We’ll never drive through Ellsworth again without eating at Cleonice.
For decades, we’ve fought our way along U.S. Route 1, turned left and felt a sigh of relief as we put the congestion of Ellsworth behind us, enroute to Lubec and Campobello. We knew nothing of the city’s wonderful business district or this very special — we’d even say spectacular — restaurant.
We were picking blueberries at Fayette’s Steep Hill Farm when we encountered friends from Readfield, the Tolmans. Susan said she was really enjoying our travel columns, then asked, with a smile, why we hadn’t written about her daughter’s restaurant.
Good question! It turns out that the Tolman’s daughter Cary and her husband Richard Hanson — twice a James Beard nominee — own one of the coast’s most remarkable restaurants. Cleonice was actually on our list for a future visit because we’d heard good things about it. With a little nudge from Susan, we got there!
The restaurant is named for Rich’s mother and is pronounced “clee-oh-neese.” Tagged as a Mediterranean Bistro, Cleonice actually offers an exceptional array of menu choices. We stopped first for lunch on our way to Campobello, then stopped again on our way home a week later for dinner.
We place a lot of faith in our servers. They know the food, restaurant and owners, and most are very willing to open up. Eliza served us at both lunch and dinner, has waitressed since the age of 12, worked here for four years and was effusive in her praise for Cary and Rich, who treat the staff and customers “like family.” Eliza also mentioned her admiration for “what they stand for.”
That takes a bit of explanation, because it covers a range of things from their commitment to local produce, meat, fish, beer and wine, to their sincere interest in your dining experience. Rich came out of the kitchen several times to check on our dinner, and to visit with others in the restaurant.
And you need know nothing more than the fact that Maine’s gardening guru, Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm, personally delivers the produce every Tuesday morning. Linda has been pouring through Coleman’s book on Hoop Houses all summer, as we ordered and constructed our own.
Their feta cheese comes from Sunset Acres Farm in Brooksville, where cheese maker Anne Bossi has been rated one of the top five cheese makers in the country by the Chicago Tribune. We agree!
My delicious lunch consisted of one of Maine’s underutilized fish species, Red fish, in a pita bread presentation, accompanied by a Manly Men Big Wicked IPA from Atlantic Brewing Co. in Bar Harbor. And yes, it’s manly.
At dinner, tapas kept coming from the kitchen until we said “No mas, please!” Every one of them was fabulous, but my favorite was Romano Beans a la Romano — with a very delicious sauce.
Or perhaps it was the Htipiti — spicy whipped feta with pita crisps. Yummy!
They did a special presentation of chicken oysters for us — a section from the back of a chicken, fried like oysters, with juice from the stock — molecular gastronomy at its best! Wow! There’s a lot of talent in that kitchen.
A fool for paella, a seafood stew, I made that my entrée selection. Rich helped me learn how to pronounce it, suggesting, “Imagine you are at the Blue Hill Fair in the pie-eating contest, when you say Good pie Ayuh!.” That’s it!
The paella came in a gorgeous bowl with a special cloth napkin, a spoon and a side bowl for shells. Chorizo sausage is the not-so-secret ingredient in this dish, but I was captivated by the clams, scallops and shrimp. The chicken, peas and saffron-scented Bomba rice were a surprise. Oh, this was soooo good.
I had to work hard to convince him, but I did it. I was growing tired of the fried food at Jordan’s in Ellsworth that we visit on our way to Lubec. (Don’t get me wrong — the food here is good if you are craving fresh, fried seafood. I was not.)
“Well it’s probably going to take a lot longer. And I don’t know about the traffic and a place to park downtown on a Friday noon,” said George. I persevered, and finally swayed him to at least stop this one time to try Cleonice for lunch.
We easily found a parking place and were quickly seated. Just one look at the menu and I knew I was going to be pleased. There were lots of choices — fresh seasonal ingredients were prominent — and my meal was not going to be fried!
There are many choices of salads and sandwiches from the lunch menu, and I quickly noticed the vegetables were from Eliot Coleman’s organic Four Season Farm.
I ordered a Little Italy Hero featuring three meats (I asked them to leave off one), provolone and roasted red peppers, choosing a salad instead of roasted potatoes. Their focaccia bread, baked here, made the sandwich amazing and the salad (super fresh) was the perfect accompaniment.
I know I will not have to convince George to stop here for lunch now, as he enjoyed his lunch as much as I did mine!
On our way home, we stopped for dinner and got a better idea of how well-rounded this restaurant really is. We tried several selections from their tapas menu — each one as delicious as the next.
The Romano beans have nothing in common with your average green beans! The Htipiti was spicy whipped feta (didn’t even know you could whip feta!) with pine nuts and served with pita crisps. Each and every bite of their creative and delicious tapas packs a punch.
We’d ordered a glass of wine from their extensive menu, and my wine tasted like Italy. The kitchen graciously made smaller portions of our entrees and they were perfect.
I’d never tried bison meat, so I chose the Grilled Bison Flank Steak with Chimichurri sauce. It was tender with a wonderful flavor, and combined so well with the sauce. On the side was a sauté of tiny corn kernels and roasted peppers, and chili-lime roasted sweet potatoes finished off the plate. This meal was absolutely incredible!
To come to Cleonice is to celebrate fresh local food, creativity and unusual Mediterranean flavors you don’t find at most restaurants. We’ve got to find a time to get to Ellsworth before next summer, for sure!
It’s very easy to make a meal of two or three tapas — the intriguing list is long — and we intend to try them all eventually. You can opt for their small plates, too. The night we dined, those included a grilled vegetable ratatouille and a flat iron steak.
But the creative cooking here will dictate that you experience an entrée. So go easy on the tapas!
IF YOU GO . . .
ON THE WEB: www.cleonice.com
WHERE: 112 Main St., Ellsworth
RESERVATIONS for dinner are recommended, or for lunch if you have a group of six or more.
Visit George’s website: www.george
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