The Velveteen Habit
“Once we took over the space, the first thing I did was to throw away the sign that used to read, ‘Proper Dress Required.’”
Such is the manner in which Brent Bushong II, director of operations at the Velveteen Habit, set about to attract a diverse clientele and reinvent the space formerly occupied for quite some time by Arrows Restaurant. Although the refurbished farmhouse is still somewhat recognizable, the neutral colors and modern, clean design create an entirely different vibe. The Velveteen Habit feels far more relaxed now, especially with the addition of lavish velour banquettes throughout the lounge area.
Before sitting down, Brent and I spend time in the gardens outside of the restaurant. In peak season about 85 percent of the produce for the restaurant comes from these lush, extensive gardens. As we examine the newly installed beehives, I ask about the inspiration behind what is actually quite an eccentric name for a restaurant. As it turns out, “velveteen” comes from the popular story about a stuffed rabbit and his journey to become real, and they decided it was fitting in regards to the fanciful, nostalgic feel of the restaurant. By “habit” they hope to encourage customers to return often. At this time, Bushong hands me an heirloom carrot straight from the ground, which I dust off and gobble up, to get myself into the spirit of the occasion, despite the fact that I always found the story of the Velveteen Rabbit to be somewhat upsetting.
Pursuing his dream of opening a restaurant, the Velveteen Habit was founded by Benjamin Goldman, who vacated a decade-long tenure at Goldman Sachs to earn certification as a sommelier before moving to Maine where he had spent many a holiday with family. Once the plan was set in motion, Bushong, whom Goldman had met through the court of sommeliers, suggested an old friend and co-worker, Matt Wilcox, to assume the role of executive chef.
With such extensive wine background behind the staff at the Velveteen Habit, it is not surprising to encounter a very strong list. For sparkling, there is a reasonable balance of big négociant houses like Veuve Clicquot and Moët Chandon (and I do enjoy the fact that the Dom Pérignon represented is the 1993 rosé, a much better option than the current release brut in my opinion). Smaller champagne producers, such as Ployez-Jacquemart as well as great values in Crémant, are present as well. Whites and reds include a few highly recognizable crowd pleasers like Muga Rioja and Wild Hog Zinfandel while a thorough examination reveals a few stunners (at great prices), such as Domaine Huet “Le Haut Lieu” Vouvray and the Sean Thackrey XXIII Pleiades, a highly sought-after red blend from California only recently available in the Maine market.
The food menu is conducive to ordering á la carte, but I put my fate in Wilcox’s hands on this particular visit. Setting the tone right away is a warm loaf of freshly baked sourdough, served with rich, cultured butter. Service is friendly and efficient, always available and letting no water glass run dry.
Presentations do not want for visual flair, as is evident with a shallow dish of fresh peekytoe crab, slivered asparagus, chive flowers, and raw golden beets sliced so thin that I initially assume they are radishes. A velvety, chilled asparagus soup, in the most vibrant shade of green, is poured throughout, orchestrating an intensely refreshing starter.
While in this day and age many chefs bite off far more than they can chew in regards to their charcuterie program and attempt a multitude of styles and only succeed with a few, Wilcox keeps it simple with three properly done offerings of coppa, salami, and country paté. I particularly enjoy the accompanying pickles, which have been lightly dusted with cornmeal before being fried, offering both a very welcome piquancy and texture to complement the salt and fat of the cured meats. His pork rillettes, rich on the inside with a deep-fried, crunchy outer layer, are also nicely balanced out with a liberal amount of vinegar and Dijon mustard, as well as greens from the garden.
It is difficult to peg Wilcox’s menu into any specific category, as there are a multitude of influences at work here. The halibut dish is the perfect example, starting with a flawless piece of halibut cooked a la plancha, resting on a puree of fennel and fava beans that have been cooked rescoldo, a method recently brought back to popularity by Argentine chef Francis Mallmann that involves burying the vegetables in hot embers and ashes until finished. A side of luscious grits, accentuated by hot sauce, is sourced from Anson Mills in South Carolina, a company well known for reviving heirloom grains and standing by the old-fashioned way and never compromising on quality or flavor.
The level of execution at the Velveteen Habit is apparent when I bite into tender, absolutely pristine chicken leg, accompanied by charred zucchini, marble potatoes, and romesco sauce. Equally successful is the simplicity of rich, beautifully funky Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farms in Vermont, paired with cubes of fresh honeycomb, smeared on pieces of crispy lavash bread with sesame.
The final dish, I’m told by Bushong, is what really solidified Wilcox’s position when he presented it to Goldman during an “audition” dinner. In the middle of a small earthenware bowl is a dollop of whipped salted caramel resting in a pool of granita made with chai, espresso, and thyme. The transitions from rich and sweet to cool and refreshing with subtle aromatics can only be described as rapturous and after one taste I can understand why Goldman was so blown away.
As I finish up I become aware that there has not been a single weak link in the progression from the cultured butter on up. This is good, as it could potentially be a difficult transition into a space that is essentially off the beaten path and had been occupied for so long by its former, illustrious tenant. The crew at the Velveteen Habit is certainly up to the challenge and the picturesque lay of the land only serves to elevate the entire experience.
37 Ogunquit Rd. | Cape Neddick | 207.216.9884 | thevelveteenhabit.com