“They take moose seriously here,” observes chef Jason Paul with a laugh. He sits across the table from me, lounging back in his seat, arms crossed and baseball hat slightly askew. He is recounting his first impression of Maine, when he stepped off a red-eye flight and into his new home to be bombarded by larger-than-life images of the Bangor International Airport’s mascot, Monty.
This former Los Angeles chef is the very image of a California boy, a natural native to the sunnier states, with shaggy hair, and a rough, rumbly laugh that punctuates his sentences. And yet, here he is, surrounded by the historic and aesthetic trappings of Maine. Above us is an antique white tin ceiling, hammered to perfection by hands long dead. Below us is the well-worn tile floor where bank tellers once handed out cash. Autumn wind whips through the boughs outside. This newly transplanted chef seems right at home.
While he may not entirely get the moose thing just yet (“stay here long enough and you will,” promises a member of the wait staff), Paul’s fully immersive Maine education is serving him well. In May of 2013, Paul packed up his belongings and moved to Belfast, “sight unseen,” for the promise of a new job, a new start. His employer, Matthew Kenney, a world-famous chef and a pioneer in the raw food movement, believed that Paul, with his seemingly paradoxical background in French cuisine and raw food, would be a good fit for his first full-service Maine restaurant.
“I had never thought about moving to Maine,” he confessed. But the opportunity was too good to pass up. “A 38-seat restaurant on the coast of Maine in a vintage building in a small town? It’s a chef’s dream. I had to do it.”
This fatalistic sentiment rings true. As I observed Paul in his quaint surroundings, I thought about the strange series of events that brought him here, and the rustic charms that keep him (and other transplants) in Maine. There is, as he puts it, space to breathe here. And while Belfast and Los Angeles may have little in common, they do share a common appreciation for healthful living. In a town where the beloved Belfast Co-Op serves as a community hub and everyone knows the eco-housing crew that broke ground just outside of town, clean eating isn’t a particularly hard sell. What’s more difficult, it turns out, is informing diners that the Gothic isn’t just about raw food. It’s about eating well, feeling full, and enjoying your meal—be that meal composed of flora, fauna, or a little bit of both.
“I feel cheesy saying it’s farm-to-table because for me it’s more than that. I think about what is local, what is fresh, but also what is healthy, what makes you feel good,” says Paul. Trained in the French classic style of cooking, he is fully capable of serving a perfect, butter-drenched roast chicken, but after watching members of his family struggle with certain health issues, he made the decision seven years ago to go vegetarian. He adhered strictly to this lifestyle until, just last June, he tasted his first morsel of meat on the Gothic’s opening day. Now, Paul eats meat and some dairy, but very sparingly.
“I’m a big fan of intuitive eating,” he says. “If I was craving a burger, I would probably go out and eat a burger.” The body, he believes, knows best. Listening to your body, and tuning into the voices within, will do far more for your health than any passing fad.
This openness to all palates, and the desire to serve all diners, no matter their personal restrictions, translates into a menu that is deceptively simple. Upon first glance, the Gothic’s menu looks short, and, to use the buzzword of the decade, curated. However, every dish is designed with meticulous care to appeal to as many different types of diners as possible. If you must have meat, you can order the quail, which comes with smoked eggplant and confit potato. If you’re a vegan seeking comfort food, you can tuck into the mushroom gratin (ordered sans-egg, obviously) or the butternut squash polenta. Gluten-free eaters have plenty of options to choose from, and most items can be made gluten-free or vegetarian, at the request of the customer.
“It’s nice that we can offer those folks with dietary restrictions a good place to have a great meal,” adds Beth Anderson. As general manager of the Gothic, Anderson has had the chance to taste much of Paul’s cooking, and as a triathlete, she is very familiar with the nutritional aspects of every meal. “I look at food a lot more critically than most people. I see it as nourishment and energy,” she says. “What I put into my body will change my training. It’s exciting to have a menu I can stand behind.”
Anderson’s critical approach to food merges naturally with Paul’s analytical, whole-body message. He may no longer eat exclusively raw food, but Paul recognizes the benefits of this seemingly extreme diet. “Eating raw is a very healing way of eating,” he says. He is happy to oblige my curiosity and describe some of the more scientific benefits to consuming uncooked vegetables, before going into a discussion of the more intangible effects, like how eating light, raw food makes one feel a little closer to nature, more in tune with the daily rhythms of sunrise and sunset and the annual cycles of growth and renewal. “Have you ever heard someone say that you’re made of light? Or even that you just feel lighter?” he asks. Food, for Paul, is deeply and intrinsically tied to the way we feel, be it cozy, warm, and ready for sleep, or light and buoyant.
It helps that the food at the Gothic is delicious. Every dish I sampled, from the rope-cultured mussels to the vegan chocolate ice cream, was perfectly prepared. Had I not known about Paul’s quest for healthful eating, I may not have even noticed the slight difference in texture added by cashew-based “creams.” I certainty wouldn’t have suspected that each spoonful of creamy, rich, smoky rutabaga soup was vegan, and quite good for me. One expects a raw kale salad to be healthy, but mushroom gratin? That sounds homey, hearty, and filled with fat. Paul’s iteration fulfills only two of the three descriptors.
While I enjoyed every plate Paul laid in front of me, I did have a few favorites. The crab appetizer, served with avocado sauce, artful drops of sweet potato and cashew yogurt, slivers of chili, and crispy pieces of toast, was out-of-this-world good. A dash of lime juice brought brightness to the plate and served to enhance the natural sweetness of the crab. The creamy sweet potato and cashew mixture was a cooling element that counteracted the spicy slivers of hot pepper. Delicately crafted and arranged with a deft hand, this dish not only provided me with some excellent Instagram fodder—it also haunted me for days, popping up in my midday cravings and prompting me to buy a big bag of rough, ripe avocados.
As I moved from dish to dish, bartender Jon Poto repeatedly swooped in to clear my discarded glasses. For every dish, he had a cocktail in mind that would complement and enhance Paul’s delicate flavors. First, I sampled and savored a bitter glass of Cynar, mixed with a splash of soda and a twist of lime. Made from artichokes, this Italian liquor has such a complex, unique flavor that I found myself pulling it across my tongue slowly and purposefully, sniffing the glass of amber brown liquid like a confused dog. It was incredibly satisfying, much in the way that thick, peaty, earthy scotch is. Jon Poto also brought over a few specials from their cocktail list, including the Warm Up, made with Bulleit rye whiskey, jalapeno- and cayenne-infused Aperol, and house-pressed apple juice (this paired well with the fatty warmth of the mushroom gratin), and the Staghorn gin and tonic, which was a sweet and floral mix of honey-infused gin, sumac shrub, tonic, and lime juice. The slight vinegar tang from the sumac was another unexpected bright spot. It made an ordinary drink into something lively, layered, and complicated enough to pair with the bold dishes that followed.
As for the entrees, I find it difficult to highlight just one. The braised short rib was great, made of meat that disintegrates at the mere sight of a steak knife. The day boat cod, served over a bed of caramelized leeks, fennel, tomatoes, and a brilliantly hued sorrel sauce, was another standout, thanks to the smart interplay between textures. Soft, flaky fish met with a crunch of fennel. Fennel fronds are an edible garnish on many of Paul’s dishes—“it’s kind of my thing,” he admitted—a fact that I found both charming and tasty, being a huge fan of that strangely shaped and slightly challenging vegetable. The aforementioned mushroom gratin came with a farm-fresh egg draped on top. As I broke into the yolk and watched the sunshine-yellow center spill across the plate, I said a silent thank you to my editor for sending me here. Truffle cashew cream and soft, leafy bits of kale only enhanced the earthiness of the mushrooms. If eating vegetarian were always this pleasurable, I would do it far more often.
But at the Gothic, I don’t have to. In our trend-obsessed, swiftly moving culture, it’s a nice reminder to pause and pay attention to how you feel, what your body needs. As the chef himself jokes, “Come as you are, eat what you want. It’s a good motto.”
108 Main St. | Belfast | 207.338.4684 | thegothicrestaurant.com