By Alan Stewart Photos by Joey Stewart
In early April a reminder on my phone popped up saying “Lost Kitchen.” It was time to send a postcard to the restaurant located in the tiny town of Freedom, Maine, in hopes of getting one of the hardest reservations to score in the world.
Erin French’s highly acclaimed restaurant receives over 20,000 postcards for only a few slots, and all must arrive within a two-week period. No Opentable, phone calls, emails, texts, Facebook or any other ways of requesting a reservation. Snail mail only. The rumor is they’ve singlehandedly kept the local post office afloat.
After penning a witty note trying to increase my chances of being a “chosen one,” it occurred to me that my brother and his wife, who live in Dallas and are both gastronomes, might want to join in on this lottery and improve our collective odds. They sent their postcard in, and we all crossed our fingers.
Not long after, I received a text from my sister-in-law saying “Big News. Call me.” I was excited to hear they finally were having a baby after all these years. What else could it be? I called and learned that her postcard had been selected, a table for four was confirmed, and they were booking flights to Maine.
On a rainy night we began our journey driving along winding country roads lined by old farmhouses, pastures, fields of lupine and the famous Morse’s Market & Deli. As we approached the restaurant located in the Mill at Freedom Falls, we were struck by the beauty of the location. With our umbrellas, we strolled over the footbridge above the rustling river leading to the restaurant, all the while absorbing the surroundings. Our first stop was at their wine shop, managed by Erin’s mother, Deanna. There are no liquor licenses in Freedom, so instead of ordering in the restaurant, you choose from the French-centric selections in the store and bring it to your table.
Entering the dining room, all eyes were drawn to the exposed beams with mill apparatus still intact, reclaimed wood tables, Shaker chairs, and service ware that had been carefully selected over time from antique shops and flea markets around Maine. An open kitchen was feet from the diners with one high-top table overlooking the action.
Upon being seated, almost immediately we were served a cheeseboard strewn with three delicious local cheeses, breakfast radishes, nuts, pickled beets, bone marrow butter, and charred breads. Even more impressive was the fact that Chef Erin delivered it to our table while personally greeting us with a warm welcome. This was a common theme throughout the night as she was not only preparing and plating each dish we received, but also visiting each table – a rarity in this era of absentee chef-owners.
Next we opened a dry Henri Bourgeois Sancerre to enjoy with the first wave of dishes, beginning with local oysters accompanied by a rhubarb mignonette. The small briny bivalves were slurped up in less than a minute. Lamb sliders arrived next. The local lamb was cooked medium-rare and served on mini-brioche buns with pickled onions. Next came a palate-cleansing sorbet served inside a tiny ceramic bird-shaped dish.
Erin then entered the dining room and clinked a glass. All eyes averted to her as she gave a sweet, self-depreciating speech explaining just how happy she was that we had all chosen to come to her restaurant on that rainy night, how humbled she was by the demand to dine there, and that although she has no formal training, she does her very best to make sure everything served is fresh, in season, and locally sourced. Erin then paid tribute to her staff, close friends, farmers and growers, who just happen to also work here: “I have a great team who all contribute to the Lost Kitchen in multiple ways.”
Just a few moments later the Chef was at our table delivering the fourth course, a wedge salad topped with blue velvet crumble, bacon, onion sprouts, radishes, and edible flowers, all grown in her chef’s gardens. It was a visually stunning dish. Next up was a rich soup featuring Maine crab and ricotta, an inventive touch. Sautéed and pureed fresh alliums with brown butter were poured tableside over the sweet crab, ricotta and edible flowers.
I had mentioned to my brother, Joey, during our drive to Freedom, that it was halibut season and hoped that might be the main course. We were not disappointed when Erin presented four large skillet-roasted, line-caught Maine halibut filets at our table. The crispy sear and meaty center was served over velvety polenta and asparagus, fava leaves, blossoms, more edible flowers and a whipped chive and lemon butter. Ah, the beauty of June in Maine.
At this point our group toasted Erin and all reflected that the Lost Kitchen is (warning: cliché alert) a gem that definitely lives up to the hype. With its attentive staff, warm environment, fresh ingredients, and creative cooking, it is a truly satisfying and unique experience.
Back with a Port from another trip to the wine shop, it was time for dessert. Erin had remarked earlier that fruit is hard to grow in Maine this early in the season, but she had a trick up her sleeve for our final course: a rhubarb compote combined with an old-fashioned cake with butter glaze icing paired with homemade cookies. She predicted that it might send us all home with a smile.
It did indeed.
The Lost Kitchen is located at 22 Mill St, Freedom, ME 04941, and if you’d like to visit, send a postcard April 1, 2020, with your email, phone and address. As Tom Petty said, you may get lucky.