- 1637 Post Road (US Route 1)
- Wells, Maine
Open year-round, Mon-Sat, 5pm-close. Soups and salads $6-$8, first courses $8-$12, main courses $17 - $28, desserts $6. No reservations.
Pull up at Joshua’s Restaurant in Wells on a Friday night after dark, and you immediately have the impression that a warm sanctuary awaits you on the other side of the door. A restored 1774 house of sober visage, warm light spills from the ground floor windows and doorway, and peeking around the back, a wall of more windows, those of a recent addition, give you a glimpse of happily nattering diners at tables on one side and a working kitchen on the other. Once inside, your impressions are confirmed: floors of wide pine and bright maple, old brick fireplaces, and Indian shutters in two open rooms which take their colors, if not their atmosphere, from the Colonial palette. To the left, a cozy bar beckons, often the refuge of latecomers who can enjoy a full meal without feeling left out of the action. To the right, a large room opens before you: waitresses and waiters in nicely formal black and white bustle about with plates and bottles of wine, the air is filled with auspicious aromas of cooking, and a wrong turn at the far end reveals the kitchen in full press, its proximity adding a nice energy to the room.
Josh’s mother, Barbara, runs the front of the house, and that white-haired fellow glimpsed lending a hand here and there is Mort, his father, who is also the restaurant’s farmer. This is not an affectation or a hobby, for in many ways it seems, the restaurant is almost an outgrowth of that organic farm not five miles away, which the family started more than thirty years ago and from which they made a living selling vegetables and baked goods to restaurants from Ogunquit to Portland.
“I was raised on the farm.” Josh says. “I played in the fields, and all of our food came from it. If you wanted to eat something, it was out in the garden. We also had organic beef, pigs, chickens.” It was where he learned to appreciate food in its natural state, “that spring lettuce is so buttery it almost melts in your mouth, but then in the fall, it has a meatier taste to it.” It was where he learned the art and craft of farming and raising animals, how to butcher chickens and pigs, all experiences which instilled in him a deep respect for natural ingredients so evident in his cooking.
Thirty years old and self-taught, he spent eight years cooking in the restaurants of others, in Oregon and Ogunquit, before setting out on his own a year ago. In keeping with its very American setting and his own upbringing, Joshua’s plates are unfussy and honest, with nary a trace of “tall food” or other pretense. It is a place where you can almost always identify exactly what you are eating because it has not been pureed, sprouted, strained, jellied, stuffed, foamed, preserved in aspic, or otherwise manipulated so much as to lose its natural essence. “We’re farmers.” Josh says simply. “Food should speak for itself, which is why I pay so much attention to purveyors, because I don’t want to have to do a lot to what comes through the door. And when it’s from our farm, I never have to worry.” Out of season, and for things Mort can’t otherwise provide in sufficient quantity, Josh relies on largely organic produce and meat, fish, and poultry from local sources.
Everything here is made from scratch, which is one reason the restaurant is only open for dinner. Josh’s day starts mid-morning, when he has the chance to work with one of his favorite ingredients, organic flour. “I love making bread,” Joshua says. “It gets my day underway. And I know that sometimes the customers don’t realize it, but the first thing they put in their mouths is the first thing I made that morning.”
You can start with generous salads or a bowl of the daily soup, but it is a little further down the menu that Josh begins to strut his stuff, with first courses like chunks of tender lamb with mustard and coriander served skewered on rosemary stems which infuse them with their flavor on the grill. Or the seasonal house flatbread smothered with an ever-changing variety of interesting combinations: grilled asparagus and pancetta, lobster and pesto, roasted red pepper and grilled shrimp, fresh mozzarella and basil and garlic oil. As Josh says, “the flatbread is just a vehicle!” The mushroom confit—sliced portobellos, shiitakes, and whole tiny buttons slow-cooked then tossed with a truffle-scented butter and shaved parmigiano reggiano—is a rich, dark testament to the glory of that chef’s mantra – “slow and low does the trick.”
Except in the depths of winter, when he works with a reduced staff, he also offers “sliders,” a trio of small tastes served on a bird’s eye maple cutting board where the “vehicle” can be anything from endive leaves to crostini to a homemade potato chip and the toppings a bit of grilled lamb with chutney, an oyster or thin-sliced scallop, or a small brochette of beef or fish.
There are eight to ten substantial entrees to choose from (and always a vegetarian choice), with two stalwarts always on the menu. One, and probably the most traditional thing he serves, is a filet mignon served with a classic sauce of pinot noir and beef glacé. The other, his most popular dish, is Atlantic haddock in a caramelized onion crust spiked with chive oil, an earthy wild mushroom risotto balancing the lightness of the fish. You can find unusual but not outrageous pairings here--pan roasted scallops with pumpkin risotto and roasted beets and mushrooms, for example, which are so good they prompt the home cook to wonder, why didn’t I think of that? Or, in warmer seasons, perhaps a seared halibut over sautéed spring greens, with roasted ramps and fiddlehead ferns simply dressed with tomato vinaigrette in a pleasant jumble on the side.
Because the portions here are ample but not overly so, you’ll probably want to choose from the short list of desserts. There are richer selections like maple walnut tart and fudge pie --two things this family has been making for more than twenty years, but also simple fruit cobblers, pies, and crisps, all served with the restaurant’s own vanilla ice cream.
By the time you walk out the door, you will certainly understand Joshua’s motto: “Fresh food, simply prepared.” You will also be replete, your daily travails assuaged by an experience good for body and soul, and one which keeps our farmers farming and our fishermen fishing. What more can you ask of a meal than that?
Posted by Michael at July 28, 2005
All material ©2005 Michael S. Sanders