El Camino + Salt Pine Social
Following their success in Brunswick, a family of restaurateurs makes another splash in Bath.
Conventional wisdom holds that three is a crowd, but Eloise Humphrey, Daphne Comaskey, and Paul Comaskey are not at all conventional. The trio have spent years together in the restaurant business: 3 years in Northern California and the past 14 in Maine, where they own El Camino Cantina in Brunswick and their latest venture, Salt Pine Social in Bath, which they launched 18 months ago.
Even though it’s just a few hundred feet off well-traveled Route 1 in Brunswick, El Camino is not a restaurant most people stumble upon. If you know where to look, though, you can’t miss the yellow brick building with scarlet trim and the old-timey lantern sign on the roof—especially at night, when the lantern and colored lights strung under the eaves emit a welcoming glow. Inside, the glow continues with walls painted various shades of orange and swags of Christmas lights and twinkly decorations left up year-round. “We wanted to make it look a little like a fake fireplace in here—it keeps it warm,” says Eloise.
Plenty of people hungry for the warmth of soulful Mexican food have found it in this funky place, which Eloise and Daphne—twin sisters—and Paul, Daphne’s husband, opened in 2004. They decorated the windowless former Italian restaurant on a shoestring, hanging vintage chrome car parts on the walls, wrapping the bar in rusty panels from an old truck, and adding colorful Mexican tchotchkes over time. In addition to her restaurant experience in California, where she ran a casual eatery with Daphne and Paul, Eloise has an impressive chef resume that includes New York City restaurants from the first wave of culinary hot spots in the 80s. At El Camino, the three draw on their combined skills and do things their way, serving up made-from- scratch food with a helping of good humor and a dash of irreverence. A few people have objected to the fake-flower-covered crosses displayed in empty lard cans on the back of the bathroom toilets, says Eloise with a grin, but no one’s about to walk out the door with them, as customers sometimes have with other quirky pieces of decor.
There is nothing quirky about the cooking, however. Lightly fried calamari has been dusted with potato starch and ground pasilla de Oaxaca, a smoky, flavorful chile that adds just enough heat to one of the most memorable calamari preparations I can recall. Soft corn tortillas hold hefty chunks of ancho chile–tamarind barbecued pork topped with a colorful slaw. “It’s all about the slaw,” says Derek Herzog, who has worked in the El Camino kitchen with the sisters for nine years. As I take a bite of the warm, meltingly tender meat and cool, crunchy strands of vegetables, I have to agree that the combination is truly delicious.
Eloise isn’t bound by strict authenticity. The poblano chile relleno, which eschews the expected cheese-based filling for braised organic Swiss chard, raisins, silvered almonds, and queso fresco, is fresh and deeply satisfying. A heaping platter of steak nachos features beef from Caldwell Farms in Turner—one of 20 local sources listed on the menu—black beans, charred tomato salsa, and cucumber salsa, “because who wants a crappy fresh tomato salsa in the winter,” Eloise says.
The bar gets equal billing with the kitchen, offering traditional and unusual margaritas, sangrias, and other cocktails in addition to an impressive list of tequilas. Drinks and the dining room are the purview of Paul, a jovial host who is “the face of El Camino,” says Daphne. “My family members are all entertainers back in England, but I didn’t realize I had that in me,” Paul says. “I try to make the experience fun and to ease people into appreciating everything that’s going on at El Camino. Every night is kind of like being on stage, but it’s never the same.”
Since October of 2016, Paul—ably assisted by Herzog and night chef Adam McGrath—has been primarily on his own in Brunswick, while Daphne and Eloise run Salt Pine Social. Housed in a once- dilapidated antiques warehouse with a view of the Kennebec River, the bright contemporary restaurant, designed by the owners and local architect David Matero, is in many ways the antithesis of dark, offbeat El Camino. Paul was the general contractor for the top-to-bottom renovation, which added large windows, an open kitchen, and a stone patio. The concept for the restaurant came together after the sisters found out that the building was for sale. “We love Mexican, but there are so many other things to eat that we miss and want to cook,” says Eloise. For the design, “we talked about doing something more modern and clean and Scandinavian,” adds Daphne. The two dining rooms feature pale gray walls, simple butcher-block tables, and banquette seating softened with pillows and sheepskin rugs from Buckwheat Blossom Farm in Wiscasset. Color and whimsy are provided by the polished red floor, woven wall hangings—some made by Daphne and Eloise’s artist mother, others by Hector Jaeger, a cofounder of nearby Halcyon Yarn—and a collection of lanterns from India hung over the bar. It’s a serene space, and, like El Camino, deeply personal, with food and drink to match.
As I chat with the sisters, bartender Brandon Adams offers several cocktails to sample. They include the well-named Wintry Mix, a herbaceous blend of St. George Terroir Gin, Tempus Fugit Spirits Crème de Menthe Glaciale, and Luxardo Maraschino garnished with a shard of what Adams calls “evergreen candy ice.” A sprinkling of rose petals floats atop the Bee’s Needs—a pink play on the classic Bee’s Knees made with Barr Hill gin, Tempus Fugit Spirits Liqueur de Violettes, lemon, and lemon oil honey. I’m generally not a fan of floral cocktails, but this one is as balanced as it is beautiful. Adams is serious about his work, carving perfectly clear, large cubes of ice for his old-fashioneds and making sorbet out of unsweetened coconut milk for his piña coladas—the usual coconut cream is just too sweet, he says.
The food menu is divided into sections titled Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral, and while the dishes are hard to strictly categorize, many have been inspired by Eloise’s interest in the cooking of Israeli- British chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi. “Middle Eastern food is similar to Mexican with different spices—it’s heat and bright and flavorful,” she says. Two small plates from the Mineral section pair well with the drinks. Smelts are dusted with Maine potato starch before they are fried; plated with bright green fried parsley and charred lemons, the crispy little fish are almost ethereal. Grilled octopus is exceptionally tender, thanks to slow dry braising on a “raft of aromatics,” says Eloise. Served with a rustic sauce of tomatoes, potatoes, onion, olives, and fennel, this deceptively simple dish is evidence of her skill. So is the seafood stew, a heady bowl of saffron- and fennel-scented broth piled with monkfish, scallops, clams, and mussels and topped with a creamy dollop of garlic aioli to swirl into the soup and spread on toasted slabs of bread from Portland’s Standard Baking Company. This is a dish that will be as welcome on a warm summer evening as it is on a chilly winter night.
Come summer, the sisters hope to open Salt Pine Social for lunch as well as dinner, and to make good use of the patio, where on Tuesday and Friday evenings diners will be able to hear live music wafting over from the gazebo on the neighboring library lawn. “I’m thinking of having oyster shuckers out there from three to five in the afternoon, and prosecco or muscadet on keg,” says Eloise. Despite having spent much of their lives in a mercurial, challenging business, both Daphne and Eloise still have a remarkable abundance of creative energy, something they say came from their mother, a “hedonist” who celebrated her 90th birthday in January. “The art of hedonism includes an enthusiasm for something done well,” says Eloise. Doing things well involves all three of these partners, who respect and appreciate each other’s individual contributions. “We take care of different parts of the puzzle,” says Daphne. “I can’t imagine doing it by myself.” Three, in the case of these successful Maine restaurateurs, is not a crowd; it’s just right.