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June 27, 2011

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TRAVELIN' MAINE(RS): HAVANA: It's good enough for the president

Kennebec Journal Staff

The Travelin’ Maine(rs), George and Linda Smith of Mount Vernon, have spent their lifetimes enjoying all that Maine has to offer. Now they’ll tell you all about it — their favorite inns, restaurants, trips, activities, experiences, and travel books and websites — in their own personal style. They’ll be offering anecdotes, tips and all the details you need. So join them in exploring, experiencing and enjoying the great state of Maine.

 

President Obama and the Travelin Maine(rs) like the same restaurants. On Saturday, June 11, we enjoyed a fantastic off-the-charts dinner at Bar Harbor's Havana, the restaurant where the Obamas dined during their visit to Acadia National Park last year.

But that's not the only restaurant we've shared with the president. Last year, while visiting our daughter Hilary in Washington, D.C., we chowed down at Ray's Hell Burgers in Arlington, Virginia.

After flying home the next day, we were watching the national news that night when, much to our astonishment, there was President Obama and the Russian President dining at -- you guessed it -- Ray's Hell Burgers.

Since we met in 1978, Linda and I had never been to Bar Harbor. We thought it was too crowded and too touristy. Boy, were we wrong.

We spent 48 hours there on a recent weekend, another version of our mini-vacations, and can't wait to return. It took us less than two hours to get there and, in mid-June, Bar Harbor was not at all crowded. One highlight of our trip was dinner at Havana, a restaurant recommended by my brother Gordon.

Linda

You could stay in Bar Harbor a long time and not even scratch the surface of its restaurants. One restaurant that should be on your must-visit list is Havana.

There are three main seating areas at this restaurant and they all exude ambiance. The main dining room, where we sat, has warm, bold wall colors and two levels, separated by a small step and beautiful printed fabric dividers that hang from the ceiling.

There's a small outdoor patio of four tables that looks so inviting with its white table cloths and candles glowing. Then there's the barn that was refurbished into another gorgeous dining area.

This very popular restaurant needs all that seating. Our room was full and several tables turned over during our leisurely 2 1/2 hour meal.

Picture white table cloths, fresh flowers and candles on each table. The soft, beautiful music is live in the bar area where two men are performing.

What a lovely, romantic place to spend an evening. The Obamas enjoyed a date night here, and now I know why.

One thing you might notice when you look through the menu is that, despite the name, it is not exactly Cuban food. Owner Michael Boland told us that it is more of a mixed Mediterranean cuisine. He and his family travel during winter months, when the restaurant is closed, and he returns with new flavors and dishes for his chefs to try.

There's an interesting selection of salads and appetizers. Michael sent out several for us to try. Our lamb meatballs ($9) were served with a tamale of goat cheese and masa, steamed inside a banana leaf. It was a great combination.

George's brother Gordon told us not to miss the spring rolls, and that was a great suggestion. Flaky filo wrappers filled with wild mushrooms, and Japanese wheat noodles topped with a garlic soy. . . this was unlike anything we've ever had before. Wow!

I was feeling a little guilty about ordering the Chili Relleno ($19), as I often order this at Mexican eateries. But it turns out that this is an entirely different dish! These problano chilies were stuffed with quinoa, peas, carrots and spices, and served with curried goat cheese croquettes.

It was the sweet black bean sauce that made it so different than it's typical Mexican counterpart. It was delicious.

We ended our meal with coconut ice cream (one serving contained 3 scoops and was shareable) that comes from the MDI Creamery right across the street. It was the best coconut ice cream I have ever had. The house pan sauce -- sweetened condensed milk, candied walnuts, coconut milk, spices -- was elegant.

George

Maine needs more Michael Bolands. He attended the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor and stayed. He now owns three Bar Harbor restaurants and recently opened Havana South in Portland.

Michael's flagship is Bar Harbor's Havana. Here's what I liked the most:

* The atmosphere. Intimate rooms, inside, outside and in the barn (where the Obamas sat). We didn't ask for the Obama's table, but Michael says lots of patrons do!

* Gazing at the astonishing 26-page wine list -- accurately described as "way too big" -- I focused on one page, titled "15 Great Wines for $45 or less." We selected a very tasty Malbec Bodega a Noemia from Argentina, described as "a friend of red meat." That's really all you need to know.

* The friendly host. Michael visits with patrons, answers their questions and is an engaging guy whose passion for food and a friendly staff is obvious. Although the restaurant is packed, he seemed to have all the time in the world as he stopped at each table.

* Of course, the food. A cornbread fanatic, I was ecstatic when our server started us off with coconut cornbread and pineapple strawberry butter. Yowsa!

* I loved the fact that my mussels were grown on the Maine coast. They were delicious -- and not just because I always cheer for the home team. The dish included chorizo and a special garlic aioli sauce.

After ordering an array of appetizers, Lin thought my decision to try the pulled-pork soup was over the top until, after I had had a good sampling of this really great spicy dish and urged her to try it, she dipped her own spoon into it. The bowl was quickly pulled to her side of the table and that's the last I saw of it.

After Michael reviewed all of the entrees with us, I opted for the Churrasco Style Hanger Steak. It was cooked perfectly (medium rare) and accompanied by a delicious chimichurri sauce. The garlic bread pudding was unique and very filling, not sweet and a good match for the steak.

Lin forbade me from trying one of the dessert Port Flights. I also didn't get to try Havana's signature drink, the Mojito. Next visit I'll select Lin as my designated driver.

 

Conclusion

Although Havana provides an elegant fine dining experience, prices are very reasonable with most appetizers priced at $9 to $11, soup for $7, salads $7 to $12, and entrees from $19 to $29.

If it's good enough for the President of the United States, it's good enough for me.

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





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