When we were invited to tour the expanded Colby Museum of Art, it gave us an opportunity to combine fine art with a fine dinner at Waterville’s 18 Below.
The quote on the front of the stunning addition to Colby’s already-impressive Museum of Art said it all for me: “The museum is a school; the artist learns to communicate; the public learns to make connections.”
I wish, as a writer, I could communicate this well. But I was able to make the connections that move you from one work of art to another and from room to room to room. This place is so big you might need your GPS unit to find the exit.
Frederick Fisher, a California architect who designed this beautiful glass Alford-Lunder Family Pavilion, was on hand for our tour. His explanation of how light played a major role in the design was fascinating. Inside, the natural light changes with the time of day and seasons. And in each room, the amount of natural light is paired appropriately with the art exhibited there.
The major expansion of the museum was made possible by a very generous donation from Peter and Paula Lunder, including $100 million of art comprised of more than 500 works.
Lest you be as unsophisticated about art as I am, let me assure you that not only is this worth seeing, the collection is certain to wow you into becoming a regular visitor to the museum. The works by famous artists are certainly impressive, and you will undoubtedly recognize the names — from Winslow Homer to Alex Katz, Georgia O’Keefe to James McNeill Whistler, Rockwell Kent to Norman Rockwell.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I most admired a painting of Mount Katahdin from the West Branch of the Penobscost (one of my favorite fishing spots), an Ansel Adams photo of western mountains, Frederick Remington’s “Buffalo Hunt” in the “Man’s World” room, William Michael Harnett’s “After the Hunt,” a huge painting of a canoe by Alex Katz and a collection of weathervanes.
And the man playing cards, artist Duane Hanson’s father, at a table in the second room we visited, is so lifelike that at first glance, I thought he was real. It will be something you’ll never forget. The typewriter eraser and clothespin are other works that will make you smile.
Dinner at 18 Below will also make you smile. Since first writing about this great Waterville restaurant, coming up now on its second anniversary, we’ve been delighted by the number of readers and friends who have eaten here and raved about it. And they were right to rave.
It was a long time from November 2012 to last Friday night to wait for more of 18 Below’s fabulous Prince Edward Island Mussels, sauteed with Shipyard Export Ale, shallots, garlic, tomatoes and orange wedges. But they were worth waiting for. Priced at $10, the huge portion could easily have been my meal — and half of them were, the next day!
Our server, Steve, impressed us once again when he remembered what we’d ordered last year. We were even more impressed with his superb attention to every detail of our meal, including offering us samples of wine before we selected a bottle, and bringing out an appetizer for us to look at and photograph. As we discussed the entree specials with Steve, one really jumped out at me: Toasted pistachio crusted fresh mahi mahi, served with saffron rice, fresh broccoli and spicy mango coulis priced at $24.
When I described the sauce as “flavorful” Lin laughed at me. Then I asked her where the coulis was on my plate. More laughter. Of course, the coulis was the sauce.
We enjoyed visiting with owner Travis Lajoy, a seasoned chef who is working incredibly hard to give all his customers delicious and creative food and lots of it. His portions are far too big, we think, but we do enjoy those leftovers.
And now a word about prices. Some readers have expressed the sentiment that entrees priced between $15 and $25 are too high. Well, my friends, you can’t get food that is this creative, in these large portions, with this type of exceptional service and setting, for less. Yes, you can eat for less. But you can’t eat like this.
You can dine at 18 Below, enjoy a beer or glass of wine and a delicious appetizer that will be more than filling, for as little as $16. Or go for the wine plus an entree for as little as $20. No matter what you spend, I’ll bet it won’t be your last meal here.
Travis is now hosting many events, so if you are looking for a place for a gathering of any kind, and want it to be something special, 18 Below is that place.
The addition of the large new wing at the Colby Art Museum was cause for a celebration, one that actually lasted three days. We were invited to have a sneak peek with other journalists interested in art, architecture or both. Being guided by the curator of the Lunder Collection, Sharon Corwin, and architect Frederick Fisher was the icing on the cake.
Fisher also designed the 1999 addition to the museum. The style of that wing was of a federal house — colored rooms offset with molding and baseboards. The new Lunder Pavilion is a large glass wing housing rooms with 14-foot ceilings, and a layout that lets you to flow from one space to another. It is spacious, modern and just stunning.
I loved that the works are arranged by themes — from contemporary to 20th-century art, and southwestern art to the theme of aging. It would be difficult to choose a favorite room. I loved the contemporary room (and was pleased to see an enormous piece by Louise Nevelson), but also loved seeing an Andrew Wyeth right next to a Norman Rockwell and an Edward Hopper. The Nina Katchadourian nightgown project draws you right in.
We followed up with another great dinner at 18 Below. I had forgotten just how big the menu is here. With the evening’s specials, I had tough choices. This restaurant features a lot of fresh seafood, so I decided to try their crab cakes. I requested just one crab cake instead of the usual two that come with the appetizer as George was staying with the mussels.
The single crab cake made a nice appetizer. If they had brought a full order I wouldn’t have had room for my entree. Their crab cake has a supremely crunchy coating encasing fresh crabmeat with a little parsley and red pepper. The flavor of the crab comes through and their accompanying sauce is great.
The specials that evening showed just how creative the chefs can be. George and I both ended up ordering from the specials this time.
I asked our server, Steve, how spicy the Korean Pork Noodle Bowl was. He checked with the chef and answered, “It’s a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10.” I was not to be deterred. Tender slow-cooked pork combined nicely with the crunchy fresh vegetables. It was very spicy indeed, but I really did enjoy it.
Alas, when I finished eating, it didn’t look like I had really even started. These are big portions, and our leftovers of this dish were enough to provide two enjoyable lunches for both of us at home.
This restaurant is such a beautiful space, a warm combination of wooden boards and brick. Low lighting with candles on the tables just adds to the atmosphere. A co-worker of mine dined here after our first column and now claims it to be her favorite restaurant, with the best food she’s eaten at in a long time.
We had a wonderful visit with Travis’ father who was hosting that night. The staff is friendly and accommodating and the food is consistently excellent.
An afternoon at the Colby Art Museum, followed by a wonderful dinner at 18 Below, was a memorable time. Experience this soon!
Visit George’s website: www.georgesmithmaine.com for travel tips, book reviews, outdoor news and more.