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On the coast of Maine, it is difficult to resist the iconic summer meal of just-caught lobster and sweet corn on the cob that's served up at rustic roadside shacks with wooden picnic tables. Now, there's an unexpected alternative to these local lobster houses. Lydia Shire has opened [link href="http://www.blueskyonyorkbeach.com" target="_blank" link_updater_label="external"]Blue Sky on York Beach, just 70 miles north of Boston, a restaurant that showcases this world-class chef's urban sensibility and passion for cooking lobster -- her way. Here, she has transported her inimitable style of cooking to the region's best ingredients, imparting daring concepts to food that is generally eaten simply.
Shire, who founded legendary Boston dining spots Biba and Pignoli, was also the first woman chef and owner of 140-year-old Locke-Ober, a Boston institution, which once prohibited women from dining there. So it isn't surprising she decided to take on the challenge when Donald Rivers, a York Beach developer, approached her to open a restaurant in a circa 1879 inn he was restoring.
On a wintry January day in 2005, she drove up to view the dilapidated site. "It didn't scare me," recalls Shire. "In fact, I loved the old bones of it. I thought it was really special."
The restaurant opened last winter and was an instant hit. Its look is pure Shire, with a mix of old and new, from old-fashioned pie cases to a sparkling red espresso machine from Italy. She chose all of the furnishings, antique-shopping everywhere, including Maine as well as France. A mirrored piece of a vintage carousel spins by the front desk, where molded plastic chairs from the 1960s, found at a flea market, line up.
Exposed ductwork lends the space an industrial air, while a double-sided stone fireplace opens into the dining room and the bar. White Naugahyde was chosen for the booths and chairs, creating a crisp juxtaposition with the walls, which are done in Shire's favorite paint color; a deep brown-gray-purple. "I wanted a lot of gray tones, because that's Maine to me -- beautiful grays," she says.
This late-summer menu pays homage to the bounty of the season. Naturally, it centers on lobster, simply boiled in seawater, served with lobster butter, rich with shallots and sherry, or a low-fat yogurt-based rouille.
As accompaniment, buttery tomato bisque, fragrant with tarragon and lemongrass, comes with biscuits into which she stuffs hunks of crabmeat. That's "a meal in itself," says Shire. And her mussels are steamed in verjus, the tart, unfermented juice of semi-ripe wine grapes. Maple-smoked bacon, along with tiny Sweet 100 tomatoes, elevates this dish to something extraordinary.
A salad of local small arugula, lima beans and lobster oil is what Shire refers to as "the holy trinity of the food world -- when three ingredients work perfectly together." In this case, it's the bitterness of the greens, the smooth sweetness of the lima beans and the richness of the lobster oil. Just-picked corn becomes a feather-light custard when shucked, mixed with milk, cream and eggs, and gently baked in ramekins. Its flavor -- the essence of fresh corn.
The meal ends with a characteristic Shire flourish: an old-fashioned classic -- sugar pie served with warm peaches, a generous tablespoon of English clotted cream and a cloud of spun sugar. "I first had sugar pie in Quebec," says the chef. "I've never been the same since!"
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