The empty chef’s table in Central Maine

When I couldn’t find Mount Vernon, Maine – or even the nearest city, Augusta – in my guidebook, I should have been tipped off. But it was only when searching for nearby restaurants once we arrived and only finding a few lobster roll stands and drive-ins that I really knew this wasn’t exactly the place for a foodie.

But I can’t blame Central Maine. That’s just not it’s thing, and that’s OK. Instead, bordered by crystal-clear Echo Lake, a profound silence and endless, deep greenery, it’s a popular place for campgrounds – which is actually what brought us here in the first place.

For three summers as a kid, my boyfriend Mike was packed in a van full of other suburban Summit kids and shipped off for the seven-hour drive to Camp Skoglund, an all-boys’ camp in Mount Vernon, where he shot rifles, jumped off cliffs, kayaked, and “showered in the lake,” as he says – all perfect activities for a boy otherwise surrounded by sisters looking to exhaust some of that budding testosterone.

Today, the buildings of Camp Skoglund – the camp store, mess hall, etc. – have been converted into summer lodgings, which seem to often attract the now-adult former campers and their families. They now help their kids put on floaties and grill dinners to feed families of four instead of their former days of chasing their friends through the woods at night or playing practical jokes, but they love their former camp nonetheless.

After hanging by the lake, reading and going for walks, I’ve been trying my best to do what I do best – scope out the must-try restaurants, even if the closest is 30 minutes away. As New Jersey food pros, though, we’re spoiled, and the hunt hasn’t been easy. So when I found a prix-fixe menu-only restaurant in Augusta with a chef’s table, I was sold, if not a little wary.

Read: Post-pandemic: Does dining out still do it for me?

On a Tuesday night during a summer camping season that has been ravaged by COVID-19 – and in an area devoid of other similar dining options – the Oak Table and Bar in Augusta was empty. But, as the new chef quietly turned out elegant and delectable dishes, one after another, it became harder and harder to understand why. Plus, at a mere $50 per person for a four-course prix-fixe meal, it’s a steal.

The bright red watermelon was the perfect moist, sweet topping to strips of prosciutto. I debated ordering a second helping of dumplings filled with crispy mushrooms. Our friend and travel companion Adam literally dipped a finger into the empty bowl which formerly housed his Fettuccine with lobster and Parmesan cream. Risotto was mixed with sweet corn kernels and corn stalks topped with cilantro. Savory pork belly was an unexpected bite with a cherry. I was glad we all ordered our own helpings of buttery shortcake, made from the chef’s grandmother’s recipe, topped with Maine blueberries and vanilla whipped cream.

In New Jersey, having all items made in-house and using family recipes, is a given – certainly not a novelty. In Central Maine, only an hour and change from Portland but seemingly much further, it’s a rarity. Even still, it’s clear Chef and Owner Eli Irland forged on anyhow, opening up his intimate, upscale restaurant one year ago to a community that hasn’t completely found its way to his quiet spot yet.

Read: Just some chicken to remind you who you are

As we were told, even on the weekends, seats aren’t completely full, despite modern dishes with complex flavors and an ever-changing menu. Even in New Jersey, though, prix-fixe only is tough. Diners have to trust their chefs to sometimes serve them ingredients they’ve never heard of, let alone can pronounce. Here, where the number of people with food Instagrams or who try new restaurants as a hobby pales in comparison to those at home, I imagine it’s even tougher.

If you’re a foodie living in or visiting the Augusta area, though, a trip to Oak is a necessity. Of course, you can’t miss out on those other traditional staples, too, like the Red Barn for a lobster roll or the Apple Shed Bakery for a brownie. But at Oak, those traditional, Maine staples get the new, high-end twist they’ve been looking for in Central Maine – now here’s to hoping Maineians are looking for them, too.

If you go

The Oak Table and Bar

Where:  233 Water Street, Augusta

Contact: 207-812-0727, oaktable.me

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