The renowned restaurant by the old mill stream in Blue Hill has survived the changing of hands, and the mysterious disappearance of its former owner.
For a time, some wondered whether the Firepond itself would disappear.
The reputation of the award-winning restaurant, once revered as one of the best in the state, has wavered over the years. “It went through a period where it changed hands too many times,” says Craig Rodenhiser, Firepond’s chef and newest owner.
Firepond’s fortunes foundered a bit further after Bangor accountant Rod Hotham, who then owned the 1885 building and surrounding property, disappeared in September 1992 under a highly publicized cloud of suspicion and reports of illegal dealings. He was indicted a few months later by a federal grand jury in Bangor on multiple counts of bank fraud and money laundering.
Believed dead by family members who said his life had been threatened, the businessman has never resurfaced.
With the dust finally settled and prodigal patrons returned, the landmark Blue Hill fine-dining venue has just opened for the season, newly renovated and featuring an updated menu.
While Rodenhiser was head chef in 1991, Firepond won a national award, suggesting it had returned to the higher ranks.
In re-opening the restaurant for this season, Rodenhiser says he has strived to downplay the kind of “Geez, is my tie straight?” atmosphere that for years has put off would-be patrons daunted by the place’s haute reputation.
The Firepond mythology leads some to think they need a bank loan and a new wardrobe to go there, the owner says, admitting that a full-course dinner with wine and the trimmings could prove a setback. He insists, however, that a main course and soup combination is affordable, with entrees starting at $14.95.
The self-taught chef, with 15 years experience, in a variety of cuisines, scoffs at any attempt to categorize his menu with a fancy international sobriquet, calling it simply “American gourmet.”
With so many coastal, seafood restaurants available, Rodenhiser prefers not to duplicate their efforts, but does offer two to three fresh fish specials daily.
The restaurant now has two floors and a seating capacity of 110, with the upstairs remodeled in what its new owner describes as “English country gentleman’s library” decor — namely wood, books, plants and artfully arranged clutter.
Downstairs, the beams and honey-colored pine floors from former days remain. The main room has a solid, casually elegant feel, with plenty of wood and stone, simple but sparkling place settings, and the work of local artists, such as sculptor Jud Hartmann and painter Joy Biddle. Deer Isle blacksmith Doug Wilson designed the striking black railing for the stairway connecting the two floors.
The screened-in porch area has an airier, cafe-type feel, with light carpeting and burgundy canvas chairs, white tablecloths and plenty of smaller tables for two. At night, it is lit only by candles and the gentle spotlights illuminating the rushing stream.
“This is our marriage-proposal table, and the divorce table is a couple of tables down,” cracks Rodenhiser, more than half-serious as he points out the spot at which several couples ultimately popped the question. For some reason, people pick that particular spot to get engaged.
Especially for the proposal table, reservations are cheerfully accepted and strongly encouraged.
The former blacksmith shop and mill became a restaurant in the 1970s, owned by John Hikade of Blue Hill, changing hands over the years, Rodenhiser said. In 1991, the chef from North Conway, N.H., answered an ad and became Firepond’s head chef.
An affable, self-described “stress junkie,” Rodenhiser thrives on the 16-hour days and strict attention to detail required in any head-chef job description. All he needed was a place to call his own.
When the 1991 summer season ended at Firepond, Rodenhiser returned to New Hampshire to run the White Mountain Hotel. That winter, Roderick and Lisa Hotham, whose company, Five Star Inc., owned Firepond, visited the chef to propose that he lease the restaurant space from them, an offer he could not refuse.
Rodenhiser says that in the long run, Hotham’s misfortune worked to Firepond’s benefit. In July 1993, the chef was able to pick up the Firepond property at a bank-foreclosure auction, and remake the restaurant to suit his own vision. He believes chef-owned restaurants offer higher quality and enjoy a better shot at success.
If the long run looked hopeful, the short run looked less so. “Quite frankly, all the bad press hurt me in ’92,” Rodenhiser said.
Patrons envisioning FBI agents and wiretaps tended to shun their former haunt. Others just didn’t relish what they perceived as lining the pockets of a man whose reputation was in question.
People believed Hotham still ran the place in 1992, when, in fact, he was just the landlord leasing space to Rodenhiser. What was worse, when time came to vacate the building briefly as it went to auction, the press suggested it was closing for good, when actually, Rodenhiser fully intended to re-open.
Closing in midsummer didn’t help matters, either. Rodenhiser became chef at The Landing in Brooksville in the interim, as the months-long Firepond renovations ensued.
Although he says Hotham treated him well, and he sympathizes with the family’s pain, Rodenhiser hopes to put the Hotham upheaval behind him.
New partner Roy Barrette of Brooklin now co-owns the Firepond property, and J. William Holt of New York co-owns the restaurant. Barrette is known locally for his award-winning newspaper column, “The Retired Gardener” in the Ellsworth American.
With tourist season approaching, the chef is gearing up for full-tilt madness with the return of both the summer hordes and Firepond’s old faithfuls. Rodenhiser expects to open for lunch some time after Memorial Day.