Making it in Monson

At the Quarry Restaurant, chef-owner Marilou “Lulu” Ranta creates elevated cuisine while feeding a community.

Making it in Monson

At the Quarry Restaurant, chef-owner Marilou “Lulu” Ranta creates elevated cuisine while feeding a community.

Issue: October 2019

By: Susan Axelrod
Photography by: Nicole Wolf

When Marilou “Lulu” Ranta was working as a maid in Manila, in her native Philippines, she and a group of fellow maids would get together to watch the TV show Knight Rider. In it, David Hasselhoff’s character, Michael Knight, solves crimes in a futuristic black Pontiac Firebird, a car that talks and thinks, named KITT. Ranta told her friends she would one day own a car just like it. “They said, ‘You’re dreaming; what are you going to do, go to America?’” Ranta says. She married an American serviceman, who in 1987 brought her to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where she got a job in a factory. When their son, Tom, was seven, she had saved up enough money to buy a 1995 red Pontiac Firebird. “I couldn’t afford KITT,” Ranta says with a laugh. “But I always tell my kids, if you want something in life, in America you will get it, as long as you work for it.”

The chef and proprietor of the Quarry restaurant in Monson, Ranta has spent her life being sure of what she wants and working hard to get it. After she and her first husband divorced, she dated Monson native William Ranta, also stationed at Fort Bragg. “He brought me here at Christmastime, and it was like a winter wonderland,” says Ranta. “When he brought me back in the summer, and I saw the lakes and the landscape I said, ‘You really do live in a paradise.’” Back in North Carolina, he proposed, and in 1997 they moved to Monson with her son and the Firebird in tow (she gave the car to Tom when he was in college).

After her husband returned from a year-and-a-half deployment in Iraq, Ranta launched a pan-Asian takeout business at the Monson General Store. “I always sold out, so I knew my food was good enough for people to come back,” she says. William Ranta stayed home with the children, which by then included daughter Esa and son Gunnar (both names are Finnish in honor of her husband’s heritage), while Ranta attended the two-year culinary program at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, a 90-minute drive each way from Monson. She did her internship at the Blair Hill Inn in Greenville, where her cooking, exclusively for inn guests, was well received. “And then Stu came along,”Ranta says. Stuart Kestenbaum, the artistic director of Monson Arts, a program established in 2017 by the Libra Foundation that now occupies much of downtown Monson, asked Ranta if she would feed the visiting artists. “They wanted to serve a sit-down dinner to build a community around the table with the artists,” she says. She said yes, as long as she could cook for the public, too.

When I arrive for dinner at the Quarry, artists in the current month-long residency program are finishing their meal at a long black table in the center of the dining room. Lunch and dinner are included in this program; Ranta also cooks for workshop attendees, who get three meals a day. She was given a free hand in designing and outfitting the restaurant, which opened in June 2018 on the ground floor of an old building in the center of town. “I wanted simple, clean lines because my food is so colorful,” she says. The dining room’s gray walls are hung with large vintage photos of slate quarry workers, and the dark gray slate floor are a nod to the industry that first put Monson on the map. The streamlined room is softened with muted lighting, white tablecloths, and a bud vase with a single pink rose on each table. In good weather, diners can also be seated on the back porch overlooking Lake Hebron.

While Ranta prepares one meal for the artists, who are asked in advance to detail any dietary restrictions, she offers the public a five-course, prix-fixe menu with a choice of three appetizers, three entrees, and three desserts. She changes the menu regularly but always has grilled filet of beef and potatoes mousseline, “because around here they love their meat and potatoes,” she says. “It’s a 6-ounce filet, and I don’t slice it; they want a hunk of meat.” My dinner begins with a zingy amuse-bouche of Sriracha-spiced melon with pickled onion and balsamic pearls in a ceramic spoon. Ranta likes to play with molecular gastronomy techniques; in addition to the pearls there are tiny diamonds, made with white balsamic vinegar tinted pink with purple basil, that dot the plate around a summery salad of heirloom tomatoes, local greens, crumbled feta, and black garlic crisps. My tuna sashimi appetizer also features tiny diamond-shaped nuggets of wasabi paste in a small pile on a board that includes silky chunks of pale pink tuna topped with tobiko and accompanied by cubed guava paste. It’s an unusual, sweet-salty-savory combination that works beautifully. Next comes green gazpacho with tender, meaty shrimp and garnished with toasted almonds, which looks gorgeous served in a sleek, wide-brimmed black bowl. The refreshing cold soup, flavored with green grapes, white wine vinegar, and a hint of garlic, is another example of Ranta’s culinary skill. It is followed by a small glass filled with scoops of kiwi watermelon sorbet, sprinkled with Thai chili salt. “I could eat a big dish of this,” says the charming young server as she sets it in front of me. I agree, and scoop up every last bit with the tiny spoon. It’s a lively and apt palate cleanser before my colorful entree, a buttery pan-seared filet of halibut, napped with a light lemon-caper cream sauce and accompanied by bright green baby romanesco and charred oranges.

Even after dessert, an individual tart with pastry cream, poached rhubarb, and ice wine-rhubarb coulis, I am pleasantly satisfied but not stuffed, thanks to Ranta’s deftness with portion sizes and limited use of fats. “Last night I had three women in here, and they were actually moaning because they were enjoying everything so much,” says Ranta. “They had a bottle of wine and were having a ball. I told them to take their time; the table is yours for the night.” Because she feeds the artists daily, Ranta has the flexibility to take as many (or as few) reservations as she wants for the five evenings a week the Quarry is open to the public. “I’m not trying to fill up the room and be so exhausted, and I like to be out here to talk to the customers,” she says. “I can’t stay back in the kitchen not knowing who’s eating my food.”

Aside from Ranta’s culinary prowess, it is her innate sense of hospitality that makes dining at the Quarry so memorable. For a couple celebrating a fiftieth anniversary she’ll present her individual, flourless, Callebaut chocolate cake, decorated with gold leaf and fresh berries. She keeps ice wine, muscat, and port at the bar to share an after-dinner glass with guests. “When I was in culinary school, a professor told me, ‘No matter where you open your restaurant, Lulu, people will come.’ And they do.” In the future, she hopes to have rooms where her guests can spend the night after a leisurely dinner; perhaps she will renovate the floors above the restaurant into an inn. “I know I’ll do it someday,” she says. “Because after all, this is America.”

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