Anovernight getaway, Mid-Coast, mid-winter. Not just any winter, but this one? After nearly a year of hunker-down, just the two of us (if you don’t count dinner with Wolf, Erin or Anderson) we were craving even a brief change of scene. Searching online, up came the Craignair Inn by the Sea, a 21-room bed-and-breakfast (and, seriously, as we’d learn: dinner) on a secluded point in Spruce Head.
The Craignair seemed to have a few things going for it that other area inns did not. The first was pet friendly. These days, Molly, our 6-year-old Sato, thinks we’re joined at the hip. The second, for me who dreams of food and wakes up plotting dinner, was an intriguing dinner menu at The Causeway, Craignair’s restaurant, now run by a chef with impressive credentials.
For the third, cue flashing lights and sound effects. The inn was purchased a couple of years ago by Lauren and Greg Soutiea, a young couple who had been living and working in Boston. Lauren has a master’s degree in public health from Emory University. Clearly, safety protocols at the Craignair would go deeper than hand sanitizer and “extra” cleaning.
We settled on a date, reserving dinner and a pet-friendly room. And on a cold, grey Friday, with Molly in the back seat, we drove up to Spruce Head.
The Craignair sits on a picturesque spit of land overlooking a pretty cove, where a short narrow causeway leads to Clark Island. In summer, visitors can cross over by foot to explore sandy beaches, mud flats, protected habitats and an old granite quarry that once supported the town. Until the late 1930s, the inn served as a boardinghouse for the men who worked the stone.
Inside the inn, Lauren welcomed the three of us into a cozy office where I could imagine quarrymen once settling up weekly bills. When she asked about our drive, I suddenly panicked. We’d remembered to bring Molly’s bed, but not her treats and bowls. Where, I asked, was the nearest store to buy them?
“No worries,” said Lauren. Upstairs, she showed us to a bright and welcoming corner room with nice Brooklinen cotton linens on the bed. On the polished floor were two stainless dog bowls. On the dresser sat a gift bag of home-baked dog treats next to a basket filled with dog-sanctioned terry towels and a clean folded sheet to spread over the bed for canines so inclined. (Ours is not.)
When “dog friendly” often gets you a dank, unrenovated room in the lower 40, such thoughtful touches (in the main house, no less) count for a lot. Also a good sign: the tantalizing aromas wafting up from the kitchen below. In the fading late-afternoon light, we took Molly for a brisk romp by the shore before returning to dress (clean zippered fleece sweater) for dinner.
Open and airy, with high ceilings and a wall of glass looking out at the cove, The Causeway dining room has been as thoughtfully renovated as the guest rooms. Updates include a polished concrete bar and refreshed wainscotting and molding. But overall, the new owners have preserved the simple lines of what had been a refectory for dozens of hungry quarrymen. This evening, small parties of decidedly not-quarryman sat at tables more than safely distanced, as a masked server exited the kitchen with dishes that looked every bit as good as they’d smelled in pre-dinner prep.
Greg Soutiea, who has the lean build of the ultra-marathoner he is, showed us to a table that had been set up in an adjoining common room with grand piano, comfortable couches and bookshelves filled with books and board games. In busy season, guests can unwind here after a long day at the beach or sightseeing. (There are four historic lighthouses in the area.) But for now, the room was ours alone.
As he lit a fire in the Franklin stove, Greg told us that after several years working “regular” jobs in Boston—he in property management and Lauren in public health—the two decided to pursue their dream of becoming innkeepers. Both had experience in food service and part of the plan was an on-site restaurant with excellent food. After a couple of years of searching, “We pulled up here and basically knew we were home.”
They also knew they had to make some changes. The guest rooms and common areas needed updates, which they immediately set out to do. Dicier: While the on-site restaurant enjoyed a local following, it wasn’t what they had in mind. Over time, they tried out a few different chefs, but weren’t finding the right fit.
Last spring, they met a surprising candidate: Fernando Gabriel Ferreira, a Culinary Institute of America (CIA)–trained executive chef, new to Maine, with decades of experience at high-end restaurants They met and hit it off. For Lauren and Greg, here was a chef with not only stellar credentials, but also the right temperament. “We’re lucky we found him,” said Greg. “You’ll see.”
Feeling celebratory and Maine-proud, we each started out with a Causeway signature cocktail: a Maine-bourbon Manhattan made with local maple syrup, and a butternut squash Margarita. Both were delicious, particularly the flame-colored Margarita—the sweet essence of squash a pleasing foil to the burn of tequila and coarse salt along the rim of the glass.
Warmed by the fire, we looked over the menu of appealing offerings for omnivores, pescavores and vegans. As omnis, we started out with crab cakes, sautéed to a golden oak, perched on a bed of microgreens over a spicy remoulade. Each bite brought a welcome hit of real Maine crab (a giant step up from mushy patties that too often bear the name.) Kudos to Chef Fernando for giving this Maine classic the love and respect it deserves.
Next came the grilled pizzetta: a crisp flatbread topped with fontina melted into a tomato fondue under a flurry of tiny rainbow tomatoes and wispy pea shoots, topped with a balsamic-truffle reduction. Two out of two, we noted, as our server, Jeffrey, popped in to signal that our entrées would be coming out soon.
Beautifully presented, mine was pan-seared Maine haddock with jumbo shrimps and Maine scallops sizzled to a light char and lightly sauced with a citrus-tomato beurre blanc. My husband got the braised prime short rib: a hefty hunk of succulent beef first roasted to lock in the flavor, then braised to fork tender. It was served with creamy Yukon Golds and garlicky sautéed string beans. We were happily digging in when Chef Fernando, somewhat larger than life in crisp whites, breezed into our “private” dining room to ask if we were enjoying his food.
I liked the “his” part: a chef who takes ownership of the food coming out of his kitchen. With an emphatic “yes,” we invited him to sit down and talk, which he did—masked and at a distance.
“I can see why Greg said they were ‘lucky’ to find you,” I said. Without hesitation, Chef Fernando returned the compliment: “We were lucky to find each other.” Owners, he explained, so rarely support the practical demands of his passion for cooking. “But Lauren and Greg get what we’re building—that for the moment anyway, it can’t be measured by the bottom line.”
He recalled their first meeting, when he took a look at the existing menu and thought, “Well, this isn’t going to work.” But instead of blowing things up, he took the menu and made each dish his way. Lauren later confirmed that even the regulars were immediately blown away. “People ask me what’s my secret,” he said. “I tell them it’s no secret. It’s simplicity.” But for this chef, what does simplicity mean?
“No shortcuts; they don’t work. No dried anything and nothing from a can. I make all my sauces with reductions of vegetables and fresh herbs. My food is all natural, sourced locally whenever I can. And everything that comes out of my kitchen—breads, pastas, desserts—is made right here. By me.”
Now, nearly a year later, The Causeway menu is entirely Chef Fernando’s creation. The restaurant has strengthened its local following, while attracting guests at nearby inns. Lauren and Greg are beginning to realize their dream of destination dining: people willing to drive an hour or more for great food. As of now, dinner is served four nights a week with brunch on weekends. They’ll expand days and hours during tourist season.
Chef Fernando got up to return to the kitchen, but not before suggesting we try his chocolate lava cake for dessert. It arrived still oven-warm, over a dulce de leche sauce dotted with a berry coulis. Completing the picture: a dusting of confectioners’ sugar, vanilla bean ice cream and a rolled cookie wafer at a jaunty angle over the entire affair. Inside, as promised: a delicious reward of rich, molten fudge.
Back in our room, Molly greeted us with a wagging tail and—anthropomorphizing here—a look of relief. We probably hadn’t been separated that long in months. But dogs are forgiving. Sated and sleepy, we settled into our respective beds for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, we decided not to rush right back to Portland as planned. Instead, we’d stay for brunch. Eggs Benedict with house-made hollandaise and Canadian bacon (his) and house-cured salmon (hers). For the humans anyway, it turned out to be a very good call.
. . .
A week after our visit to the Craignair Inn by the Sea, I spoke with Chef Fernando Ferreira by phone.
Braised Prime Short ribs: fresh herbs, port wine, sautéed green beans, Yukon gold whipped potatoes.
Photo: Fernando Ferreira
Chef Fernando, can you tell me a little about your background?
I was born in Uruguay to a family of Portuguese and Italian heritage, so someone was always cooking—preparing foods of both cultures as well as Uruguayan-style wood-grilled meats and vegetables. When I was in my teens, my family moved to Venezuela. After high school, I started working for some of the trendiest restaurants in Caracas. That led to my organizing international food festivals that took me to K-Paul’s in New Orleans, where I learned Cajun cooking from the Father of Cajun Cooking, Paul Prudhomme, and to Switzerland, to discover the secrets of fondue, rösti and other Swiss dishes.
So you learned exclusively from the masters?
No, I also went to school, first studying food and beverage administration at the University of Puerto Rico, then earning a second degree in Hyde Park, New York, from the Culinary Institute of America.
Those are some credentials. What came next?
Basically years of perfecting my craft at excellent restaurants, some in five-star hotels, under incredible mentors like Chef Pascal Oudin, who’d been executive chef at Disneyland Paris, nee Euro Disney Paris. After several years in Miami; Memphis; and Raleigh, North Carolina, my wife, Marta, and I moved to Kansas City, where I worked as executive chef for a series of high-end restaurants. Things were good. I could write my ticket and work anywhere. But after 30 years we’d had enough of Midwest winters, and I was tired of restaurants run like corporations, all about cutting corners to lower costs. That doesn’t mesh with my approach to food. We decided to quit while we were ahead and move to Puerto Rico.
Well, so I thought. But when cooking is in your blood, you can’t just walk away. I opened a small restaurant on the beach in Condado, a nice tourist area. Then last March, with COVID, the whole island shut down. After that came a 6.5 earthquake. The high-rise we were living in was rocking back and forth. I turned to Marta and said, “Enough. We’re getting out.”
But to Maine? That seems like a stretch.
Not really. Over the years we’d vacationed here, driving down the coast after visiting one of our sons in Montreal. We always loved Maine. It’s clean and beautiful, peaceful, with so much nature. It seemed like a safe place to live. We found a place in Freeport and moved up here.
The idea was to get back to work as a chef?
Yes, but almost everything in Freeport was closed. Then I heard about The Craignair—that Lauren and Greg were looking for a good chef. We met and it was instant rapport; I liked them right away. At the time, the restaurant was open only in summer. I reluctantly said no but offered to come in and help out for a few weeks. Over time, we worked out a plan to stay open year-round, and here we are.
It sounds like you’re happy with their support and the freedom you have to do things your way.
I am. A lot of the food along the coast is pretty much the same. What we’re building here is different and people are taking notice. You have to honor the raw materials and all that they hold and handle them with passion, patience and respect. Here I get to use my creativity. I enjoy the one-on-one: coming out of the kitchen to talk with guests about the food. For me, cooking is not a job. It’s my life.
For reservations: craignair.com