To those who live outside of New England, maybe even those who live outside of the state of Maine, Maine may not be a culinary destination. As one who resides in New England and has spent time traveling in Maine, I know they are wrong. I have had fabulous meals in Kittery, Bangor, and Camden, to name a few towns. So, it comes as no surprise to me that we are starting our summer produce series with the chef of two restaurants in Portland, Maine.
The Executive Chef at both Local 188 and Sonny’s, Chef Jay Villani is adept at providing delicious meals that are created with a farm to table mentality. Combine fresh ingredients with scratch-made menu items, and you have a pair of restaurants that are sure to delight. Chef Villani graciously took the time to speak with me.
TT: What local produce items are being used in your dishes currently?
CV: Blueberries, summer and patty pan squash, peppers, onions, greens, salad turnips, cherry tomatoes, garlic scapes, nasturtiums, new potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, radish, cabbage, herbs and lots more. Every day we prepare different menus based on the best produce, fish and meats that are available locally. They’re often brought to our backdoor by the farmer or grower. This kind of connection to Maine and to our local farmers and growers creates the emotional part of our cooking. Customers can taste it in every dish we put out.
TT: Have you created any special menu items that highlight the local produce?
CV: We have a Casco Bay hake dish at Local 188 right now that pairs with a nasturtium pesto, garlic scape quinoa and preserved meyer lemon carrots. Also both of our restaurants have joined in a promotion to help the local fishermen by creating demand for underutilized seafood. The ‘Out of the Blue’ promotion is something the Gulf of Maine Research Institute started this summer. At Local 188, we’ve served Redfish dishes and Atlantic Mackerel with a miso orange glaze, onion and cherry tomato saute. The sweet flavors of the produce brings this dish to life.
TT: What is your favorite dish that includes local produce?
CV: Blueberry pie! Or anything our bakers, Sigrid Howe and Gabrielle Girard make. They are doing amazing things with the seasonal fruits.
TT: As you include seasonal produce in your menu, how often do you change your regular or special menu items?
CV: Eating at Sonny’s and Local 188 is like a festival of seasonal foods. Every day we change our menu to feature dishes made with the best each season has to offer. This spring and summer the produce, seafood, meats, and cheeses, most of which are from nearby farms and waters, are amazing. It’s been a beautiful growing season, and we still have late summer and fall to look forward to.
TT: Do you work with any farms in particular?
CV: Freedom Farm; Thirty Acre Farm, Stonecipher Farm; Southpaw Farm, to name a few. If you’re curious about our farm relationships check out our blog. Right now you can meet the owners of some of the farms we buy from and we will be adding more. We have built our reputation on being local. We don’t think there are any restaurants in Portland, Maine, that can outdo us when it comes to buying from local farms.
TT: What makes your menu/restaurant unique?
CV: Everything from our menus and beverage programs to the look and feel of our restaurants. We are not serving sophisticated food or experimenting with our customers. Instead we serve simple dishes that are authentic and delicious. We have service teams that have been with us for ten years or longer. That alone is an amazing and unique thing. It translates to consistency which is hard to master. Above all we pride ourselves in sourcing as much as we can locally. We like to see our farmers and chat about this year’s harvest as well as future crops. So the servers and bartenders can do the same with our customers. It’s all part of the fun of hanging out at Local 188 and Sonny’s.