Every five-star restaurant must consistently hit the mark. Michael Gagné, chef/owner of Robinhood Free Meetinghouse, has a knack for bull’s-eyes.
Robin Hood and his band of merry men had more than a few things in common with the Georgetown restaurant bearing the same name. The rogues were tucked away in Sherwood Forest; Robinhood Free Meetinghouse is also a bit of a destination, at the end of a scenic jaunt off Route 1. Robin and his gang were the stuff of legends; the Meetinghouse, too, has a reputation that brings foodies from far and wide to sample from the restaurant’s eclectic, often decadent menu. And then there’s the star power of Robin Hood himself. At the restaurant, that role is played by its amiable chef/owner, Michael Gagné, who over the past 16 years has become one of Maine’s most highly-regarded restauranteurs.
“The key to good business is making people feel like they matter,” Gagné says. “It’s not about being perfect; it’s the constant pursuit of excellence.” While Gagné is known for going from table to table, chatting with patrons, he also demands the highest standards in the kitchen, earning his restaurant accolades like “a culinary oasis” (The New York Times), and was featured in the James Beard restaurant directory. In 2008, Gagné was named Chef of the Year by the Maine Restaurant Association.
A great reputation is priceless, and Gagné guards his carefully, looking for any opportunity to improve the diner’s experience, including offering a complimentary dish if he feels it’s in order. “I’ve been known to chase down rumors of a bad experience,” Gagné says. Those instances are few and far between, but again, this man is aiming for excellence.
In an age where five-star chefs are usually armed with culinary arts degrees and celebrity apprenticeships, Michael Gagné learned his craft as a line cook, starting some 40 years ago. His talent quickly emerged, with sales and reputation soaring whenever Gagné was the craftsman in charge. Gagné worked for the prestigious La Costa Country Club, became executive chef at the Red Fox Tavern in Middleburg, Virginia, and was chef/manager at Maine’s Osprey Restaurant—with profits increasing 750% at the Osprey during his tenure.
The Robinhood Free Meetinghouse itself is an architectural jewel, an 1855 church with its original wide pine floorboards, 16-foot ceilings, and a combination of white-table elegance and rural Maine charm. “We look to present a very good time, and food is only part of it,” Gagné says. “I strive to provide a venue for the guy to propose marriage to his girlfriend.”
The food at the Meetinghouse is upscale and the service is casual, a combination that brings in a loyal family of regulars. Gagné has forged a strong connection to the community, and likes to keep it that way. He purchases from local purveyors whenever it’s feasible, and recently introduced “pub nights” in an effort to help his patrons beat the recession. The people Gagné hires are locals, and he says, “I am blessed with a loyal and long-term staff.”
The bill of fare at the Meetinghouse is all over the board in terms of style and execution. (One of Gagné’s signature items, his 72-layer cream cheese biscuits, grew into a separate business, now joined by a rich lineup of turnovers, rolls, and buns.) Gagné’s menu could be classified as “fusion,” though he admits, “I was doing fusion before anyone was using the term.” One constant seems universal: his adherence to real, “homemade” ingredients. He grinds his own spices to make curry and masala, makes all his own sauces, and even the sorbet between courses is handmade.
Unlike some high-end venues, the restaurant serves generous portions and fosters a relaxed atmosphere that belies the stereotypical five-star restaurant. “We don’t judge you,” Gagné says. “Instead, you judge us.”
The scores are in, and it appears that Robinhood Free Meetinghouse has hit more than its share of bull’s-eyes.
Five Mushrooms in a Puff Pastry • Serves 6
- Puff pastry squares
- 1 cup button mushrooms, sliced
- 1 cup oyster mushrooms, pulled apart
- 1 cup portabella mushrooms, sliced
- 1 cup shitake mushroom caps, sliced
- 1 cup chanterelles, pulled apart
- 1 cup leeks, julienne
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon shallots, minced
- 2 tablespoons parsley
- Clarified butter, as needed
- 3 teaspoons cracked black pepper
- ½ cup heavy cream
- ½ to 1 cup sherry
Bake puff squares according to package directions. Slice and pull mushrooms, julienne leeks, mince garlic and shallots, and chop parsley. Sweat leeks, garlic, shallots, and cracked black pepper in clarified butter until leeks are translucent; reserve. Boil cream in pot until reduced by one third, set aside. Sauté mushrooms quickly in a large sauté pan, until browned. Add leek mixture to mushrooms, deglaze with sherry, and reduce. Add cream, salt and pepper, and heat to simmer. Heat shells, fill with mushroom mix, and add chopped parsley.