Back of the House: Fin
“These are scary times” is a phrase we’ve been hearing a bit too much lately. In many ways they are, but scary times are historically always around the corner—just ask your parents, or better yet, ask your grandparents. When there’s not quite enough doom and gloom readily available, life digs deeper with stories about hypodermic needles at the playground, flight attendants running low on meds at 30,000 feet and the skinny kid who gets cold-cocked by a bunch of school bullies overly pepped from a pep rally. When a president assures the country that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, he’s inevitably followed by political ads informing us that we’re rocketing to Hell in a super-charged, fiery handbasket.
We’ll forever live in a world that prefers to shock and dramatize than not, which is exactly the thought that struck me as I drove home from dinner a few nights ago, because during that dinner I was reminded of the upside of life—that there are truly special places we can go to that are run by people who understand that we all need to be nurtured. We need to breathe, to stop feeling beat up for a moment and be allowed to feel really special. Chef Martha Kane is one of those people, and her one-year old restaurant FIN in Dennis Village not only serves world-class food (note, I didn’t use the word cuisine—more on that later), it holds a much greater purpose.
My dining companions that evening had already been seated for cocktails at one of two high-top bistro tables next to the compact seven-seat bar that we were surprised to see full so early in the evening, with nicely dressed patrons carrying on lively conversation. I, with camera and steno pad in hand, made my way into the kitchen. “Meet my line cook, Nick DeSimone,” chef Kane announced when she noticed me standing just inside the door. I neglected to introduce myself, distracted by the delicate poise Nick was demonstrating as he carefully lifted a rectangular copper mold from a beautifully constructed Tuna Tartare. Nick is a large and jovial-looking guy, and when his fingers raised the tiny gold curtain to reveal delicate layers of pink tuna, fresh avocado, sesame seeds, cilantro, lotus root chips and togarashi (Japanese chili pepper powder), I was impressed by the gentle attention he gave to this latest creation. “Nick started with me at the Brewster Fish House back in 2003,” Martha said. “Yeah, she can’t get rid of me!” Nick quipped back. At the other end of the line is sous chef Gabriel “Chico” Trinidad. Chico also worked under Martha at the Brewster Fish House, and like Nick, followed her west to Dennis Village. Chico’s resume packs a strong punch, as he spent time as sous chef at the beloved Nauset Beach Club in Orleans, and as chef at the well-respected Bramble Inn, just up the road. Chico seems to find himself in a good place backing up Martha Kane. He is upbeat and clearly having a good time behind the line, occasionally making a muscle for the camera, and joking with Martha and Nick as if taking quick-witted cues from the Marx brother of the same name (it is also worth noting that the evening is just kicking off, so the orders chits are still slow coming). When I returned to the kitchen in the middle of Friday night rush, Martha, Chico and Nick were as focused as any kitchen line I’ve seen. They personify the perfect dance that all back-of-the-house teams strive for.
Martha Kane is a townie if there ever was one. She was born in Lowell, but her family moved to Yarmouth Port in 1979 when she was a young child. At that time Martha was already showing an interest in baking, encouraged by her mother who was the cook of the house (although her father tries to take the credit, Martha jokes), but she in no way aspired to be a chef. “I was always the one taking painting and drawing lessons and decided that I would be an artist and live in Rockport. After high school I left the Cape and went to Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where I majored in photography and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree,” Martha said. Although I’m usually quick to appreciate the irony when I hear stories of people with such talent in one aspect of their lives having a deep-seeded passion for another, as I see the various appetizers being sent to the bar, it all makes total sense—Martha is an artist who has simply traded photographic paper for ceramic plates.
Martha’s kitchen adventures started in the summer of 1985 when she was hired as a salad girl at Oliver’s Restaurant in Yarmouth Port. “It was a really hectic place and I had no clue what I was doing, but I lasted the summer, had a lot of fun, and they hired me back the next year. I ended up working there summers off and on through college during breaks. Most of the other kitchen kids moved toward the dining room, but I wanted to stay in the kitchen. It was hot and miserable at times, but for some strange reason I preferred it.”
While bouncing back and forth between summers at Oliver’s and art school, Martha made her way up from salad prep to line cook, and when she found herself thriving under the challenges of a busy night, you might think that a new career had been set in stone, but the dream of being an artist was too strong to deny. After graduating from college, Martha worked at Children’s Hospital in Boston developing and printing research photos for the cytogenetics lab, but moved on after a year. “I could look at only so many strands of DNA,” she explains, half kidding. Back on Cape, she worked as an assistant manager at a couple of art galleries and got her work into a few shows, but found her taste didn’t mesh with the mainstream art on Cape Cod. Martha finally left her photography aspirations outside the kitchen door when she was hired as sous chef at the Brewster Fish House. “Cooking paid better and I really missed it. Going to the Fish House is when I realized that I loved cooking. Although I had learned a lot about working on a line before I got there, the Fish House brought out a passion for food and made me realize how creative it can be, and I love the fact that it’s endless. There’s always a different recipe or ingredient to try. I was fortunate to work with chef Jeremiah Reardon who really pushed me to do better, learn more and refine my knife skills.”
After three years, Martha expanded her resume by becoming Gil Pepin’s sous chef at Restaurant 902 Main in South Yarmouth, which she found an invaluable experience. “I learned a tremendous amount about running a restaurant from Gil: the dedication, the hours and the commitment that was needed to be successful.” Two years later, chef Reardon decided to leave the Brewster Fish House and Martha was asked to take his place. “I was excited and nervous,” Martha admits. “The restaurant had gotten a lot of attention by then, and those were very big shoes to fill.” After three successful years, with all her skills in place, Martha left to open FIN with her husband Jonathan Smith.
Jonathan, while never having worked in a restaurant, brings a lot of other skills in the way of maintenance and upkeep to the over-200-year-old building. A Brewster native, Jonathan is a life-long fisherman and aquaculturist, and his Nobscussett oysters are always featured on the menu. They would kick-start our evening’s dinner, but how does one decide between oysters accompanied by a Prosecco mignonette, fresh horseradish and lemon, or Grey Goose vodka-soaked cucumber sorbet with Black Tobiko caviar? Our waitress, Tina Wagner, set the festivity bar high with a suggestion that rarely fails in any situation, “How about I bring out a sampling of both?” Brilliantly played. The oysters arrived perfectly shucked and properly chilled, and the table was split on which was the favorite preparation. The other top spot of the menu: Jonathan’s oysters swimming in a warm chowder with wood-smoked bacon and chive and truffle oils, and rather than throw superlatives toward the bowl, I will quote from my fellow diners: “Oh my God…” and later, “Can I have my spoon back?” The chowder was simply one of the best any of us have ever tasted, and all agreed that with a glass of smoky chardonnay, it would be the perfect reason for future drop-ins at the bar. Also making its way to our corner of the dining room was Nick’s Yellow Fin Tuna Tartare and an over-sized artichoke stuffed with Maine Jonah crab, rich risotto, fresh basil and black truffle pecorino, drizzled with a charred tomato vinaigrette. The appetizer was a perfect representation of chef Kane’s style—fresh, creative and colorful, with every ingredient sharply and cleanly recognizable, yet able to fuse together perfectly. Speaking on the subject of colorful, I’m always drawn to artisanal cheese plates as an appetizer. When properly presented, the colors, tastes and textures of the multiple cheeses and their accompaniments can really take your taste buds for a joy ride, but unfortunately all that cheese followed by an entrée can hinder one’s stamina come dessert time (and from what we’re heard, dessert should not be missed). Tina’s “I can bring one cheese plate for the table so you can all share,” was the perfect solution (I was really starting to like the way she thinks). The evening’s selection featured Great Hill Blue with local honey caramel, Tête de Moine with butter pear relish, and whipped Brie with port wine glaze and Tellicherry pepper. Once our collective forks were finished darting in, around and over each other, even a mouse couldn’t tell there was anything on that tray.
Martha’s menus and always-sold-out wine dinners proudly showcase many of Cape Cod’s local growers. Salads often feature greens from Ron Backer of Surrey Farms, and heirloom lettuces from Veronica Worthington’s Tuckernuck Farm. “Ron’s been working on some things for us over the winter—sea beans, oyster leaves and finger limes, to name a few,” Martha said excitedly. “We got a lot of herbs and edible flowers from him in the past as well, also the usual things like beans and all kinds of heirloom tomatoes.” Martha is grateful that the local growers will stop in with five of this or six of that. Having such a small restaurant, she can’t buy in large quantities, so growers like Ron will call or stop by with what looks good that day, and one can only assume that the growers are equally grateful to Martha for showcasing their hard work so thoughtfully. Cape Abilities Farm and Tim Friary of Cape Cod Organic Farm have also played an important role throughout Martha’s menus, and there’s talk of branching out to team up with Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm for poultry, as well as growing more herbs at home with Jonathan and trading squash blossoms grown by neighbors in trade for dinner (note to self: plant squash).
Our entrées continued to deliver sensory sensations on all levels. The Pan Seared Day Boat Scallops were about as large as you can get, which can be a risky proposition when not in the care of a chef who knows the art of searing a scallop. These beauties melted at the touch of a fork, perfectly moist and sweet, with a positively elegant chive Béarnaise and resting atop a potato gaufrette, pea shoots, pancetta and firm oyster mushrooms and asparagus. As the name FIN suggests, the menu definitely leans toward the sea, but offerings such as Braised Pineland Farms Beef Cheeks with whole grain mustard and red wine jus aren’t just readily available, they’re equally celebrated. One of the night’s specials was beef tenderloin, but the Roast Long Island Duck Breast with herb spaetzle, Savoy cabbage, apple wood bacon and cherry gastrique won out. I was hooked by the sautéed Cod with Chatham Littlenecks, but then I reached the bottom of the menu where the Seared Native Flounder with Sea Beans was hiding. I’ll book a reservation simply based on the fact that a restaurant serves baby bok choy with fresh fish. Add to that a light mushroom sauce? And pine nuts? I felt like my taste buds were being clairvoyantly channeled. Chili oil finished off the dish, along with fresh sea urchin, which I had never eaten before outside of a Japanese roll. The urchin was creamy in texture and practically flavorless, which didn’t really add or subtract from the flavors of the meal, but it was fun to pass around for everyone to try, and more importantly it gave the dish exotic overtones—or should I say undertows—as the slight brine of fresh sea urchin brought the Atlantic Ocean and all of its treasures to a subliminal forefront of my meal.
After the entrées, seeing that we had more wine and were thoroughly enjoying ourselves, Tina asked if we would like to sit and sip for a while before ordering dessert (oh, that Tina…), and we took her cue once again. The intimate dining room where we sat—with 20 chairs in all (and 20 more upstairs) was perfectly lit with candles all around the room. The flickering light splashed the shadows of the spotless glasses and exotic plants onto the walls (painted a soothing color appropriately called Sand Castle) and the antique windows (trimmed in a color called Pearl—am I sensing a theme here?). The small dining room is positively soothing and seems to sparkle, giving one the feeling that you’re dining inside an over-sized jewelry box. Apparently having a small window of opportunity from the busy little bar, the other Tina, bartender Tina Parsons, dropped by to check on us all. When you consider FIN’s food and atmosphere, bartender Tina Parsons completes the Triple Crown. Tina Parsons also followed Martha from (wait for it) the Brewster Fish House, and she was the reason that out of all the meals we enjoyed there over the years (too many to count), we almost always dined at the bar. Tina is the quintessential host and I can easily say that out of all the bartenders I’ve befriended on the Cape (too many to count!), Tina rises above them all. From the zealous greeting as you walk into FIN, to the attentive service and spot-on food knowledge, and finally the “hurry back” hugs goodbye, Tina, like a large majority of the staff, is not just devoted to Martha as a chef, but gives the feeling that she shares Kane’s vision. While the back of the house presents guests with world class cuisine, the front of the house reminds those guests that it’s just really good food being served in a fun place. The menu reads like a four-star “special occasion” restaurant, but the vibe of the dining room and the more-than-fair prices keep FIN as welcoming as a small town neighborhood joint.
For dessert, the goody-good dieters nursed their last sips of wine and contemplated the French press coffee à la Wellfleet’s Beanstock Coffee Roasters, while a couple of us put the pedal to the metal and ordered the Macadamia Nut and Coconut Tarte with house-made vanilla ice cream and caramel, as well as the “Zuccotto”—a Tiramisu and Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse Torte, carefully sculpted in the shape of a perpendicular fin (the restaurant’s logo) and drizzled with coffee and vanilla crème anglaise. The desserts are all hand crafted by Christine Arden, FIN’s professionally trained pastry chef with a hot resume that includes Oyster Harbors Country Club, L’Alouette and the former restaurants Abbicci and High Brewster.
As Tina W. prepared our check, I took a walk up the staircase to the second level of the petite two-story building. To be honest, I was looking for the imperfection. Unless a restaurant has a three-star Michelin rating, or something comparable, there’s inevitably that flaw—spotty service, over-seasoned entrées, a dining room that looks tired or echoes, a menu that holds your wallet in a half-nelson—so I assumed the upstairs dining room would be the fly in the fine wine and fall flat in comparison to the space we had just dined in. I was wrong. We would have been just as happy upstairs, with its glowing wide-planked antique floors and similar dancing shadows.
For a couple of hours that night, work woes, the media gloom, schedule conflicts and money worries were replaced by first-class lavishes and much-needed laughter, and we felt thankful to have this place so close by. One might say that FIN is where the fruits de mer meet the sel de la terre—the salt of the earth being Martha Kane. In my last conversation with her, she told me that she recently talked Jonathan into buying her a puppy—a Boston Terrier named Quivet. She said that Quivet brings happiness to them every day, and not only does the dog look after her, it also gets her out of the kitchen for afternoon walks. If she didn’t do that, she confessed, the cooking, the creating and re-creating of dishes, the always striving to do better, would completely consume her. “I was worried I was becoming a vampire,” she said. Whether you’re a dog person or not, you have to appreciate that it’s important that people like chef Martha Kane take good care of themselves, because the peace of mind she’s serving at FIN is needed more now than ever before.
Fin, 800 Main Street, Dennis
Open Tuesday-Saturday, 5:00-9:30 pm
Tom Dott is co-owner of the Lamb and Lion Inn on Cape Cod. Previously Tom and his partner Ali Pitcher owned and operated a 4-diamond Relais and Chateaux property in New York’s Hudson Valley, which featured a menu dedicated to all things local. Tom is an Elvis impersonator, has received three national Eddy writing awards and is two-time runner up. As an Elvis impersonator he remains awardless. Tom’s articles can be read at www.ediblecommunties.com/capecod