An enchanting experience from the ground up.
You would be hard-pressed to find two more suitable stewards of Earth at Hidden Pond than Justin and Danielle Walker. The couple are committed not just to the restaurant, where Justin is the executive chef and Danielle the general manager, but to a life that mirrors their vocation. The Walkers live on a 17-acre farm in Cape Neddick, which has been in Danielle’s family for five generations. “In 2000 we had a choice,” she explains, “we could fix it or let it go. We chose to move there and work on it, fixing the barn floors and the foundation. Every generation puts something into it and it was our turn.” Their day starts early, feeding the goats, chickens, and horses. There are gardens to be sown, watered, and harvested. “My day doesn’t always start with a call to a purveyor,” says Justin. “It sometimes starts with a call to the hay supplier. Our goat’s milk is better when the hay is better.” For Justin and Danielle, the line between restaurateur and producer is blurred nearly every day. Danielle’s father, Ted Johnson, is a lobsterman based out of Wells Harbor and his catch can be found on Earth’s menu. Her mother, Denise Johnson, grows edible flowers, chiles, and cherry tomatoes that appear in salads and other dishes. In the winter, while Earth is closed, the Walkers make soap from goat’s milk as well as cheese and cajeta for the restaurant. Whey from the cheese-making process is used in a fermented hot sauce. Justin forages on the property, collecting stinging nettles that might be blended into pesto, and frog’s bellies, a tasty green leaf. This year he’s tapped birch trees, in the hopes of making syrup for use in cocktails. A young neighbor grows San Marzano tomatoes and cucumbers. “We feel so much better buying from locals,” says Danielle. “We use a lot of tiny backyard farms that grow unique ingredients for us.”
The adventure of dining at Earth beings as you wind your way through Hidden Pond, a resort nestled among towering birches with cottages tucked into clearings. Follow the wooden signs pointing the way to Earth. Step inside to the dramatic interior, were a preserved apple tree hands by its trunk, its branches spread wide and entwined with tiny white lights. It’s a most impressive chandelier, bringing the outside in and casting a warm glow over the space. Round slices of logs cover the walls, rustic but refined. A long poured-concrete bar is lined with leather and wood stools. The scents of wood and something incredibly delicious that you can’t quite put your finger on are in the air. There’s a happy energy that comes from being in such a pleasing space, a quiet buzz permeating this inviting dining room.
Beyond the walls, follow the gravel path through the grounds, peppered with spaces to wander, discover, and dine. You’ll find an actual hidden pond, surrounded by lush foliage; a clearing for a circle of Adirondack chairs set around a nightly bonfire; and candlelit potting sheds, charmingly turned into private dining rooms with antiques and greenery. The heartbeat of the restaurant is the ever-changing garden, where each day brings something new sprouting from the earth, or into bloom. It’s never the same place twice, providing ingredients not just according to the season, but day by day.
Justin is in his comfort zone when cooking straight from the garden. The 15 years he spent working at Arrows taught him about using the freshest ingredients as close to where they’re grown as possible. “The setting at Earth was a hook for me the second I saw the place,” he says. Thus, it was an easy transition, with Earth’s two bountiful gardens, opportunities to forage for mushrooms, and a chance to further relationships with local purveyors. “This is what I love about Maine. Working in a big city, I’m too far removed from the source of food. Local ingredients drive my menu,” he says. Those ingredients are a starting point for what Justin considers to be most important—flavor. “People like interesting combinations, but not weird. I’ll combine some familiar items with unusual flavors, in search of something adventurous, but always delicious.”
A look at the menu created by Justin during the off-season attests to that philosophy. Ingredients intermingle and flavors transcend borders like nomads without a passport. Wood-fired lobster gets special treatment with coconut milk, masala, bok choy, and lime pickle for a dish that straddles India and Maine. Whole-roasted bass, accented with bonito flakes and Thai basil served with rice noodles in ’nduja broth, ignores any culinary boundaries. The chef particularly likes Asian flavors and sensibilities, but he’ll bring in Italian and other global influences without blinking an eye. Chicken wings were inspired by a trip to Barcelona, where squid ink is a common ingredient. “I loved the idea of richness and salinity of ink,” says Justin. The wings appear almost black, and I have never experienced a taste quite like this. The process to make them requires many steps, building the layers of flavor and texture the chef so loves to show off. They’re ultra-crisp, sweet and salty with miso, and far more complex than any comfort food I’ve ever experienced. I was left in awe and licking my fingers. Also added to the menu this season are a couple of dishes meant to be shared. The chef is offering an enormous wood-fired ribeye with rhubarb bordelaise sauce and potatoes, as well as a chicken dish he describes excitedly: “It’s brined in cider, chiles, and herbs that steamed, rolled in chickpea flour and fried, then served with an incredible giblet gravy.”
It was a fateful day at Arrows when Justin met Danielle Johnson, a recent college graduate. Danielle had restaurant experience from working throughout her college years, while studying genetics. “Justin was the first person I shook hands with at Arrows,” she reminisces. “It was supposed to be a summer job.” But she stayed on for nearly ten years while her relationship with Justin blossomed into marriage, and her knowledge of fine service and wine expanded. With the help of owner Clark Frasier, she eventually took charge of Arrows’s wine program, growing their list to over 700 bottles. This experience proved invaluable when she made the move to Earth to manage the front of the house and the bar. Ken Oringer, the Boston restaurateur and chef who oversees Earth, helped Danielle develop a sure hand with cocktails, combining his own knowledge with her creativity. “The cocktail menu changes seasonally, but some changes are also made weekly based on what produce is available to us,” she says. Fruit and herbs from the garden are featured in drinks such as the Garden G and T and Spring Spritzer, with rhubarb and strawberry shrub. Updated classics and new creations on the cocktail list mirror the food menu with surprising combinations and worldly flavors. The wine list that Danielle has created contains many bottles from vineyards that she and Justin have visited in France, Austria, and Spain.
The couple likes to travel when time allows, visiting places where they can learn something they can bring back to Earth. “Our vacations all center around cycling and vineyards,” says Danielle, with Justin nodding in agreement. Mention the word “bicycle” near him and his eyes light up. He’s as eager to talk about his cycling life as he is about food. He often rides from home to the restaurant. Last year, Justin participated in Chefs Cycle, a 300-mile ride in support of No Kid Hungry, raising money to fight childhood hunger. He’s in training for the ride again, which will take place in California at the end of June with over one hundred chefs. Earth and the Walkers are generous supporters of Share Our Strength and many more organizations. Later this month they’ll participate in the Kennebunkport Festival, a five-day event of food, wine, and art benefitting Full Plates, Full Potential, where their presence is a big draw for visitors.
Luxury is an ineffable thing, hard to describe until you feel it. At Earth at Hidden Pond, there are no white tablecloths or crystal glassware, but a different type of luxury is undeniable. It’s about being surrounded by natural beauty, not just outside the walls, but indoors as well. It’s about food that speaks to all your senses, and leaves you in wonder. And it is very much about fine service that makes you feel well cared for, evoking a contented sense that there’s no place you’d rather be at this very moment but Earth.