow, depending on the desired size.

A variety of oysters are served chilled on the half shell, including their Buck-A-Shuck nights, in addition to pickled varieties. There id a dish featuring jumbo Pemaquid oysters, prosciutto cotto, and Parmesan.

Despite Ondine putting oysters “front and center,” there is another animal that features heavily on the menu, and for good reason.

With the dinner menu broken into three categories: brine, swine, and dine, it’s not surprising that Ondine is also a place for lovers of pork.

The reason behind the animal’s large presence on the menu is multi-faceted, according to Mallett, who also owns another successful restaurant in Portsmouth, N.H., named Black Trumpet. He currently splits his time between Portsmouth and Belfast.  

“Celebrating local farms is a huge part of what Black Trumpet has built its reputation on, and now at Ondine, we would like to do the same in this community,” he said.

With swine in mind, Mallett knew just the person he’d ask to provide the pigs to his latest endeavor.

“I have a friend who I’ve been buying pork from for many years in Washington and she was schlepping pigs, because I only work with whole animals,” he said. “This menu was designed, in fact, so that we would be working with whole animal butchery. So the menu, the way it reads, is that there is a dish for each portion of the animal.”

Pork selections at Ondine include charcuterie, Baurenwurst, pig’s head rillettes, and liver mousse.

While Mallett said he plans to have the menu change with the season, he simply hasn’t had the time yet.  

“I’ve been a little bogged down because I have two restaurants now,” he said, noting that it is currently Restaurant Week in Portsmouth, an event he would leave for at the conclusion of the interview.

Mallett, who lives in Berwick with his wife, said he spends a few days a week at Black Trumpet, and a few days at Ondine, though that wasn’t always the case. 

The road to Belfast

When Ondine initially opened in late July, Mallett was spending the majority of his time in Belfast, something he accomplished with the help of a yurt.

That living arrangement was something he said he only had the cajones for for roughly six weeks, which is fortunate, since he’s not sure it still exists following the Halloween storm.

Ondine itself likely wouldn’t exist in its current form and location were it not for Black Trumpet, which site manager Elliot Weiner said is one quarter the size of Ondine, with quadruple the business.

In fact, the idea for opening a restaurant in Belfast wasn’t actually Mallett’s at all.

“Someone else thought of it, and it became serendipitous after a point, but the initial contact was with the owner of the building having a need for a new tenant,” he said.

The building in question, which formerly housed the Belfast National Bank, was built in 1879 and remains one of the cities most striking buildings. Constructed at a five-way intersection, the building, complete with many unusual angles, is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

The space that Ondine occupies was previously home to a number of restaurants, including Erin French’s Lost Kitchen, and more recently The Gothic.

The building’s owner approached Mallett while dining in Black Trumpet and told him that the restaurant was the “kind of thing that he wanted to see in Belfast.”

The more Mallett investigated the small town at the mouth of the Passagassawakeag River estuary, the more he saw that there was a market for the sort of restaurant he would want to open. Beyond a market for the restaurant, he said Belfast’s numerous nearby farms represented a contributing factor. 

What’s new?

One recent addition to Ondine’s repertoire is brunch, which is served on weekends, and includes charcuterie and “eggs your way,” brioche French toast, blueberry buttermilk griddle-cakes, and a variety of more savory options. Oysters are, of course, also available, and for those who prefer their oysters served as a beverage, there is an oyster shooter Bloody Mary.

Ondine also hosts a monthly wine dinner, which will occur Nov. 30, with different wines selected for each dinner.

The space is available for business events and meetings, or other large gatherings, with only a reservation required.

On Mondays Ondine has an “industry night,” where anyone working in the restaurant, or hospitality business is able to receive 20 percent off their bill. 

Mallett said his ingredients come from both of Belfast’s weekly farmers markets, in addition to Chase’s Daily, another downtown restaurant.

“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” he said. “It’s one of the things about Belfast that blew me away was the tremendous access to locally grown food.”

He referenced his cookbook, Black Trumpet: A Chef’s Journey Through Eight New England Seasons.

Mallett said he’s written a couple hundred thousands words on the topic, but said: “It’s an epiphany, followed by a philosophy that has established the principles by which I live and breathe. It’s not just a restaurant, it’s not just as a chef, but this holistic idea of making the world a better place.”

Mallett also admires Belfast for remaining true to its roots, resisting certain types of businesses that may harm the local economy.

“I think this community is extraordinary,” he said. “[Belfast] is not a trashy, seaside Maine resort town. Nor is it the kind of town where, you know, billionaires fly into for two weeks out of the summer, and every commercial outpost is there only to serve them. This is a community that’s about those who live here year-round, and I love that.”

Atmosphere

Mallett admits there are some who will automatically equate Ondine with fine dining due to the extensive wine list, high level of service, and the beauty of the space, but noted, “many locals are looking for something more casual,” something the restaurant also caters to.

“There are people we know in this community who come in for a glass of wine and a bowl of soup. That is just as important, if not more so, than those who think it’s a ‘special occasion’ restaurant,” Mallett said.  

Ondine offers a variety of sizes so that each diner can decide whether they want a nibble, or something larger.

“[Smaller dishes] aren’t as damaging to the pocket book and allow you to get a good breadth of experience of a restaurant without breaking the bank,” he said.

Though Ondine has been open for less than six months, Mallett said that Belfast continues to prove that it was the perfect location for his latest endeavor.

As for winter, Mallett already has thoughts of warmth in mind for his menu.

“When we’re going into the colder season, I’m starting to think about hearty, richer, braised things. [Made to order] oyster stew from the thickened brine of the oysters, that the oysters themselves are poached in, with squash and pancetta,” he said. “It’s going to get people through the winter.”


Erica Thoms can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com