From pre-dinner cocktails to the most incredible beignets you will ever taste, every last detail of the dining experience is executed with painstaking precision.
While it may seem sacrilegious to some, each time I visit the Camden Harbour Inn I have little desire to venture outside its walls and visit the town’s many shops or hike its scenic trails. It is an all-encompassing experience, especially for those like me, who prioritize food and drink above all else when traveling. Orchestrated by chef Geoffroy Deconinck, each tasting menu at Natalie’s inspires the belief that the restaurant is truly one of the finest in the country.
The inn was purchased in 2007 by Dutch-born partners Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest, both longtime veterans of the hospitality business. The two updated the inn to impart an elegant European atmosphere for guests in search of accommodations that depart from the traditional midcoast offerings. Of course, no boutique hotel worth its salt would be without a restaurant of equal caliber, and Natalie’s represents the culinary expression of Brunyanszki and Verest’s constantly evolving vision.
After attending culinary school in Brussels, Belgium native Deconinck went on to make his bones under the legendary Alain Ducasse at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris. When the time was right, he transitioned into executive roles in some of New York City’s most elite kitchens, including Café Boulud, Restaurant Daniel, and Bouley. With such an impressive background in French cookery, he enthusiastically applied his expertise at Natalie’s, while adding an innovative twist to the cuisine and working with seasonal Maine ingredients, such as those included in his seared monkfish served in a vibrant tomato and cumin broth with fresh tomatoes, broccolini, and zucchini.
The most decadent, and therefore fitting base of operations for this kind of gastronomic journey is the inn’s Royal Dutch Suite. From here, you can enjoy a view of the bay from the safety of a sprawling 800-square-foot suite outfitted with colorful modern accents, a variety of fabrics, and a private balcony. Each room within is outfitted with a gas fireplace and a large flatscreen television, as well as a plethora of eclectic light fixtures, the most impressive being the Kartell Bloom crystalline chandelier, designed with Bisazza Mosaic glass tiles, found in the bathroom.
The suite also boasts a traditional sauna, as well as a “rain and steam” shower and Jacuzzi tub. It is for reasons such as these that I would prefer to lounge and drink champagne on the king-sized feather bed, in a soft terry cloth bathrobe, than go out and explore the town. (While I may have just planted a vivid and potentially disturbing visual in your mind, I felt it was necessary to convey the depth of the experience provided by Camden Harbour Inn.)
Although a number of factors make Natalie’s remarkably unique, the dining room layout sets the stage. Brunyanszki and Verest enlisted the help of Dutch interior designer Mascha Bruna to recreate the feel of a Parisian brasserie, though one that is decidedly more modern. White linen tablecloths and classic wooden fixtures, including a bar crafted from the doors of an old French convent, are brought to life with pronounced shocks of bright red, which prompts me to think of the decor as “bordello chic.” There is also the option for diners to be seated on the large wrap-around porch while the weather permits.
It would be a shame not to allot at least a few minutes before dinner to enjoy one of bar manager Tom Laslavic’s carefully prepared cocktails, such as the Warren Blackberry Mist, a concoction of gin, blackberry puree, cassis, and sparkling wine. The beverage expresses Laslavic’s knack for creating drinks that merge a variety of elements into a cohesive, refreshing product without becoming muddled or cloying.
While diners can order a la carte, the five-course tasting menu is the most reliable and proper way to experience Deconinck’s globally influenced cuisine. Laslavic oversees the wine pairings, choosing from a dizzying array of bottles that make up the restaurant’s extensive list. I strongly advise you to relinquish control and let yourself enjoy the unexpected pleasures of complete surrender.
On a recent visit, my companion and I are presented with a simple amuse bouche of fresh tomato, ricotta, and basil lightly drizzled with fruity Sicilian olive oil, which is served alongside a more substantial bite of braised short-rib croquette with a cucumber pickle and whole-grain mustard sauce. The first course is followed shortly after by warm dinner rolls from Atlantic Baking Co. in Rockland, as well as a soft cube of butter sprinkled with sea salt crystals. At this point, the only instruction we have given our server is the temperature at which we would like to enjoy our duck breast—everything else is an unfolding revelation.
Our trust is soon rewarded. We enjoy such dishes as pickled mackerel with earthy roasted beets and a creamy aged red wine vinegar dressing paired with the 2006 Cardinal Cusanus Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Hochgewächs from the Mosel. The wine, despite being rather difficult to pronounce, provides an ideal acidity that stands up to both the fish and vinaigrette. In turn, the saltiness of the mackerel tempers the flavors of lime and stones in the wine, allowing for its honeyed notes to shine through. In other words, the very definition of a successful wine pairing.
Another standout dish arrives: a succulent duck breast in all its medium-rare glory, served over tender beluga lentils and an interesting combination of roasted and raw endive that conveys both the texture and depth of its flavor. Peach marmalade plays off the savory duck jus nicely, making the whole dish a wonderful match for the pleasantly smoky 2010 Penner Ash Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
Service is seamless, friendly, and informed, and the servers seem to anticipate our needs just moments before we become aware of them. Exceptional service is the hallmark of the inn as well, and the staff makes us feel welcome from the moment we arrived.
Although I fancy myself more a lover of savory than sweet, the crescendo of the meal for me is quite possibly the best beignets I have ever had the pleasure of consuming. They are so warm when served that they actually begin to stretch and reveal the vanilla cream filling. When I rush to pick one up, I burn my fingers like a child who hasn’t yet learned what the pretty orange glow of the stove coils means. Undeterred by injury, I proceed to dip the beignet into the accompanying chocolate sauce, resulting in what I can only describe as “what I want to eat every single morning of my life.”
As I sit at the bar after dinner, sipping a Redbreast Irish Whiskey and reflecting on yet another marvelous repast, it occurs to me that what sets truly great restaurants apart from merely good ones is their unyielding attention to detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant. While the dining experience at Natalie’s alone is worth the trip to Camden, the Camden Harbour Inn provides the kind of atmosphere that turns a location into a destination. A place you will return to again and again.
83 Bayview St. | Camden | 207.236.4200 | camdenharbourinn.com