Originally Published in the January 2016 issue of Down East Magazine
Photograph by Douglas Merriam
Chef Mitchell Kaldrovich and his wife, Lisa, knew that a restaurant of their own was in the cards nearly a decade ago, but they waited patiently until the time was right. With Portland’s dining scene rapidly approaching saturation — sometimes it seems like a new restaurant opens every week — some of the more promising opportunities are now in surrounding communities, like the Kaldroviches’ hometown of Gorham.
“One day, we were taking our oldest daughter, Gia, to dance lessons and noticed a For Rent sign downstairs from the studio,” says Lisa. “The 3,000-square-foot space, located right in Gorham center, seemed like a no-brainer. I called the landlord that afternoon, and we opened MK Kitchen four months later.”
With blond wood floors, copper tabletops, sumptuous high-backed leather banquettes, and floor-to-ceiling windows, MK Kitchen has the look and feel of a modern brasserie. Muted colors, soft lighting, and a handwritten welcome note on each table combine with the hypnotic blend of aromas emanating from the kitchen to make the space feel cozy and inviting.
Mitchell, the former executive chef at Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, was raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he helped his nona make fresh pasta and other Mediterranean comforts in the family kitchen and later received his classical training in traditional French cooking. At MK Kitchen, he offers “a blend of flavors from the Andes, mixed with earthy stews and comfort dishes such as pasta, polenta, and risotto.”
I began with the plump Burgundian escargots braised slowly in herb butter and redolent with mellow roasted garlic. Served in a cast-iron skillet (rather than the traditional welled escargot plate) and topped with crunchy breadcrumbs, these large snails were more like whelks in size, and they were extremely tender. Lighter yet equally flavorful starters include delicate tuile cones filled with a mixture of chilled lobster and lemon and herb mayonnaise and topped with salty tobiko caviar — a playful interpretation of the salmon cornets served by California’s famous French Laundry. There’s also a nice selection of soups and salads, including one featuring beets prepared three ways — slow-braised and quartered, pickled and sliced, and buzzed into a puree, all finished with a dollop of goat cheese sourced from Fern Hill Farm in Naples.
A course of pastas and grains (available in half and full orders — a nice touch) ranges from the robust and indulgent (hand-rolled ricotta gnocchi served with braised pork belly, smoked bacon, and cheddar cream) to the restorative and healthful (a vegan quinoa bowl with cauliflower, brussels sprouts, pepitas, and kale). Mitchell’s version of rigatoni bolognese, a ragout of pork and beef braised in red wine and tomato, departs from tradition with its toppings of bacon crumbles and tangy feta cheese. Though not conventional, these additions serve to both brighten and add textural contrast to the soft, velvety meat sauce, which takes to the nooks and crannies of the rigatoni beautifully.
Chef Mitch Kaldrovich’s Argentinean upbringing and training in French cuisine shine through in dishes like a braised beet salad and a classic crème brûlée. His wife, Lisa, manages the front of the house.
The wine list emphasizes high quality examples of recognizable varietals, such as chardonnay, pinot noir, and cabernet, as well as a few slightly more esoteric bottles, like a gewürztraminer from Italy’s Alto Adige region and a zweigelt rosé from Austria. Feraud-Brunel Chateauneuf du Pape, from the Southern Rhône, is a perfect match for the baked lamb cocotte, MK’s take on seven-hour lamb. Braised lamb shoulder is baked in a cast-iron skillet with root vegetables, caramelized onions, and breadcrumbs until bubbly and golden brown. The sweet, earthy vegetables are a nice foil for the crunchy, fatty bits of savory meat.
Desserts are made in-house with a slant towards the classics like tiramisu, chocolate fudge cake, and baked apple tart. The crust on the vanilla crème brûlée was a bit chewy, and the accompanying rosemary biscotti was softer and more cake-like than I would have liked.
MK’s servers and bartenders are polished and friendly, displaying an enthusiasm for the menu that borders on contagious. Lisa says her hiring decisions were influenced by her eight years working the front of the house at Fore Street in Portland, where she became accustomed to both a heightened level of service and a sense of camaraderie among the staff (Fore Street boasts one of the lowest turnover rates and longest average tenure of any restaurant in the city). “I want the guests to feel the sense of teamwork,” Lisa explains, “and be confident that anyone on the floor will happily take care of their needs.”
The formula seems to be working. Lisa says MK Kitchen is attracting diners from Buxton to Old Orchard Beach, many of whom have already established themselves as regulars. “It’s thrilling to take a step back and see a restaurant full of happy faces,” she says. “To see all of the hard work that Mitch puts into each dish be recognized and enjoyed is an indescribable feeling.”