“I always wanted to own a restaurant,” Joshua Mather tells me. ”When I was a kid drew out a big picture of my ideal place, complete with its own garden and my private quarters attached. It was called Lunchtime. ”
Thus were the humble beginnings of Joshua’s, one of southern Maine’s most pristine dining experiences that is slightly off the beaten path in Wells. Upon eating Mather’s food for the very first time, I will admit that my initial feelings were regret for not having done it sooner. On the evening prior to my visit, I was told that Joshua’s had celebrated their tenth anniversary of being in business, yet somehow I had waited until now to cross paths with the simple, delicious splendor of this restaurant situated in a colonial-style house from the 1700s.
Getting to know more about Mather himself explained a great deal about what makes his style of cooking so appealing. He grew up not far down the road from Joshua’s on Easter Orchard Farm, where his parents, Mort and Barbara, delivered fresh produce and eggs to local restaurants while also running an operation selling pies. For Mather, living off what the land provided was the only way of life, a point that he vividly illustrates when he explains that both he and his sister were born on a bartered transaction with the doctor for cords of firewood and sides of beef.
There is a calm confidence about Mather, which suggests that he not only recognizes how good his food tastes, but is also content knowing that he consistently creates something that he himself would happily eat on a daily basis. This is not in any way to be confused with showing off, it is far from it, but is more of a daily affirmation of his own obsession with all things epicurean.
After spending time abroad on the west coast in his early twenties, working in several high-volume kitchens and learning the ins and outs of what it takes to run and sustain a successful restaurant, Mather returned home to Maine with plans of starting an operation of his own. After extensive discussions with his parents, they agreed to make it a family venture and risked it all to purchase the building and perform major renovations. “They may have decided to do it just to shut me up, ” Mather says, “But I doubt it, because they love it as much as I do. ”
Their gamble paid off and now, even on a Monday night in October, the dining room is full. The rustic charm of the interior is accentuated with soft lighting from strings of origami lanterns, and tables are dressed in crisp, white linens.
As I enjoy my starter of delicate, crunchy tempura-fried artichoke hearts with a side of smoky chipotle aioli, I peruse the wine selection. First impressions lead me to assume that the focus is on big, vibrant New World producers, such as Hanzell of Sonoma and Cristom Vineyards of Oregon, but upon delving deeper I discover more refined selections from regions like French Chinon and Burgundy. There is also a big reds list, consisting entirely of flashy European winemakers such as Gaja of Italy, Chateau Beaucastel of France, and even, for those looking to show off, first growth Bordeaux.
Mather’s affinity for fresh food, simply prepared is brilliantly demonstrated when I first dig into a plate of wood-grilled mushrooms, enveloped in rich truffle butter and showered with ribbons of Parmesan. The umami-laden combination of the smoky mushrooms and cheese in the dish is intensely satisfying, especially combined with warm anadama bread baked with apricots, walnut, and molasses. Equally sumptuous is a healthy slab of their duck pâté, flecked with pistachio, roasted red pepper, and crystals of salt, and served alongside the prerequisite cornichons, olives, and Dijon mustard. The intensity of the garlic, balanced with the robust flavor of the liver is completely intoxicating.
Although it is common to find roasted haddock on the menu throughout Maine, rarely is it as simultaneously delicious and artful as the Joshua’s version. The golden brown, caramelized-onion crust imparts texture to the delicate, flaky fish, while a pool of vibrant-green chive oil coaxes out the flavor of the accompanying mushroom risotto and adds visual flair. Doing so, it retains the nostalgia of the classic, Ritz-cracker-baked version while jettisoning the elements that can potentially make it clunky.
There is approachability to Mather’s menu that I enjoy very much, and it serves to reinstate my interest in dishes like chicken saltimbocca and orange duck because I have a strong desire to taste his interpretations. His mustard-crusted rack of lamb stuffed with mushrooms and sweet basil is a reminder how that dish became a classic in the first place. Add to that the joy of velvety mashed potatoes and an impossibly silky, concentrated Burgundy reduction and you will understand my aforementioned statement about confidence.
Mather continues to draw on Easter Orchard Farm for an abundance of fresh ingredients year-round, and he sums up his approach to the family business as such:
”Restaurants are more than just the food, every part of the experience is up for criticism. The margins are tight and at the end of the day it takes constant attention to every detail to be successful.”
And this is what separates a truly memorable meal from all the rest.