Dine Out Maine: Salt Pine Social in Bath offers eclectic, playful approach to casual dining

Everybody loves to play, but Eloise Humphrey does it for a living. At Salt Pine Social, the recently opened Bath restaurant that she co-owns with Daphne and Paul Comaskey (her twin sister and brother-in-law, respectively), she specializes in carefree, sometimes irreverent ways of expressing herself.

It starts with the space: a vigorously renovated former sheet metal workshop that features long, inviting custom banquettes that Humphrey has dressed Siberian dogsled-style with sheepskins from Wiscasset and furry, overstuffed pillows. There’s also a bar lighted by a mix-and-match array of colorful Moorish lanterns that bring to mind much warmer climes, especially when their light is reflected off the high-gloss crimson floor. Yet despite the eclectic design choices, both of the restaurant’s dining rooms still feel lean and a little Scandinavian – the way you might picture Pippi Longstocking’s first grown-up apartment.

Humphrey’s menu echoes the same restrained whimsy. Here, it spools out as an intricate game of make-believe she shares with her guests, where she recreates dishes that evoke memories of people and places dear to her. Take the bright and punchy British-style rollmops ($9), herring fillets pickled simply and served with toasted triangles of dense Danish rye, sweet butter, and pickled onions and carrots. “I was going to make grilled sardines, like I had when I was in Morocco, but the closest I could get was herring, and they were a little too big to grill, so I pickled them and made rollmops. I loved to eat them when I was in England,” she said, eliding one food memory into another.

There’s also a vanilla-freckled Meyer lemon panna cotta in passion fruit “soup” ($8), a tribute to Krista Kern Desjarlais (The Purple House), whose acclaimed former Portland restaurant Bresca once served a similar dish. “I never forgot it. I don’t know her recipe or anything, but it’s my ode to Krista Kern,” she said. As cover versions go, it is remarkable, with hits of fresh mint and a bracingly tangy tropical dice of papaya, pineapple, kiwi and mango that immediately erases any thoughts of snow falling outside.

Humphrey keeps her links to the past alive through her staff, as well. Recently, she brought in Jeff Kent – an old friend with whom she worked in New York 30 years ago – to act as a consulting chef, helping her stitch together a permanent menu that will take Salt Pine Social into the tourist season and beyond. He also seems to embrace her light-hearted tilt toward using memory as inspiration. Case in point: clam chowder ($6 cup/$10 bowl) from a recipe he learned as a young teenager, reproduced faithfully here, ground quahogs and all, save for one well-conceived upgrade, a house-made Tabasco-infused crouton.

There’s also the hacked chicken ($16), a whopping portion of intensely smoked thighs and drumsticks, all cleavered into three-bite pieces and served with a light, cornbread-like (and gluten-free) cheddar stick – a dish the two chefs used to prepare long ago, as they cooked side-by-side at Manhattan’s Arizona 206. Apart from the accompanying cowboy beans, which were confusingly undersalted and over-herbed with oregano, this was the sort of hearty plate I could imagine appearing in my own culinary reminiscences.

Only a few bistro classics on the menu possess no particular link to Humphrey’s past, like the sharp cheddar-topped organic hamburger ($16), made from ground short ribs and chuck from Caldwell Farms in Turner. Here though, she makes the most of an opportunity to create something special on a blank canvas. It’s a chance, as she puts it, “to play around a little with locally sourced food,” by smoking the superlative shallots from her friend’s off-the-grid farm in Brunswick and turning them into an aioli with a phenomenal depth of flavor.

It’s a trick she repeats – this time in the oven – by plating sweet, yielding slices of roasted Bosc pear along with grilled bread and a timbale of ultra-clean tasting, basket-aged local ricotta ($11). But even here, flashbacks creep in, this time germinating the idea for a syrup infused with rosemary and black pepper that is based on something she ate in a restaurant in Inverness, California 25 years ago. Its tiny needle pricks of heat and gentle piney sweetness animate every mouthful.

But the dish that best spotlights Humphrey’s singular talent at combining the ludic and the nostalgic is her Lebanese tomato salad ($10) with celery and fresh sheep’s milk feta. Inspired by a salad made by her friend, celebrated Dallas chef Sharon Hage, Humphrey builds complex, feathery layers of mint, basil, celery leaves and parsley, and pinions them to a framework of spice: cinnamon, coriander and sumac. “I loved her salad because the flavors were so alive, and they just really reminded me of my childhood,” Humphrey said.

There is perhaps no bolder, nose-thumbingly audacious move for a serious chef than to serve a raw tomato salad in February. But thanks to nearby hydroponic gardens in Massachusetts and Maine, she pulls it off. No, scratch that. The salad is so good right now – in the most inhospitable season of the year – that it compels you to look forward to the warm months, just to imagine what she will be able accomplish then. It’s the ultimate trickster gambit: Humphrey dazzles and distracts as she looks backwards for inspiration, while she forces you (lovingly) to do exactly the opposite.