Cooking to Perfection
Thanks to its talented executive chef Justin Dain, Pine Restaurant is outstanding in its farm-to-table field.
Whether Dartmouth College is in session or not, business is brisk year-round at Pine Restaurant, located in the historic Hanover Inn owned by the college. That’s because the inn underwent a substantial renovation in 2013: Boston-based restaurateur and celebrity chef Michael Schlow was recruited to work with the inn’s executive chef Justin Dain to create a new menu focused on local and sustainable ingredients. The result is a 125-seat restaurant with urbane décor that includes pieces by Vermont-based Pompanoosuc Mills and Simon Pearce, which would be right at home in downtown Boston or New York City.
Dain has worked at the Hanover Inn since 2010 and now supervises a staff of twenty. In addition to serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, and Saturday and Sunday brunch at Pine, Dain and his staff prepare foods for banquets and other college events; offsite catering for area businesses; and other special occasions, such as weddings.
New Hampshire Home spoke with Dain— who earned his stripes at Meritage at the Boston Harbor Hotel—about his recipe for bringing sophisticated dining to a classic New England college town as well as how he keeps his menu fresh and exciting.
New Hampshire Home [NHH]: How did you get your start in the restaurant business?
Justin Dain (JD): I grew up in Waterbury, Vermont, and when I was fifteen, I got a job as a busboy at the Stowe Mountain Lodge. One day, a cook didn’t show up for work, so I started flipping burgers and making French fries. I loved it and couldn’t get enough. During the second semester of my senior year in high school, I worked at Foxfire Italian Restaurant in Stowe, Vermont, and earned academic credit for cooking there. My school was very supportive of me, and when I graduated I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
From there, I got an associate degree at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and then a bachelor degree in food and beverage management to the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. I began as an intern at the Boston Harbor Hotel, and worked my way up from line cook, to sous chef and to restaurant chef at Meritage, one of six four-star restaurants in Boston. Executive chef Daniel Bruce, who is still there, pushed me and made me who I am today. With his help, I got a great education about New England cuisine and refined my palate for fine dining.
NHH: And where did your interest in farm to table come from?
JD: Growing up in Vermont made me appreciate the importance of local farmers. Local is my passion at Pine. I also like to give back with volunteer work for local organizations, such as March of Dimes and Vital Communities.
The renovation of the Hanover Inn gave me a wonderful opportunity, as I was charged with bringing the best food to the area. There’s no other restaurant like Pine around here. We like to cater to our clientele who travel by keeping our dishes simple, flavorful, looking good and tasting good. We are also big proponents of clean eating and no chemicals in our food. Most of our local purveyors of produce are organic, and we use local sources for our beef, chicken and pigs. All our fish is from the East Coast, and our oysters are from Massachusetts.
Justin Dain serves a holiday dinner at home to his wife Kristen and their children, Lily and Connor.
NHH: What are some of your current favorites on the menu?
JD: We push the envelope with how food is presented, rather than being concerned with how food was presented in the past. I like Asian touches a lot, especially togarashi, a Japanese spice blend with orange zest, and yuzu, a Japanese citrus and white soy sauce.
I like fresh fish a lot, and we serve oysters and raw fish in a refined, forward-thinking way. We’ve served a ceviche made from fresh Atlantic halibut with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, edamame, jalapenos, pickled shallots and micro cilantro.
NHH: Are there items on the menu that are always there?
JD: Our menus are seasonal, and change five or six times a year, but there are some signature dishes that remain. We always have gnocchi on the menu, but the setup changes; steak tartare with different accompaniments; two or three fresh pastas; a salad; a salmon dish; oysters; different raw fish offerings; and homemade chips, with all our own spices.
NHH: Where do you like to go out to dinner?
JD: My favorite restaurant is Eleven Madison Park in New York City. Their food is at the forefront of American cooking, and it’s always fun to see what they’re doing. I get ideas and learn new things.
I love raw bars like Row 34 in Boston. One opened in Portsmouth last year. And I like Uni in Boston, too.
I go to new restaurants all the time, to see what other chefs are thinking and what flavors they’re pairing. We’ll go out, have an appetizer and cocktail, and then bounce around to a new place. I make notes and take photos to use as a reference. Dining out is always a learning experience.
NHH: What are some of the memorable meals you’ve cooked?
JD: I’ve cooked for [former dining critic of the New York Times and editor of Gourmet] Ruth Reichl when she spoke at a couple of events at Dartmouth in 2011. Later that year, I was invited to cook at the James Beard Foundation for a sold-out, five-course dinner, which was another privilege and honor.
NHH: What do you do on your days off?
JD: I love to cook. Every day, I cook breakfast for my children, and every night I’m off, I cook dinner for my wife Kristen and the kids. Our son Connor is seven, and he knows how to use a knife and stir dishes that are cooking. Our daughter Lily is almost four—she was born the day we opened Pine. She likes trying new things, even spicy foods, and is intrigued by what’s cooking in the pots. It’s so wonderful to see how the kids’ tastes and skills are developing.
Find some of Justin Dain's farm-to-table recipes here: