George

When Nona Boyink suggested we write a travel column about MaineGeneral Medical Center’s cafeteria, I was incredulous. “People don’t go to the hospital to dine, do they?” I asked. “Yes they do!” Nona exclaimed.

And she was right. In the last two months, I’ve had occasion to eat breakfast at the hospital twice. The first time I had a wonderful omelet with bacon and cheese, a bagel with cream cheese and coffee, for $5.02. Yup. Just $5.02.

So now you know why the hospital has become my breakfast place! I’m cheap, and so’s the food here. But cheap isn’t enough to draw a crowd, and I have to say I’ve been very surprised by the quality of the food served here.

It took a while to convince Linda we should write this column. But last week, when she was really busy and we needed a column for this week, she agreed. We arrived at the hospital about 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, took some photos, selected a nice table in the very large and comfortable dining area (in the summer you can sit outside on the deck) and returned to the main room to talk with the manager, Debbie, and Sadie at the entree station.

Both were very welcoming and helpful, as was cashier Kelly, as we selected samples of their entrees and other food. The variety and quantity of food here will stagger you. And you won’t believe the prices.

Here’s what I tried. At the salad bar, I went for three pre-made salads: potato, pasta and coleslaw. All three were good and the coleslaw was my favorite — crunchy and sweet.

At the entree station, I tried Quinoa Lasagna, Spinach Mac-n-Cheese and Cheddar Broccoli and White Bean Soup. I gobbled up the thick and tasty soup first, then turned to the entrees. With the first bite of the lasagna, I said, “It’s got rice in it!”

“Well that’s the quinoa, honey,” replied Linda. Of course.

The lasagna was particularly interesting, layered with zucchini slices and a different texture than I’m used to in this dish. “It’s healthier,” Linda explained. It’s especially good to have that kind of advice when you are in the hospital.

But I fell off the wagon with a huge slice of brick oven pizza. Several regular diners here had told me their pizza is fabulous and, despite discouraging comments from Linda, I grabbed a slice of bacon and onion pizza ($1.95). I will confess it was really, really great, with a thick crust and huge amount of bacon.

Drooling over the large selection of desserts, most made by the cafeteria’s baker who works from 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., I convinced Linda we had to try something. I was worried that it would be the cup of fresh fruit, but she selected an oatmeal whoopee pie. Yes! We balanced that with the healthy veggie drink — ginger and beet juice. Linda drank most of that. They change the flavor and ingredients every week.

In a phone call the next day, the retail manager, Shelly, told me they get a lot of their vegetables and other produce from the Pickup’s CSA, in Skowhegan (a favorite of ours that includes the Pickup Cafe). The cafeteria’s beef comes from Sunset Meadow Farm in Vassalboro, and is butchered at Herring Brothers in Guilford — another favorite of ours. We always stop at the Herring Brothers store coming and going on our way to our North Woods camp.

As we reconnoitered through the cafe, I noticed the many awards these folks have won, with high ratings from patients, cafeteria customers and the Waterville Food Festival.

But at the exit, on our way out, we noticed a table with a sign: Love Your Heart. Of course, Linda had to stop and gather in all the informational material, while I noted, “It’s a good thing this wasn’t at the entrance.”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference. You’d still have had the pizza,” she replied. And she was right!

Linda

MaineGeneral Medical Center might not spring to mind as a destination for going out to eat, but the Peter Alfond Cafeteria will change your mind. One step in and you know it is not your ordinary cafeteria.

Three giant photographs of fresh fruit and vegetables are front and center as you descend the stairs to the huge eating space. Areas of foods are spaced out and it is a pretty hard to choose which one you’d like to try.

Depending on the time of your visit, you might order from the “Expo Station,” where a chef whips up a fresh breakfast or lunch entree right in front of you; the sandwich spot; the fresh brick oven pizza area; the salad bar, brimming with ultra-fresh ingredients; or maybe the aromas from the entree section will tempt you.

Polite reminders that healthy foods are available are prominently displayed. Signs above each area rotate, telling you the offerings and prices, the nutritional information panel and that you should “eat at least seven servings of fruits and vegetables each day.”

This is a big operation. Patient meals are separate from the cafeteria meals, but both are prepared in the same kitchen. They supply food for the Alfond Cancer Center next door and also for Waterville’s Thayer Center for Health. They feature fresh foods and obtain local produce when possible.

Lots of hospital employees dine there, of course. But it came to our attention that the public was dining there, too. Why? Well the food is excellent and the prices are unbelievably low. Affordable food attracts nearby workers, (that day a mailman and a worker down the street had come by) and families. And, as one of the employees pointed out, it is nice that families come with their kids so that hospitals won’t seem like such a scary place. Seeing workers in their hospital garb isn’t nearly so scary when you see that they are normal, friendly people.

The sizable Turkey and Black Bean Empanadas were more than a little tempting. Their amazing flaky crust made these incredible, and the filling was nicely spiced. The server pointed out sour cream and salsa beside the station and it certainly put these empanadas in the category of “wow!” I also tried a small portion of the Chicken Stir Fry with a side of rice. It was loaded with tender chicken pieces and crunchy green pepper, green beans and onions. Even with its soy-based sauce, it wasn’t too salty. I loved both of these entrees.

I saw another customer get just the stir fry for her dinner. I had learned earlier that they serve 6-ounce portions of their entrees, but it almost covered the girl’s plate. For $2.89, I don’t know where you could possibly get a homemade entree that was that delicious and at such a low price. I doubt that you could even make it at home for that price per serving.

The cafeteria is named for Peter Alfond, and he had some requests regarding the offerings. He did not want french fries served, and there are no deep fryers here. He wanted a variety of juice blends offered each day. Kelly came over to point them out to us and asked us to try one. Juice drinks are raw vegetables and/or fruits put through a juicer. Since the foods are not cooked, all the nutrients of those foods stay intact.

So we shook our ginger beet juice (as instructed), and gave it a try. It was not at all sweet, the way a fruit juice might have been, and I really enjoyed it. I felt healthier just trying a vegetable juice. It is certainly an easy way to get some servings of vegetables in!

You just might learn or try something new at the MaineGeneral Cafeteria, and you certainly will get a tasty meal at a great price. With its comfortably spaced seating, it is a quiet place to enjoy a nice meal and you might not even remember you are in a cafeteria. You certainly won’t know you are in a hospital!

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.

Great dinners and Christmas gifts at the Olde Post Office Cafe

Here’s some really great news. Mount Vernon’s fabulous Olde Post Office Cafe, for the first time, will remain open for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights from 5-9 p.m. throughout the winter. Every Saturday night there’ll be live music.

Reservations are recommended and essential on Saturdays. Linda and I went on the spur of the moment two Saturdays ago, and there were no tables available until our friends Alan and Donna Williams gave us their table for two and moved to a larger table with another couple — confirming what a friendly place this cafe and town really is.

Chef Sarah Chiasson is whipping up wonderful and very creative menus for these dinners, featuring some favorites and many specials. For our most recent dinner, I enjoyed an amazing applewood-smoked, ham- stuffed meatloaf served with rosemary, mashed potatoes and a delicious mushroom sauce. The portion was huge. Linda raved about her chicken pot pie, made with carrots, parsnips and pearl onions and lots of sage. It was topped with a large puff pastry, which she spilled all over herself, the table and the floor.

Other menu items that night included Moroccan port stew, Cajun-style andouille quesadilla, sage lasagna and the cafe’s classic mac-n-cheese. The cafe now has a nice selection of wines and beers.

I’ve been known to have a breakfast meeting at the cafe and still be there talking at lunchtime. Now, maybe I can stay all day on Friday or Saturday!

On Dec. 11 from 4-8 p.m., Christmas comes to the cafe as local artists, craftsmen and authors offer great Christmas gifts for sale, while Sarah provides tasty appetizers and drinks. I’ll be there with my book, “A Life Lived Outdoors,” ready to autograph it for you!


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