Town Hill Bistro
At the end of Crooked Road, across from the firehouse and near the general store, there’s a house that dates back to the late 1800s. It was home to the town surveyor, a school teacher, and a family who ran a knitting shop, bakery, and farm stand. Long ago the house burned to the ground, but was rebuilt, and after the families moved out, the space was occupied by a variety of businesses. When Maureen and JJ Cosgrove opened Town Hill Bistro in 2007, they made the house their home and their business. They moved in with their newborn son, opened Town Hill Bistro on the ground floor, and lived on the second floor. The family has since moved, but for the first few years, they had everything under this one roof.
Both Maureen and JJ are from the Boston area and have worked in the restaurant business for years. JJ grew up in his aunt’s restaurant, Zephs’ in Peekskill, New York, and Maureen has been a server, chef, and baker. She also opened Mache Bistro with her ex-husband in 2000.
“I’m definitely self-taught,” Maureen says. “I was always the waitress that ended up in the kitchen.” And now she’s a mother, wife, and business owner, too. She has a great sense of humor, a brutally honest opinion about everything, and a passion for gardening, canning, and building relationships with the people who provide her food.
When I visit for dinner, JJ greets me and my dining companion like we’re old friends. He’s quick to smile, and makes me feel at ease. At the bar he introduces us to Jana Silk and Ryan Honaker, long-time employees and our dining companions for the night. Jana works in the front of the house a few nights a week and Ryan does everything—prep work, cooking, and dishwashing—in the back of the house. With JJ behind the bar, Maureen in the kitchen, and their employees dining with us, it’s become an impromptu dinner party.
I order the house cocktail—the mo-tini—made with vodka, St. Germain, lemon, and ginger simple syrup. It’s tart yet slightly sweet, and completely invigorating. As we chat with Jana and Ryan, the room fills with guests; most are regulars. The tables are close together, and it’s cozy and comfortable. The dining room looks like a farmhouse living room; it has high ceilings, dark wood beams, and a stone fireplace. But it’s the casual ambiance and welcoming vibe makes it feel like a home.
We start our meal with a cup of wild ramp and potato soup followed by a small green salad. The soup tastes fresh, healthy, and clean—like spring. The delicate greens are sourced from three nearby farms. Fresh goat cheese from Seal Cove Farm in Lamoine is smooth and creamy in contrast to the candied walnuts and crunchy duck cracklings. These salty, flavorful morsels of duck skin look like croutons, but are rich, salty, and gamey. Tonight we’re served warm and airy popovers, but the bread selection changes often; they’re known for their biscuits and baguettes, too.
Maureen takes local, sustainable cooking seriously. She visits five farmers’ markets each week, purchases local cheese and seafood, and serves local meat, grain, and dairy. The spring menu is filled with baby greens, fiddlehead pesto, local spinach, and first-of-the-season ramps. It’s the “summer of food preservation” at Town Hill Bistro, and Maureen is busy preparing, canning, and freezing her own kimchi, pesto, jam, and jelly.
When the lobster, shrimp, and cucumber course arrives, I see the dedication to locally sourced food firsthand. Jana is a sternman on a lobster boat, and she provides the lobster for our meal. The shrimp comes from Holly Masterson, a fisherman who lives across the street and supplies the restaurant with scallops and shrimp. The lobster and shrimp are poached quickly, then chilled and lightly dressed with white anchovy, ginger, and lemon. This preparation allows the ingredients speak for themselves. Maureen doesn’t mask the sweetness of the lobster and the shrimp; she elevates and complements these ingredients until they shine.
Although there are nearly 70 bottles of wine and a dozen half-bottles, I opt for a glass of the Terrazas malbec from Mendoza. It’s velvety smooth with ripe, soft fruit flavor and it pairs easily with pasta, meat, or substantial seafood. Maureen loves wine and there is no shortage of affordable, delicious bottles in house. There is, however, a shortage of storage space to keep it all. When I look through the rest of the house I see wine coolers in corners and overhead. The path from the dining room to the kitchen is like a maze. Past the bathrooms I walk through a narrow hallway, into the dishwashing station, to the kitchen. In a large back room, I find more wine storage, freezers, walk-in coolers, and an area for canning. I love how such thoughtful food can come from such an unconventional space.
At some point during my visit I learn that both JJ and Maureen are adopted. After getting to know them and watching them interact with their staff, it’s clear to me that their restaurant crew is part of their extended family. JJ and Maureen spend a lot of time with their staff learning to work together and adapting under stress. During my first interview with Maureen, a waitress stops by the restaurant with her husband and their 10-day-old daughter. The two women talk excitedly about childbirth and parenthood; this isn’t an employee talking to her boss, it’s a mutual friendship. Even regular guests can become family at Town Hill Bistro; a woman leaving as I sit for dinner tells JJ she’ll see him next week. And innkeepers Jack and Jeani Ochtera of the Inn at Bay Ledge tell me they’ve known Maureen, JJ, and the staff since the beginning. “The only thing that’s changes about Town Hill Bistro is that it gets better year after year,” Jack says.
Since this is my first visit, I can make no comparison to last year’s menu, but I can’t imagine anything better than the seared duck breast marinated in ginger, orange, and port. The skin is crisp and golden brown, and the meat is medium rare and succulent. The duck sits on a bed of homemade kimchi made with pickled tatsoi and bok choy. This bright, acidic salad is unexpected and cuts through the sweet port wine reduction, adding a touch of heat to the dish. The homemade gnocchi remain a customer favorite. Made with all Maine ingredients—sea salt, flour, and potatoes—they are lightly seared on the outside and soft and doughy inside. Paired with meaty trumpet mushrooms, thick cut pieces of bacon, and an asiago cream sauce, this plate is satisfying and comforting.
With barely any room to spare, we finish the tasting with a medley of three small desserts. The first is a sliver of angel food cake topped with rhubarb compote, made brighter with just a hint of ginger. I savor the tart, sweet, slightly spiced combination. We also sample a purely decadent chocolate pudding with a dollop of whipped cream, and a spiced ginger cocoa cake smothered in a homemade caramel sauce.
A few times during this meal, I forget I’m in a restaurant. JJ and Maureen have seamlessly integrated the pleasure of going out with the comforts of a home cooked meal. I’m so comfortable by the end of the night I have to resist the urge to bring my plate to the kitchen. As we say goodbye to Maureen and JJ, Jana and Ryan have switched gears from diners to employees. They help to clean the bar and polish wine glasses. I know this is a business, but in this moment, it looks and feels like a family.
1317 State Highway 102 | Bar Harbor | 207.288.1011
Manor House Inn
Bar Harbor, ME
The yellow Victorian mansion on West Street is my home away from home during a recent visit to Bar Harbor. Even though innkeepers Stacey and Ken Smith are busy preparing for the summer season, Ken comes in from working on the property to chat for a few minutes, and Stacey tells me about the different lodging options. Guests can stay in the main house with its quaint, bright rooms; the modern Acadia House equipped with televisions, gas fireplaces, and whirlpool bathtubs; or the cozy, one-room cottages. I settle in to my room in the Acadia House, but walk back to the main house to talk with Janie and Joyce, two staff members who know the inn and the area very well. Joyce is the cook and has worked at the inn even before the Smith’s bought it, and Janie has a plethora of suggestions for dinner, drinks, and sightseeing.
I take advantage of Janie’s recommendations for outdoor activities and walk across the sandbar during low tide to explore Bar Island. She tells me she’ll keep an eye out, as the rising tide can sneak up on people, sometimes leaving them stranded. But I keep my eye on the water level and after a brief walk, drive about one mile to Acadia National Park to Sand Beach and Otter Cliffs. I return in time for afternoon cookies and tea, and the back yard garden is a perfect spot to relax. A little later I visit the shops downtown, happy I’m within walking distance.
After a restful night’s sleep in a downy four-poster bed, I enter the breakfast nook to discover Joyce has prepared warm, homemade blueberry-stuffed French toast. There’s also sausage, fruit, yogurt, and homemade oatmeal with brown sugar, raisins, and cream. After a cup of hot coffee and a brief visit with Joyce and Janie, I’m back on the road heading home.
The Manor House Inn is open from April through October, and is a lovely, convenient spot to visit while in the area.
1317 State Highway 102 | Bar Harbor | 207.288.1011 | townhillbistro.com