My Blue Heaven
FEAST-May 2008 (from Maine Home+Design)
by Joshua Bodwell
Photographs by Benedetta Spinelli
The three-story Atlantic House hotel was built on York’s pristine Short Sands Beach in the late 1880s. While decades of inattention had left the building in a sad state of disrepair, over the course of last year it was renovated so extensively that the result can only be described as a transformation. At the heart of the Atlantic House’s rebirth is the destination restaurant Blue Sky on York Beach. In a town brimming with seaside dining options, Blue Sky’s nationally renowned chef Lydia Shire has done what she does best: take the culinary road less traveled.
Shire is widely credited with wresting Boston’s restaurant scene from the gastronomic Dark Ages during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, her rise to prominence has become part of the restaurant world’s folklore. In 1971, Shire was hired as a “salad girl” at Boston’s revered Maison Robert after she brought a cake frosted with coffee buttercream to her interview. After she quickly grew restless with the grunt work, the divorced Shire hawked her diamond engagement ring and enrolled at London’s Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. When she returned to Maison Robert, she began cooking on the line. By 1973, just two years after she was first hired as a “salad girl,” Shire was the restaurant’s head chef.
In the years that followed, Shire made her reputation by embracing esoteric meats, seemingly outrageous preparations, and even fatty foods (gasp!). In 1989, she opened her own Boston restaurant, BIBA, a name that was both an acornym for “Back in Boston Again” and a nod to the years she spent cooking at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. In 1991, Shire’s status was solidified when she not only was named one of America’s Top Ten Chefs by Food & Wine, but also won a coveted James Beard Award. Shire went on to run the dining rooms of Pignoli and Excelsior, among others, and today owns the 136-year-old Boston dining landmark, Locke-Ober Café—a restaurant that had prohibited women in its dining room for nearly 100 years.
So why, you might ask, is a chef with such deep Boston roots opening a restaurant in Maine? The answer is simple: Maine’s magnetism.
As a child, Shire’s family made summer pilgrimages to Ogunquit from their home just outside of Boston. “We used to have these huge dinners at the Ogunquit Lobster Pound,” she remembers with a smile. “Opening this restaurant here in Maine has been so special for me, a real love story.”
Blue Sky on York Beach occupies the entire second floor of Atlantic House; condominiums occupy the third floor, and the street level is filled with retail shops, including the Shire-run bakery, Clara’s Cupcake Café. The Portsmouth-based TMS Architects worked with Shire to design the restaurant’s contours and flow, but the décor is all Shire: muted elegance with a splash of flamboyance. Blue Sky’s interior feels cosmopolitan in a chic yet simple and accessible way. The crew of Mill Pond Millwork & Construction, who did much of the restaurant’s finish work, dubbed the look “modern industrial cottage.” For while there are bright wood floors and white-washed wood ceilings, there are also exposed pipes and gleaming ductwork, stunning bent-wood pendant lights made in Costa Rica, sophisticated white chairs and booths, and the occasional burst of lipstick red (which is just a few shades darker than Shire’s own famous coiffure.)
Though the design shows an urban influence, the menu is pure Maine—that is, Maine as seen through the unique lens of Lydia Shire.
Blue Sky does not offer just a few lobster options, but rather an entire section of the menu—a total of nine dishes—is devoted to the Maine delicacy. At one end of the spectrum is Shire’s astonishing take on lobster stew, and at the other is a dish that could be considered Shire’s take on surf and turf: Hot Buttered Lobster on Thin Panko Fried Pork Chops. And there is her legendary lobster pizza, a dish that harks back to her days at BIBA. Prepared on a crust akin to thin fried dough, the pizza is topped with sautéed onions, smoked ricotta, lobster meat, scallions, parsley, and a drizzle of lobster cream sauce.
Shire honors that other great Maine culinary staple, the potato, with her “Spuds & Veg” section of the menu. While only two vegetable dishes are offered, there are five potato concoctions, including a Hot Raised Potato Doughnut with Lyles Golden Syrup.
Like so many great chefs (think of Julia Child, one of Shire’s friends and heroes), Shire is known for her humor and eccentricity. For instance, when Shire was once asked how she would like to spend her last day on earth, she answered: eat a well-prepared steak and be thrown to the lobsters. “I’ve killed so many,” Shire said with a smile. “I need the lobsters to eat me.”
On the morning Shire sat down to discuss Blue Sky on York Beach, she was decidedly more reserved than the anecdotes often told about her would suggest. She was funny and blunt, but quiet as she alternated between sips of black coffee and bottled water. Blue Sky has been open only since November, but still managed to draw crowds even during a particularly harsh Maine winter. That afternoon, Shire would return to Boston for the opening of her new Italian restaurant, Scampo. Her life was about to get even busier.
That day, the first day of spring, York Beach was near deserted. The sky was smudged in a blanket of low clouds, the sea was a torrent of frothy whitecaps, and the air was laced with the smell of salt. Shire sipped her coffee and took in the scene.
It was the calm before the storm of summer.