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April 22, 2013

Contributed photo

Vittlles owners Bob and Kathy Phelan

TRAVELIN' MAINE(RS): VITTLES: Creativity, commitment to community combine to make great restaurant

George and Linda Smith

Bob Phelan tells us the concept of Vittles was to serve "down-home food." The emphasis here is on using fresh ingredients to create real food, made from scratch. "If a potato chip is served here, it was a potato this morning!" says Bob.

Linda

Bob Phelan tells us the concept of Vittles was to serve "down-home food." The emphasis here is on using fresh ingredients to create real food, made from scratch. "If a potato chip is served here, it was a potato this morning!" says Bob.

Bob and Kathy Phelan have a secret weapon for their restaurant -- their son and chef, Richard LeRose. He just happens to be a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. To listen to Bob talk about his son's cooking is heartwarming. He is in awe of his son's creativity and talent. He has every right to be proud. This chef can really cook and seems inspired by the ingredients available every day.

Vittles is open for breakfast and lunch, and they serve dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. Breakfast is served until 11 a.m. and offers everything from eggs and omelets to Belgian waffles. The prices are extremely reasonable here. Omelets are between $6.50 and $8, eggs Benedict for $7.50.

We were there for dinner but after my first taste of their soup, I knew I'd want to make this a regular lunch spot. Lunch here must be very popular, offering amazing soups, chili, salads and sandwiches served on their homemade bread. Bob purchases fresh ground beef daily for their burgers.

Remember the quote about their potato chips? We tried a couple and they were unbelievable! Flavorful and perfectly crisp. If a chip can be pretty, these were. This will certainly be a stop for lunch this summer on our way to camp.

We were very impressed with their dinner menu that changes each weekend. You can get an appropriately sized appetizer, like a cup of soup or a small Caesar salad ($3 and $4). The soup that evening was a cold strawberry soup -- unexpected and superb due to the inclusion of cinnamon croutons. Yum!

Let's not overlook the fact that you will start with fresh homemade bread that is highly addictive. It is served in a metal pail lined with linens. (I don't know what the seasonings were, but I'd like the recipe.) Bob told us they "wanted to make a nice dinner but not be pretentious." The restaurant is a large space and includes booths, tables and a counter with stools that lends a soda fountain look. Water comes served in a Mason jar.

Kathy brought out a sampling of three soups to try. George pronounced the clam chowder "great." I thought the corn chowder was incredible -- creamy and chock full of corn, red peppers and big chunks of red potato. But once I tried the Gouda and bacon chowder, I couldn't pick a favorite. They were both incredible. The smoky flavor of bacon and Gouda, balanced with carrots and celery, made for a very elegant soup.

My choice of eggplant rollatini did not disappoint. Lightly battered thin eggplant was wrapped around a ricotta and veggie filling which included pine nuts for crunch. Served on a pretty and colorful plate with a side of pasta, this dish made a beautiful presentation.

We were full, but Bob had told us that he was the one who makes the ice cream here. (You could hear the pride in his voice.) We decided we really had to try it. What came out was a Bailey's ice cream that could give Ben and Jerry's a run for their money. I was full but I ate every spoonful, savoring each bite. It's on the menu regularly, so do save room for it!

George

"We're not from away any more." Bob's words sum up a wonderful story of Bob and his wife Kathy, two nurses who picked up a copy of Down East magazine on a Maine vacation, found the old post-and-beam schoolhouse of their dreams on 11 acres in St. Albans and bought it, anxious to leave the hectic life of Connecticut.

The really good news is that they brought their son Richard and his wife Erin with them. They created a small-town restaurant that quickly established roots and a strong local following. An entire table of Maine Central Institute students was there for dinner when we visited.

It is obvious that Bob, Kathy, Richard and Erin have been embraced by this community. And they have embraced the community. Last summer, Richard taught a group of kids to cook.

I loved Bob's story of a local pastor who was there for breakfast. When a waitress went home sick, the pastor stuck around, waiting tables! Bob's optometrist came in for lunch one day with his tools, because he'd noticed Bob's glasses were not fitting right.

As word of the great food spreads, Vittles is also drawing customers from all over the state. It's especially inviting if you are headed north on I-95, because it's only a couple of minutes off the interstate -- a perfect breakfast or lunch stop.

Barbara Chase, of Waterville, brought Vittles to our attention. She raved about the homemade food. She emailed me on a Sunday night after enjoying lunch there.

"We had a tarragon summer squash soup (which was rich and actually chewy -- and we tried, unsuccessfully, to figure out what made it so delicious. We also shared a salmon burger," wrote Barbara, "which was extraordinary -- on a lovely bun with lettuce, tomato, fresh salmon and a pesto. We had the caramelized apple cheesecake with some buttery graham cracker-type crust -- which did not look at all like a typical cheesecake."

I think Richard enjoys surprising diners with the staff's creativity. The cold strawberry soup was an idea one of his sous chefs had come up with that morning, and Richard said "Go for it." Richard's Italian grandfather taught him to cook, and this shows up frequently on the menu from gnocchi to the rollatini on our dinner menu.

I enjoyed everything Richard sent out for us to try. My dinner entrée was five-spiced seared duck. I joked with him that I'd like to take home a gallon of the blackberry wine reduction sauce that came with the duck. I even dipped my potatoes in it. All three soups were outstanding, and even though clam chowder is a personal favorite whenever I eat out, the bacon and Gouda soup wowed me.

They've got an outstanding offering of Maine microbrews, focused on the local Oak Pond Brewing Company -- one of my favorite brewers. I had Oak Pond's White Fox, which went well with my entire meal.

While Bob's ice cream should not be missed, I was really in awe of his wife Kathy's work schedule and pastries. She is at the restaurant early in the morning to make the pastries before going to Waterville where she works in the hospital's hospice care facility. When we visited, she was back at the restaurant working the dinner shift. Amazing! While Lin forbade me from having Kathy's chocolate cream pie, I will be thinking of it until we return. It looked so good!

It's easy to see why this family and their restaurant has taken hold. And contrary to our reputation, we Mainers do welcome folks from away who understand just how special our state is. These folks get it. And we could not have more enthusiastic ambassadors than the family at Vittles.

Visit George's website: www.georgesmithmaine.com for travel tips, book reviews, outdoor news and more.




Chef Richard LeRose



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