Had we not enjoyed gracious service and fine dishes at Buck's Restaurant in Brooksville, Maine a couple of years ago, we might have been merely annoyed, rather than utterly shocked, by the unforgivable rudeness we encountered there recently.
While the first incident upon our arrival was easily the most offensive, it presaged what was to be a long evening of annoyances and disappointments.
When we approached the lectern, the hostess was engaged in what was clearly a personal phone call. After chatting a few more moments, she turned to us and asked, sotto voce, lest she disturb her caller, "Jones?" "No, Smith," I replied. She glanced at the reservation book, mouthed "oh," and without further words to us, resumed her telephonic gabfest, grabbed two menus, and walked into the dining room. The first table onto which she began placing our menus ("seating us" would be inaccurate, as she never made eye contact or spoke with us) was by far the worst in the house, and should probably not even exist: a two-top along the restaurant's main artery that required a person of average build to turn slightly in order to maneuver between it and a nearby guest. Upon requesting a different table, we were led down to a two-top in the confined, sunken bar area that was dominated by a party of ten that evening. Though the large, convivial group did not behave offensively in any manner, the acoustics were such that their modest merriment reverberated to a distracting level. Unfortunately, no other table was available to us.
All the while, the so-called hostess never abandoned her telephone call. Whether she uttered any words beyond the ones explaining our dearth of seating options, we can't recall. Of what we can be certain, however, is that, with one notable exception, neither of us had ever been treated so rudely by any greeter in any establishment—not even in the grungiest beanery. Worse yet, this ungraciousness could not be ascribed to the callowness of youth; nay, the gray-haired woman masquerading badly as a hostess that evening was clearly old enough to have known better.
Normally, while waiting for a server, we chat with our host or hostess briefly, and then between ourselves. That evening, however, the two of us had yet to exchange a single word; so stunned were we by this woman's rudeness that we simply stared at each other in silence, eyes wide, and mouths agape.
The menus revealed further signs of lax management. Various errors on the food and beverage cards suggested carelessness and inattention to detail—characteristics entirely too consistent with our reception.
Although our waitress was polite and seemingly well-meaning, she wasn't very knowledgeable or particularly attentive. About a minute after requesting olive oil for our bread, we watched as she engaged another server in a lengthy conversation in the next room. By the time she returned senza olio, it was already too late; our starters had arrived.
We expect very fresh seafood in Maine, especially if it is caught in the immediate vicinity and served in an upscale setting. Alas, the modestly sized yet grandly priced ($15) Insalata Frutti di Mare [sic] contained mussels that were clearly stale and very, very close to being bad. The three small pieces of lobster were reasonably sweet, however, and seemed to be the freshest among their plated sea mates. And while the large shrimp were fairly good, they should have been fresher. The snap of biting into a very fresh shrimp is unmistakable. Sadly, these little crustaceans had drifted beyond their "snapping point" at least a day or two earlier. The baby octopus and calamari were similarly unremarkable. To recapitulate: Buck's charges $15 for a salad comprising a few stale mussels, about an ounce and a half of lobster, three large (not jumbo) shrimp, a tiny octopus tentacle, and a few pieces of calamari (which cost the restaurant almost nothing).
The Classic Caesar Salad ($9) telegraphed its inadequacy by claiming to include a "creamy parmesan" [sic] rather than an authentic Caesar dressing. Not surprisingly, there weren't the slightest hints of fresh garlic, anchovy, Dijon mustard, fresh lemon juice, or egg yolk—the sine quibus non of a true Caesar. Inexplicably, this "classic" was served with a wedge of tomato. (Et tu, tomate?) On the positive side, the shaved Parmesan atop the romaine added a nice touch, but it alone could not elevate this salad above banality.
The Poached Atlantic Salmon ($24) owed its flavor and tender moistness to freshness and competent simmering. Sadly, it had been drowned in a creamy dill sauce that was trite and unimaginative. The boiled red-skinned potatoes with parsley butter were even less stimulating. Worst of all, however, were the vegetables that somehow managed to avoid both seasoning and cooking. (More about that anon.) With regard to its appeal, this course was an apt successor to the Caesar salad.
The only highlight of the evening—for which the chef truly deserves kudos—was the Tuscan-style Rabbit ($27): rabbit leg served in a delicious sauce featuring a medley of porcini and button mushrooms, rabbit sausage, olives, and white wine. (As with the seafood salad, it happened to be the priciest item in its menu category.) At its very best, rabbit tends to be a bit dry. This preparation, however, was absolutely succulent, and seasoned to perfection. The deep, earthy flavors of the wild and cultivated mushrooms, together with the savory brown sauce, created an inspired interplay that enhanced the rabbit's own inherent earthy (but not quite gamy) flavors and exquisite moistness. (Think primal and moist forest floor in their very best senses.) Alas, the inspiration did not extend to the bed of polenta upon which the rabbit lay; the cornmeal tasted as though it hadn't seen a grain of salt or any other seasoning.
Finally, and again, inexplicably, the green beans and carrots that accompanied both main courses were unseasoned and raw; the squash, though steamed superficially, was raw inside. Plating this small offering separately from the rabbit further underscored its oddness.
Aside from the outstanding rabbit, the only other vaguely positive aspect of the evening, was the reasonable wine list. It is far too common to encounter larcenous prices 200, 300, or even 400 percent above retail. (Restaurants purchase wines wholesale at prices roughly two-thirds those of retail.) Buck's, however, seems to price its wines about 100 percent over retail—even slightly lower in a few instances—for which it deserves praise. We enjoyed a relatively inexpensive bottle of rosé, the $24 price of which seemed quite fair.
Although the dessert menu beckoned, we'd already had quite enough—in more ways than one. We simply wanted to leave. But first, we had to point out that we'd been charged twice for the wine. (How ironic!) The hostess's assurance that she would have caught the error at the time of payment was most comforting, however.
As if we hadn't suffered enough indignities theretofore, the final insult was yet to come. I had noticed something that had been splattered onto the wall next to my Comestaccomplice's seat (by a previous diner, possibly). It was clearly a splash pattern that had dried to form an unheavenly constellation of white droplets against a crimson backdrop. My companion dipped her serviette into water and, without difficulty, wiped some of it off. As we left, we notified the hostess of the maculate wall. But instead of sparing a few more seconds of her precious time to acknowledge our concern, she dismissively imputed the mess to an imperfection in the plaster. (Should a plaster problem exist in fact, the area ought to be wiped down between seatings, covered by something decorative, or repaired.) Allowing guests to think they are sitting beside filth is unacceptable.
This was once a very pleasant restaurant. Alas, an ill-mannered hostess, a minimally trained waitress, misspelled menu items, and a food-flecked wall constituted an unsavory recipe that left a bad taste in our mouths. What a pity the management has become so uncaring and apathetic. Unless it undergoes a drastic reorganization, Buck's will not see my bucks again.
6 Cornfield Hill Rd
Brooksville, ME 04617-3654 (map)