Linda

We haven’t been to Rumford in a while, and were surprised to be reminded that it isn’t all that far away. Just a 50-minute drive from home, and we were following signs from Route 2 that directed us to the downtown area and Brian’s Bistro in the Hotel Harris.

The beauty of this space hits you immediately. The tall ceilings — painted in black and accented with wide beams that are painted white — are sure to grab your attention. The big open room with large windows and gorgeous old wooden floors has been artfully decorated by Jessica, who owns the bistro with her husband Brian, who is the chef. It just so happens she has a degree in design and has put that degree to good use. I fell in love with the candle collections hanging in the front windows. Those candles combined with soft lighting make this restaurant more intimate.

George pointed out a beautiful painting he’d noticed while taking photos. It took up most of one wall. He asked Jess if it was Italy and she said “Yes, and I painted that.” We were impressed!

Not only is Jess talented, she has an upbeat personality that draws you in. You can see that she’s made many connections with her patrons, as they seek her out when they enter or to say goodbye before they leave.

Brian’s food has an Italian influence. He’s a graduate of the New England Culinary School and is a fabulous chef. We were going to pass up an appetizer, but Brian sent out an order of Risotto Rounds. I am so glad we didn’t miss those! These were asiago-stuffed risotto balls that came with the most delectable marinara sauce I have tasted in a while. I’ve tried risotto balls elsewhere that were huge and dry, but these little beauties oozed cheese when you cut into them. Yum!

I inquired if they used that same sauce on their pizzas. Yes indeed. So those pizzas — seven very interesting combinations — must be incredible. They also offer up eight styles of creative burgers here. The burgers are so big we noticed one guy cutting his in half before tackling it.

For entrees, choose from pasta styles (putenesca, alfredo, pesto or gorgonzola), or Brian’s Chef Specialties plates. That’s where I found the Chicken Saltimbocca our server Kelly described as a customer favorite. I’d already spotted this dish looking at the menu online, and thought that’s what I’d order, but her recommendation sealed the deal.

Out came a gigantic plate of linguini topped with chicken, and sauteed mushrooms, with prosciutto and sage in a Marsala cream sauce. The aroma that wafted up when it arrived was heavenly. George was over near the bar taking photos of his entree when I noticed that he’d stalled out and was talking to some loyal patrons. I snuck a few bites being careful not to disturb the photo, then flagged him down with a clear message that it was time to take photos of my meal so I could eat!

The entree came out piping hot, and you could taste the Marsala without it making the dish too sweet. But it was the prosciutto that made this dish so well balanced. I ate and ate, shared some with George, and it still didn’t look like I gotten started. I did note that many others were taking leftovers home as well.

Our meal was remarkable, and you can sense that this is just a happy place. Follow the signs off U.S. Route 2 to Brian’s Bistro. You’ll be very happy that you did!

George

The priest and the sheriff and I were in the bar … That sounds like the beginning of a funny story, doesn’t it? Well, the story would be true at Brian’s Bistro.

Because of the low lighting in the dining room, I’d taken my entree into the bar, where there was more light to take photos, when the Oxford County sheriff called my name from a nearby table, where he was dining with the young local priest and the priest’s parents from Greene. I visited with them for a while, promising that, with both a priest and a sheriff there, I’d be on my best behavior!

On my next photo foray into the bar, two more couples spoke with me. And back at our table, two couples seated behind us visited with us and allowed me to photograph their entrees. They also told us the bistro’s Caesar salad is the best they’ve ever had anywhere. The customers and staff here are so friendly! The closest we could find to new diners was a couple who were at the Bistro for the second time. Most said they come at least once a week.

We love finding these community gathering places, many of which offer surprisingly good food. Brian takes it to another level, however.

I’d been pleading for the Risotto Rounds as an appetizer, but the food police at my table pointed out that the entrees going past our table were huge, and we wouldn’t be able to eat both an appetizer and an entree. Brian apparently read my mind because, even though we didn’t order them, he sent them out! Wow, they were soooo good. And as good as the rounds were, the marinara sauce was the star. I’d recommend anything on the menu with that sauce. Of course, when I told Lin I loved the cheese sauce, she explained it is not a cheese sauce!

Our exceptional server, Kelly, a Bethel native, has worked here for four years. Despite the fact they were very busy, she was always there when we needed her, and her recommendations were really helpful. While I’d been anticipating a steak dish, Kelly talked me into Scallops Provencale: pan-seared scallops topped with sauteed tomatoes, garlic, scallions, fresh herbs and panko crumbs.

I do not exaggerate when I say this was one of the best scallop dishes I’ve ever had. The four large perfectly seared scallops were finished in the oven, nicely moist in the middle, and the sauce and toppings turned a good dish into a spectacular dish.

The scallop entree was the most expensive item on the menu at $21.95. Yes, prices here are very low for the creativity and quality of the food. Our entire bill, with glasses of wine, an appetizer and two entrees, was just $61.

I’d love to stop by here someday for a beer and pizza. The Little Italy pizza ($12.95) includes hot sausage, prosciutto, pepperoni and bacon with marinara and mozzarella. Wow! That pizza is calling my name. Alas, Linda called it a “heart attack on a plate.”

Tuesday Taps and Apps is a weekly event here, with $3 beers on tap and $5 appetizers. Steak Night on Wednesdays, with half-pound sirloins for just $14, including soup and salad, also sounds like fun and a real bargain.

I had hoped for dessert after hearing that Brian’s dad makes some of them, but Lin said no. Imagine my gratitude when we got home and discovered that Jessica had snuck into our take-home bag a delicious piece of chocolate-topped rum cake. You’re the best, Jessica!

One of my favorite authors, Monica Wood, wrote a column about Brian’s Bistro five years ago for Down East magazine. Monica has written four wonderful novels and the best biography I’ve ever read, “When We Were The Kennedys,” about growing up in Rumford when 10,000 workers were employed at the mill. It’s a tale of a time and place that most Mainers are unfamiliar with.

While employment at the mill has plummeted, and Rumford has struggled like so many Maine mill towns, it is very encouraging to find a place like Brian’s Bistro flourishing here.

Monica opened her story on the bistro this way: “Got the blues? Need connection? In the mood for an upscale meal you can actually afford? Why not gas up the car and head for downtown Rumford.” I can’t say it any better than that.

While “Brian’s Bistro” is a great alliterative name, the restaurant is misnamed. Bistro is defined as “a small or unpretentious restaurant,” or a “small bar or tavern.”

Brian’s Bistro is large — with more than 100 seats in the dining room and separate bar — and does not resemble a rowdy bar or tavern atmosphere. Yes, it is unpretentious. But it is also beautiful, and offers a family-friendly dining opportunity with some of the best food you’ll find anywhere in western Maine.

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.

Maine Harvest Game Festival

Roasted Bandera Quail. Boar Katsu. Fried Smelts. Scotch Egg-Stuffed Quail. Braised antelope shanks. Pheasant Roulade.

Yes, The Harraseeket Inn’s annual “Maine Harvest Game Festival” is about to arrive! This is a don’t-miss event on our schedule. Every February, for the entire month, the inn’s Maine Dining Room features a game menu resplendent with fantastic dishes you’ll never see anywhere else in or outside of Maine. The restaurant offers plenty of gluten-free dishes and items like vegetarian pot pie that includes wild mushrooms.

Time to go wild! But be sure to get a reservation, because this annual month-long event is very very popular.


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