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Bistro Basking: Chef looks for fresh start by offering exquisitely tasteful, moderately priced foods at Milo eatery

Article from Bangor Daily News, Wednesday, March 01, 2006

By Kristen Andresen
Staff Writer

People who love food also love to complain.

I know this because I'm one of them.

They wonder why menus change so infrequently. Why they can't get tres leches cake here. Why, oh why, every new restaurant in the city is a chain.

Foodies have already eaten every dish worth eating at every restaurant in Bangor. Five times. So they drive to the coast. To Portland. To Boston. In search of something they can't get here. They rave about their culinary conquests, then they rant about the drive.

I actually enjoy a foodie road trip, which is why I was thrilled to hear about a new restaurant that opened last spring in Milo. Yes, Milo. The chef there trained at Cordon Bleu, my friends told me (actually, she trained at the Culinary Institute of America, but more on that later). We can't remember the name, they said, but it's in Milo - you can't miss it.

So one snowy afternoon, I headed up I-95 to Howland and drove an endless, rutted, frost-heaved, part-dirt road to LaGrange, took a right and started looking. I passed gas stations and B&Bs, convenience stores and a hardware store. On Main Street, beside the river, there it was.

A simple red sign gave it away: "Valerie Jean's, An American Bistro." I tucked into a window seat in the warm crimson dining room and perused the menu of salads, sandwiches and stuffed hamburgers with homemade potato chips. With my first spoonful of the sherry-laced, fragrant broth of the French onion soup, I knew I had reached my destination. And that was just lunch.

As I nibbled my fresh-baked focaccia, I couldn't help but wonder, who is this Valerie Jean and what brought her to Milo ?

As it turns out, Valerie Jean is the mother of restaurateur Melissa Ettinger, who was looking for a fresh start after 10 years in southern Maine. Ettinger recently had married, and the demands of her job as executive chef at Clay Hill Farm in York were starting to wear her down.

She and her kitchen-designer husband, Clayton Dyett, searched nationwide real estate listings for a small restaurant with living quarters on the premises. When they saw the property overlooking the Piscataquis River in Milo, it felt like home.

"Right away, I just fell in love with it and the view," Ettinger said.

Her sous chef in York, Lourdes Ortiz, decided to come along as her chef and business partner, so Ettinger could take care of the planning, managing and quality control. But before Valerie Jean's could open, Melissa and her family had a lot of work to do: Though the property previously housed a restaurant, it had no kitchen, which was "a challenge."

So her father came from Arizona to help with a major renovation. When her mom joined them three weeks later, the restaurant's name was a pleasant surprise.

"She just couldn't believe it," Ettinger said.

Neither could the locals, though the name had nothing to do with it. They were more interested in the Gourmet Burger with goat cheese, roasted red pepper and roasted garlic spread. And the Sunday night Italian special for $9.95. And happy hour. Then word spread, and foodies from Bangor and Sebec Lake and Dover-Foxcroft started making Milo a dinner destination.

Slowly, surely they came for the roasted duckling with blueberry merlot sauce, the pretzel-encrusted haddock in a summer ale sauce, and the barbecue ribs. They found the service to be accommodating but not intimidating (Ettinger even hired a waitress named Valerie Jean). They liked the wine list, and they really liked the fact that nothing on said list cost more than $7.50 a glass.

"I want to give them the best they've ever had at a really good price," Ettinger said. "Everything we do here is done the best we can possibly do it, mostly from scratch."

She and Ortiz use local ingredients whenever possible, and the menu changes with the seasons. In the summer, Ettinger buys produce from a few farm stands in town. During her winter vacation, she went to Mexico to buy a tortilla maker because the lunch crowd wanted wraps. At Christmas, the staff at Valerie Jean's gave Ettinger an indoor garden so she could have fresh herbs year round.

Her commitment to cooking from scratch began in college. Though she studied psychology and philosophy, she worked in the restaurant industry and continued after graduation.

"Here I was with a degree, 25 or 26 years old, waitressing and bartending," she said, smiling.

She'd always loved cooking and she had a real passion for food, so she decided to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

"I really flourished there," she said. "I just soaked it all in."

After an internship in Scottsdale, Ariz., she moved to Portland and later worked at a French bistro in Minneapolis, which was a pivotal experience. When she returned to Maine, she opened a coffeehouse in Ogunquit before starting at Clay Hill Farm. She left York to spend two years in northern California, then she returned to Clay Hill and stayed "until I just was fried." Which led her to Milo.

"Coming in to 24 seats as opposed to 175 is just what I was looking for," she said. "It's a nice lifestyle."

She and her husband bought a house nearby, and they've made many friends within the community. Ettinger loves the people in central Maine because "they're real," not to mention pleasant and nice. The slower pace and lack of crowds are also a bonus. She even took off Thanksgiving and Christmas for the first time in years.

"I wasn't sure how I was going to fit in here, but it's been a really good fit - thank God," Ettinger said.

In other words, no complaints.

Not bad for a foodie.

Valerie Jean's, An American Bistro is located at 26 Main St. in Milo. Lunch hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday-Friday, noon-2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner hours are 5-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 5-8 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, which are recommended, call 943-7470. Kristen Andresen can be reached at 990-8287 and

"Content above originated in the edition noted as a copyrighted article and is posted here with permission of the Bangor Daily News. This permission does not extend to reproduction of these articles in any other form or publication."

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.