A sophisticated and delicious experience awaits in Ogunquit.
When I visit Northern Union to meet owners Matt and Lauren Wickert, it is one of the first warm days of spring. They have the windows open, and as we sit to talk, Lauren asks, “Would you like a glass of rosé?” I immediately know I’m going to like it here. Lauren brings me a glass of Domaine de la Fouquette from Provence, my first glass of rosé of the season, as we settle in at a table in a room they refer to as the library. The Wickerts are engaging and warm, offering the kind of genuine hospitality that puts you at ease within seconds of introductions. They finish each other’s sentences and look to the other to add a detail to a story. “I’m a scientist, he’s an artist,” explains Lauren, who introduces herself as “owner/foodie.” Matt tells me he’s “owner/wino.” I think it’s just a funny thing they say, until I see their business cards, printed with those actual titles.
I’m struck by the sophisticated but welcoming vibe of the place that seems to reflect the Wickerts’ personality. “We had an aesthetic we really wanted to convey,” Matt explains. “Clean, modern, slightly rustic, and relaxing. We didn’t want people to walk in and recognize it for what it was previously.” The building, originally built as a house in the 1930s, had previously been renovated for use as a restaurant. When the Wickerts first looked at it, the restaurant had been closed for a year and a half. “It had no character,” says Lauren. “We tore everything out and started over.” The couple was working
with John Magnifico of Magnifico Design in Brooklyn to create a logo for their new venture when they hired him to completely re-create the space from start to finish, along with his partners, Abby Bickel and Will Thomas. After getting rid of one-third of the seating capacity to create a more spacious look, Northern Union feels more like coming to a friend’s home than restaurant dining. Part of that is certainly the Wickerts’ genuine hospitality, but the arrangement and furnishings of the rooms invite diners to choose their own adventure. Different areas may be more appealing at different times of year, but every space feels special.
Here in the library, there’s a vintage Royal typewriter and a pile of books on the side table, along with a tiny bust of JFK. The walls are a steely blue with white bead board below. There’s just one table in this room, with seating for six. The front of the house, in what used to be a porch, offers standard table dining for two or four. But set up by the bay windows are two cozy arrangements of upholstered chairs around a polished tree stump cocktail table. It feels like the perfect spot for a date-night dinner, intimate and elegant. The living room has low tables, love seats, and sculptural wooden chairs, each area topped with a stylish Sputnik chandelier. With a look that’s unfussy and sleek, the overall effect is appealing and attractive, but not trendy. “This is not a beach-style restaurant,” Matt emphasizes. On the other side of the host station, with its floor-to ceiling map of the world, is the wine room, furnished with a four-person high-top table. This L-shaped area connects the bar to the rest of the restaurant and is surrounded by Northern Union’s most dramatic feature, its glass-enclosed wine wall. The entire wine inventory is housed here, a presentation that lets diners view bottles but also serves as decor for the wine-centric restaurant.
Matt has put together a comprehensive wine list, full of choices that are excellent examples of their varietals. “These are great, but not necessarily expensive wines,” he says. “Many are small producers, and we can talk you through choosing a wine.” Wines by the glass change seasonally but always include a selection of favorites and unfamiliar but exciting types. A Coravin system, which allows wine to be poured without uncorking the bottle, lets wine lovers taste anything from the bottle list, with a commitment to two glasses. “What’s the point of having 120 labels if you can only access a handful by the glass?” says Matt. “The wine list is influenced by memories of our travels: our honeymoon in Greece, a trip to California, even time spent in Japan.”
The Wickerts’ original plan was for a wine shop, with a little food, maybe some charcuterie on the side. But once they saw this space and its potential, their vision expanded. “This is a full-size space,” says Matt. “It needed more than meat and cheese.” They began the search for a chef with the help of a consultant, and invited one of the applicants, Romann Dumorne, to cook for them as a tryout. Dumorne possesses the same warm, friendly temperament as the Wickerts, making it a perfect match. “I was super organized,” he says. “I served each dish, explained it, then ran back into the kitchen to do the next one. I thought I did pretty well.”
“We were laughing out of pure joy,” Lauren recounts. “Before dessert was even served, Matt walked into the kitchen and offered Romann the job.”
Dumorne started cooking while in college in upstate New York, using Larousse Gastronomique, the French encyclopedia of cooking, as his guide. He later honed his cooking skills at the White Barn Inn in Kennebunk, under chef Jonathan Cartwright. “I learned very quickly,” he says. “I read, I watched, I paid attention to the other cooks from all over the world.” Dumorne’s diligence paid off, and he was promoted to sous chef in less than a year. He now prides himself on the technique he learned there and combines those skills with a love for fresh, local ingredients. A bowl of ramp soup with white asparagus velouté is a stunning example. Both the hue and flavor are bright and bold with the verdant taste of spring, the chef ’s talent evident in every smooth sip.
The luscious soup is the first dish at this evening’s wine dinner. In the off-season, Northern Union holds wine dinners on most Monday nights, in conjunction with winemakers and importers. It’s an intimate event, with no more than 30 guests, some attending for the first time as well as quite a few regulars. Dumorne and his staff enjoy planning these dinners, using the opportunity to test out new dishes each week and build camaraderie in the kitchen. “Matt brings the wines in, and we all discuss flavors and balance,” says the chef. “We don’t want to bombard the palate with all the same flavors, so we try to go in the opposite direction with the menu.” This thoughtful consideration goes into every dish Dumorne produces, whether it’s for a special event such as this or the regular menu. Tonight, Ned Swain of Devenish Wines is presenting wines from the Loire Valley. The evening starts with a gathering in the bar area, presided over by bar manager Tim Yee, expertly mixing cocktails. Like Dumorne, Yee uses technique and fresh ingredients to create a roster of uncommonly delicious drinks. Some are inspired by classics and some are original, all fine alternatives to the wine list, should the mood strike. The atmosphere is friendly, and everyone is looking forward to seeing what Dumorne has on the menu. It’s a closely guarded secret until dinnertime. With the exquisite soup, Swain presents a chenin blanc, as well as anecdotes about Loire Valley wines. The entree is an “everything” salmon, spiced with sesame and poppy seeds, garlic, and salt, then artfully arranged with baby turnips and asparagus on chive beurre blanc. Dessert arrives, a neat rectangle of silky chocolate crémeux with crème fraîche ice cream and walnut crumble. The melt-in-your-mouth dish wows everyone, and Dumorne tells me a little later, “It’s the first time I’ve ever made this,” a testament to his astonishing breadth of talent.
“We’re not boxed in to any one style,” says Dumorne. “I use the best product I can get my hands on, then raise it to the next level with technique.” The wine dinner was a small glimpse into the Northern Union experience, a tantalizing tease that left me wanting more. The summer menu is full of tempting dishes, from shareable starters and seasonally inspired main courses to savory snacks. There’s even a chef ’s picnic basket, filled with a selection of dips, spreads, and breads, born out of Dumorne’s successful job tryout. “You decide how you want to eat here,” Matt says. I know what I want— another glass of rosé on the outdoor deck, very soon.