Not long ago, when David Turin took his duck breast and foie gras sliders off the menu at David’s KPT, his Kennebunkport restaurant, a customer actually started a website called “Save the Duck Slider.”

When Turin changed the seasonal menu at his Portland restaurant two weeks ago, he dared not deep-six the meatloaf “because if we don’t put it on the menu we start to get hate mail.”

Chef James Tranchemontagne, owner of The Frog & Turtle in Westbrook, puts his chicken cordon bleu on the menu in winter, after the holidays, but he has to keep the ingredients on hand year-round.

Why? Because customers order it, no matter what the time of year. Tranchemontagne doesn’t understand it.

“It’s just such a low-brow grandma food, but everybody loves it,” he said, laughing.

Does Bruce Springsteen ever get sick of singing “Born to Run?” Does Michael Phelps ever tire of swimming the butterfly? How many times have fans asked Robert De Niro, “You talkin’ to me?” Chefs also have their greatest hits, in the form of dishes their customers just can’t say goodbye to. Chefs are a creative bunch, and it may pain them to serve an unchallenging dish they could make with their eyes closed. But sometimes they have to because the public clamors for it.

Tranchemontagne’s chicken cordon bleu is made with two chicken cutlets covered with grilled ham and a melted mixture of brie and gruyere cheeses. It’s served over potatoes – and finished with mustard-herb sauce. The kitchen staff jokes that it’s a high-end version of the KFC bunless chicken sandwich, Tranchemontagne said.

The $24 dish is “wicked comfort food,” he said, but “I feel like even in the spectrum of comfort food, this is one that never should have gained popularity.”

DiMillo's chef Melissa Bouchard with a lobster pie hot from the oven. The restaurant started serving it, she deadpans, "before I was even born."

DiMillo’s chef Melissa Bouchard with a lobster pie hot from the oven. The restaurant started serving it, she deadpans, “before I was even born.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

There must be something to the comfort food angle. Melissa Bouchard, executive chef at DiMillo’s On the Water in Portland, theorizes that’s the reason customers keep ordering the lobster pie at her restaurant. It’s not even on the menu anymore – Bouchard said the restaurant started serving it “before I was even born” – but customers keep asking for it. Like Tranchemontagne, she has to keep the ingredients on hand because it’s requested as much as three times a day.

The lobster pie ($28) is made with Newburg sauce, a recipe seemingly found in June Cleaver’s kitchen, and Bouchard is convinced it simply reminds people of childhood dinners with their parents and grandparents. She has tried to tweak the dish, but to no avail. “There’s just no way to reinvent Newburg sauce,” she complained.

French chef Frederic Eliot’s nemesis is also a throwback – to America’s 1970s idea of French cuisine. Eliot, now co-executive chef at Scales in Portland, grew oh-so-weary of making French onion soup ($10) when he was the chef at Petite Jacqueline (even though I can personally attest it was delicious). Customers ordered the soup as much as 30 times a night at the little bistro, when it was in Longfellow Square. (The restaurant has relocated to the Old Port.)

“For me, (the soup) was a real cliché of what American culture thinks of French cooking,” said Eliot. “When I was a kid growing up, we really didn’t eat it that much.”

The same thing goes for steak frites and crème brûlée, he said – which is amusing because chef Brian Hill’s culinary albatross is steak frites. Hill, chef/owner of Francine Bistro in Camden and a James Beard nominee, said he’s had steak frites on his menu for 14 years. Removing it now, he jokes, “would be the end of my career.” One night, he recalled, 56 people ordered the dish – in a restaurant that seats only 44 – “so it was long night of cooking steak.”

Hill gets why people love the $29 dish.

“The pan sauce is really addicting,” he said. “We cook a hanger steak in butter and then we make the pan sauce in that same brown butter. There’s shallots and purple mustard, and a little anchovy extract. …It makes this really unctuous sauce that goes with it.”

He has tried removing it from the menu in favor of steak au poivre featuring local beef tenderloin, but immediately “there were people threatening to never come in again.”

A few years ago, he tweaked the dish, but customers still order it the old way.

“There’s a restaurant in Paris that only serves steak frites,” he noted, “so it could be worse.”

Call it a cry for helpings: The pepper-crusted tuna still makes the menu at David's Restaurant.

Call it a cry for helpings: The pepper-crusted tuna still makes the menu at David’s Restaurant. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

The “Save the Duck Slider” website didn’t change Turin’s mind about killing the dish, but he has kept on a couple of other menu items much longer than usual because of customer demand. One is the best-selling pepper-crusted tuna ($28), which has been described, he said, as “so 1980.” Actually, he thinks he put it on the menu around 1992.

“I’m not actually bored with cooking it yet, even though I’ll bet we’ve probably cooked 30,000 pounds of tuna for that dish,” he said. “It wouldn’t be unusual for us to serve 100 portions in a week.”

He tried taking it off the menu three or four years ago, but diners protested.

Turin said chefs are in a tough spot when part of their customer base wants to order a favorite dish on every visit, and another segment of diners wants a menu that is constantly changing and always has something new.

“You have new ideas and things you want to do,” he said, “and you start looking through menu and you think ‘Oh, I can’t take that off.’ ”

Chefs have to strike a balance, Turin said, and also think about how keeping the status quo might affect their staff. Turin recalled a popular steak dish he served at a restaurant he once owned in Newburyport, Mass. Sometimes a third of his customers would order it in a single night. “It got to the point that nobody wanted to cook it anymore,” he said.

And that meatloaf ($21) at David’s? Meatloaf is usually a cold-weather comfort food, but Turin has to serve it even in July when it’s 80 degrees outside. The staff makes about six of them a night, using exotic mushrooms, pork and beef, then roasting it with bacon and brown sugar on top. Turin may tire of having it on the menu, but admits, “I can’t be in the kitchen when it comes out of the oven. It’s almost obscenely delicious. I can’t stop eating it.”

Like Turin, chef Larry Matthews Jr. of Back Bay Grill in Portland has tried to scuttle several dishes over the years. Once, after he nixed the crab cakes, an older gentleman came up to the restaurant’s open kitchen and asked whose decision it had been to remove them. Matthews said the man told him: “That’s why people go out of business right there, stupid decisions like that.”

On the one hand, it can be “comforting” to serve the same dish all the time because you get really good at making it, Matthews said. But it can also be frustrating for young cooks on the staff who want to put their own mark on the menu.

Matthews used to wish he could get rid of the restaurant’s crème brûlée ($9), which has been on the dessert menu for at least 20 years. But it’s easy to make, it sells well, and it’s become a part of the Back Bay Grill’s identity. It’s even become the go-to comp dish for customers who are having a birthday or an anniversary.

Matthews has finally made his peace with the crème brûlée.

“Now I just embrace it and go with it,” he said.


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