March 7, 2023

First Look at Lenora in Portland, Maine

Lenora, a taco bar in Portland's Old Port, starts serving lunch and dinner today—the café opened for breakfast a few weeks ago, with a menu of tacos, a breakfast sandwich, assorted pastry, and a fruit and yogurt parfait. I've been excited for Lenora's opening for a long time, what with Rian Wyllie, the former pizza chef at Maine Beer Company, at the helm. 

The café (formerly the home of Walter's) has been beautifully renovated to be warm and airy with plenty of tables for enjoying a coffee. There's wifi and outlets at each table if you want to stay and work for a while. 

The breakfast taco ($5 or $6 with chorizo) is the perfect little nugget, as is the guava-cream cheese pastry. Weekends bring a few more brunch options: chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, and a migas burrito. 

Starting today (Tuesday, March 7), Lenora starts serving lunch and dinner! There's a large selection of tacos, tostadas, and other Mexican street food-inspired dishes available after 11 a.m. 

I went for a preview lunch on Sunday and enjoyed a glass of hibiscus tea with my lunch, while my husband had a michelada. 

I'm really excited to return for a cocktail—there's an extensive selection of drinks, most made with tequila or mezcal. The Roadrunner, with tequila, Campari, fresh pineapple, and lime, looks like it will be a fave of mine. 

We enjoyed a few tacos as a warm up—the barbacoa comes on a housemade corn tortilla with avocado salsa, pickled red onions, and cotija cheese, while the baja fish comes fried with a mango-habanero aioli and pickled red cabbage. Both delicious. 

After that, I zeroed in on the Oaxacan hot chicken torta, a spicy fried chicken thigh with cabbage slaw on a perfectly chewy bun. The spice level was just right—enough to warm you up without any pain. 

And of course I had to order the street corn. I always love the mix of smoky charred corn, creamy aioli, salty cheese, and the burst of lime juice. 

Lenora is open 7 days a week from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., so you've really no excuse not to make it in. Whether you're looking for an espresso drink and a pastry to-go or a longer meal with all the tacos and rounds of margaritas, Lenora can meet any occasion. 

Lenora | 2 Portland Square, Portland | (207) 536-0423

March 2, 2023

Rosella KPT Preview Dinner

Rosella KPT, a sustainable sushi restaurant, is opening in Kennebunk's Lower Village this Memorial Day. This will be the second location of the restaurant—Rosella is located in New York's East Village and is known for serving local seafood, like steelhead trout raised in the Hudson Valley and South Carolina-caught shrimp. The chefs' unique approach to sushi was featured in Bon Appetit's "Can Restaurants Reinvent 'Sustainable Sushi'?" in April 2022. 

The Maine location of Rosella will be in the Kennebunkport Resort Collection's Grant Hotel, which is just next to Batson River. Last weekend, I attended a preview dinner for the new restaurant at Ocean at Cape Arundel Inn, out near Walkers Point. We were seated early enough by the windows of the inn to see the beautiful sunset over the ocean (which is now at 5:30 p.m.!). 

I was excited to meet one of the restaurant's owners, TJ Provenzano, who delivered many of the courses, perpared by Rosella KPT chef Matt Kramer and Ocean chef Peter Rudolph. The menu was a collaboration between the two, but several of the dishes were of the sort that will be served at Rosella KPT. 

We started the meal with wine and these adorable oyster shooters from Mere Point in Brunswick, served over a fish sauce granita with blood oranges. The bites were so salty and delicious and now I can't stop thinking about serving my next batch of freshly-shucked oysters with fish sauce. 

The sashimi course was a great chance to learn about Rosella's approach to sourcing—this is where I learned about the steelhead trout sourced from a farm in the Hudson Valley. Steelhead trout was new to me; you can tell from the look of it that it's a lot like salmon. 

I was surprised to hear that the bluefin tuna was aged. Apparently just like you would dry age beef, letting the fish rest in a temperature controlled environment for up to a week can mellow and change the flavors. So the freshest fish doesn't always make for the best sushi! 

The ceviche was made from Nantucket bay scallops, which were nice to try. In Maine, we're used to sea scallops, but the bay version are smaller and sweeter. The coconut broth with herbs, lime, and crunchy corn nuts was a delicious complement. 

This course was paired with an orange wine. Apparently Rosella's New York location is really into orange wine and only served wines produced domestically. In Kennebunkport, they'll still have a thoughtful wine collection, but it won't be exclusively US producers. 

The meal was 10 courses (!!) but we'll just stick to some highlights from here on out. 

The Maine scallop rollup was several scallops wrapped in phyllo and tasted like a highbrow fried scallop from a lobster shack. 

The fish head paitan ramen takes its name from the broth, typically made with chicken bones and other parts, but in this case, using the heads of fish that would otherwise be tossed. It was a light but full broth, with bouncy noodles and maitake mushrooms. And of course, the perfectly cooked, jammy soy egg. 

One of the desserts was a coconut sorbet with basil oil and sea salt—a flavorful sendoff for a fantastic meal. I'm now so looking forward to Kennebunkport's first sushi restaurant, and a sustainable one at that, when it opens this summer. 

Rosella KPT | 1 Chase Hill Road, Kennebunk | (207) 967-6540

January 8, 2023

First Look at Bar Futo in Portland, Maine

Happy 2023! Plenty of new restaurants are opening in Portland, including Bar Futo, the latest from the owners of Mr. Tuna and Crispy Gai, with chef Ian Driscoll (Central Provisions, Duckfat, Hugo's) at the helm. Bar Futo features a Japanese-inspired menu with many items grilled over binchotan (charcoal). 

While there's an extensive selection of sake, we started with some signature cocktails—my husband had the delicious Calpikachu, a rum and chartreuse concoction ($13) with a foam made from a Japanese strawberry soda, while I loved the Sakura sour ($13), a mix of pisco and cherry blossom with an egg white topper. 

Later in the meal, I had a Mellon Baller ($12), a fresh mix of homemade Midori (a melon liqueur), absinthe, lime, and mint over crushed ice that was also fantastic. 

The menu is divided into two sections of small plates and skewers, with about 20 items total. We were  a group of 5, so we were able to sample a large selection of dishes. First to arrive was the fluke crudo ($16), a sesame-forward mix of raw fish and cucumber cubes. 

Next, we enjoyed the charred hamachi ($18), thin slices of warm fish in a ponzu sauce, topped with puffed rice and sliced chilis. We also loved the crispy eggplant ($11), fried rounds served in a spicy garlicky miso, and the shrimp tots ($12), balls of bouncy shrimp bits served with a lime kewpie and scallions. 

Our first set of skewers was the grilled scallops ($15 for 2) which came topped with a glaze of miso. They were perfectly cooked, although our group was surprised the tough scallop foot wasn't removed. Despite that small quibble, this dish was one of my favorites of the night.   

I was also anticipating the Big Mac skewers ($11)—perhaps a nod to the fact that the location used to be a Five Guys??—a beef meatball sandwiched between two onion petals, grilled and then topped with special sauce, shredded lettuce, and sesame seeds. It was a fun, delicious burger bite. 

After two more skewers—belt fish in a brown butter ponzu ($10) and a special of swordfish belly with poblano crema ($12)—the short rib beef stew ($24) arrived. 

I recently had beef stew made with short ribs for the first time and was an instant convert. Some of my friends thought the stew was too salty, but I was into it. The salt levels were definitely right on the edge, but the tender beef and stewed vegetables were delicious. 

The other entrees were a 20 oz. ribeye (a special at $80) and a grilled whole branzino (market price). But we were ready for dessert! The first was a brownie with miso caramel, whipped cream, and hazelnuts and then two options for Japanese shaved ice called kakigori—bananas foster and apple pie. 

The mound of shaved ice was drizzled with... actually I'm not sure what it was! By the end of the meal, I'd kind of stopped listening to the server's descriptions of dishes, but thoroughly enjoyed the caramelized, nutty, crunchy, heap of banana-y ice. 

We had a great time at Bar Futo, and it's the perfect location for some fantastic drinks and snacks in the heart of the Old Port. 

Bar Futo | 425 Fore Street, Portland, Maine | Reservations via Resy

November 1, 2022

The Danforth Excels in Portland’s West End

Ed note: The Danforth has closed since this article was originally published in Maine magazine, November 2022.

A moody aesthetic and top-notch drinks make this hot new destination an instant favorite.

The Danforth’s bartenders begin pouring drinks at 4 p.m., so I arrive at the Portland cocktail bar at 4 o’clock on the dot for an early happy hour. As I step through the restaurant’s front door toward the host stand, the afternoon sun is streaming through several large windows, illuminating the space that has been recently renovated into a posh, modern lounge. One wall of the bar area is lined with three plush, dark red velvet booths, while 12 backless barstools provide seating at the blond wooden counter. Midcentury modern glass pendant lights hang overhead, drawing the eye toward the sleek wooden shelving that showcases an extensive liquor collection.

Head bartender Carlo Caroscio and his team are shaking and stirring drinks, moving seamlessly around each other in the timeless dance of bartenders everywhere. I’m seated in a cozy booth, and shortly thereafter my friendly server delivers a cocktail named Down Ocean, a daiquiri made with grapefruit liqueur, sake, and sparkling wine. It’s tart and refreshing, as a well-made daiquiri always is, with some added complexity from the dry rice wine.

Expectations are high for the Danforth. The bar is the fourth establishment from Gin and Luck, a hospitality group headed by Portland resident Alex Day and his business partners Devon Tarby, David Kaplan, and Ravi DeRossi. The group owns three other cocktail bars—all called Death and Co.—in New York, Los Angeles, and Denver. The New York location opened in 2006 and became a trailblazer in the craft cocktail revival. While Day swears it was not his intention to open another bar in Portland, he was swayed by the opportunity to purchase the West End bistro Little Giant in September of 2021. Day and his husband, Andrew Ashey, whose architecture and design firm provided the makeover of the Danforth, moved to Portland from Los Angeles in 2019, attracted to the pace of life in a smaller city. After a substantial interior renovation, the Danforth opened in July and became an instant hit with Portlanders looking for a special night out and an upscale spot for a drink after work.

The cocktail list at the Danforth is composed of ten drinks, beginning with a light cucumber-melon spritz and ending with boozier classics such as variations on the old-fashioned and the Manhattan, called Hyperion Old Fashioned and West End, respectively. The menu, at least on its face, seems surprisingly simple—there’s no long list of ingredients, unfamiliar liqueurs, or specialty syrups mentioned. Rather, drink descriptions are short, with three to five ingredients that seem approachable and familiar. Later, Day tells me this simplicity is by design. He says the concise list “has hidden layers that you can peel back if you want to, but we’re not going to put them right in front of you.”

Day’s success in creating approachable yet intriguing cocktails is evident in the Impossible Love—a frothy mix of green chile vodka, peach liqueur, and pineapple juice. It’s another take on a daiquiri, made with vodka. Always popular with drinkers, vodka has long been eschewed by serious craft cocktail enthusiasts. But Day says no more. “We were the worst offenders back in the day,” he tells me. “We were such snooty, smug jerks. But that world doesn’t exist anymore.” At the Danforth, he’s more interested in ensuring that customers feel comfortable and have a good time than insisting that a proper martini is made with gin and not vodka.

The food at the Danforth is another surprise, revealing a depth I didn’t anticipate from an establishment that is primarily a cocktail bar. Chef Michael Boomhower, most recently of Central Provisions in the Old Port, offers a robust menu of nine share plates and five large-format entrees. When I return for dinner, my husband and I are seated in the lounge, a room adjacent to the bar that seats 75 in burgundy velvet booths and clusters of mustard-yellow swiveling barrel chairs. The mood in the lounge is energetic as our upbeat server delivers a parade of small plates. I sip an Echelon, a riff on a margarita made slightly savory by the addition of celery juice and sesame, and dig into the campanelle pasta, each bite coated in a radish-greens pesto that leaves a lingering spiciness.

Other popular appetizers include Pigs in a Blanket, small bites made from fennel sausage wrapped in puff pastry; griddled head-on shrimp; and beef tartare served on a crusty piece of Standard Baking Company sourdough. The salad, a simple combination of baby leaf lettuces, crispy fried shallots, croutons, and a light Caesar dressing, ends up being one of my favorite dishes. My entrée, a half chicken with a seared, crispy skin, is finished with smoked butter and sits atop a flavorful corn, zucchini, and pepper succotash. My husband’s vegetarian entrée, a decadent mushroom polenta, is reminiscent of a soufflé with its creamy, rich texture. Whole roasted branzino, a dry-aged rib eye, and a burger round out the meal options.

After only four months, the Danforth already feels like a classic. General manager Lucy Comaskey tells me that some repeat customers have found their favorites on the specialty drink list, while others ask for “dealer’s choice,” an off-menu drink of the bartender’s design. Whether it’s drinks and snacks at the bar or a multi-course meal in the loungy dining room, Portlanders are eagerly exploring the many moods of this multifaceted West End destination.

The Danforth | 211 Danforth St., Portland | 207.536.0361 

Good Neighbors

The small space adjacent to the Danforth on Clark Street has been home to several businesses, including a market, sandwich shop, and bakery. Now it’s home to Zu Bakery, from baker Barak Olins, who sold his bread at the Brunswick Farmers’ Market for years. Olins’s bread, including the burger buns used at the Danforth, is made from organic and Maine-grown grains. Coffee and pastries are available at the shop in the mornings, and freshly baked bread becomes available as it’s ready throughout the day.

October 1, 2022

555 North: A Fine-Dining Staple in Brunswick Lives Up to its Predecessor

 Originally published in Maine magazine, October 2022.

Restaurateurs Michelle and Steve Corry opened 555 North with fan-favorite dishes from their former Portland hotspot.

555 Congress Street in 2003, it was part of an emerging cadre of Portland date-night destinations, such as Fore Street, Street and Co., Rob Evans’s Hugo’s, and Walter’s on Exchange Street. Five Fifty-Five became known for its elevated American cuisine and impeccable service just as chefs across the country were embracing the farm-to-table movement. Chef Steve Corry was the first in Portland to serve truffled lobster mac and cheese, a now-classic comfort food mash-up that became the restaurant’s signature dish.

In the nearly two decades that have passed, a lot has changed, both in the Portland restaurant scene and in the Corrys’ lives. The couple opened their second restaurant, the French bistro Petite Jacqueline, and they had two sons, now teenagers. In early 2020 Steve and Michelle decided to close Five Fifty-Five to spend more time with their family. This proved to be a prescient decision, as COVID struck a few weeks later and pandemic restrictions hastened the restaurant’s discontinuance. The Corrys thought perhaps they would reopen Five Fifty-Five someday in a location closer to their home in Scarborough.

Then Steve’s friend Gerard Kiladjian, another longtime hospitality professional, called to ask if Steve was interested in reopening Five Fifty-Five in Brunswick. Kiladjian had signed on to manage the recently renovated Federal Hotel and was looking for a familiar name to anchor the property’s 150-seat restaurant. Corry initially said no, but after visiting to see the renovation of the historic property and negotiating a favorable schedule that would allow the couple plenty of family time, Five Fifty-Five was reborn.

Dubbed 555 North, the restaurant echoes its Portland predecessor with some familiar dishes and a time-tested approach to serving seasonal ingredients in palate-pleasing ways. Fans of the previous iteration will recognize several signature dishes on the menu, and will enjoy the same friendly and attentive service. The new restaurant is much brighter and larger than the old one, with floor-to-ceiling windows flanking one wall of the dining room and a large center bar that Steve plans to develop into a raw bar.

When I visit on a Friday night, we’re guided to our table in the side room by a young hostess. The restaurant is full, generating a pleasant buzz from our fellow patrons. Michelle Corry is known for her wine selection, having garnered a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 2015, so I opt for a glass of a Chilean cabernet sauvignon to start the meal. With about 75 options, the list here is slimmer than the 400-plus bottles at Five Fifty-Five, but it still offers a crowd-pleasing variety of new- and old-world wines by the glass and bottle.

As I enjoy a slice of the housemade bread, served warm and slathered with delightfully salty chive-lemon butter, I see grilled Caesar salad and steamed mussels on the menu. The two dishes were staples at Five Fifty-Five, so I order both to begin the meal. The salad, which comes thoughtfully split between two plates after our server hears that my husband and I plan to share it, delivers a slightly smoky char from the grilled romaine and a classic creamy dressing with plenty of lemon. The meaty Bangs Island mussels are surrounded by a garlicky broth spiked with pickled cherry peppers that lend a pleasant heat.

The lobster mac and cheese has been temporarily replaced by the more summery “Knuckle Sandwich,” a stack of fried green tomatoes and a lobster salad dressed with basil-lemon mayonnaise that Steve developed for Food and Wine magazine. As the weather cools, the luxurious dish made with a blend of five cheeses and studded with chunks of butter-poached lobster will return to the menu. I opt for another Five Fifty-Five classic, the three-day marinated hangar steak, prepared on this night with a fresh chimichurri sauce and a side of rich, creamy, wilted spinach.

We also try the scallops, coated in freshly cracked black pepper and then seared until a hearty crust forms. Steve tells me later that applying high heat to the black pepper takes away some of the stinging spice, mellowing it into a warm complement to the meaty bivalve. Five scallops come arranged around a pile of fluffy mashed potatoes that are blended with a fennel cream sauce. An emulsion of carrot juice and butter, fragrant from the addition of vanilla bean seeds, completes the dish without overwhelming the fresh flavor of the scallops.

Desserts from sous chef Sean Hobson are also a hit, with the “Coffee and Donuts” standing out as the most popular. Three craggy beignets dusted with powdered sugar and accompanied by a mug of rich mocha pots de crème make a playful end to the meal. As the restaurant is only a few months old, 555 North is still finding its sea legs in its new iteration, but between Michelle’s front-of-the-house leadership and the competence of the kitchen team led by chef de cuisine Michael Greenstreet, the Corrys are confident their latest project will live up to the reputation of its predecessor.

555 North | 10 Water St., Brunswick | 207.481.4533

History in the Making

The Federal, home to 555 North, is a nineteenth-century sea captain’s home that takes its name from the building’s classic Federal style. Captain Daniel Stone began building the house around 1806 and lived in it until his death in 1825. The history of the property was part of what attracted Steve Corry to the project, as his Portland restaurant also had a storied history: the three-story building was once the home of the Machigonne Fire House, which had the illustrious honor of debuting Portland’s first steam-powered fire engine.

September 1, 2022

State Lunch: The Gastropub Reviving Maine’s Capital City

Originally published in Maine magazine, September 2022.

Offering an upscale pub menu in a hip industrial space, State Lunch is a key part of Augusta’s renaissance.

In 2019, inspired in part by the city-led revitalization efforts of Water Street in downtown Augusta, longtime bartender Shawn McLaughlin and chef Matt Margolskee decided it was the right time to open a restaurant together. The two friends had met years prior in the midcoast when McLaughlin was managing the Cellardoor Winery tasting room and Margolskee was cooking at farm-to-table pioneer Primo, and they envisioned a neighborhood pub with a variety of handmade ramens and a strong cocktail program. Between the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene and resurging interest in the state’s capital city, it seemed like it was Augusta’s moment.

So the pair bought a derelict former deli on Water Street and performed an extensive renovation. State Lunch opened its doors for business in late February 2020 to an enthusiastic reception from the city. But “it ended up that it was the worst time [to open a restaurant],” McLaughlin says, since the onset of the pandemic meant they had to switch to takeout and delivery only three weeks after opening. But two and a half years later, State Lunch has fully rebounded, and the city has embraced it as a go-to spot for elevated comfort food and well-mixed cocktails.

So popular is State Lunch that, when I call a few days prior to my planned visit, the hostess tells me the reservations are full for Saturday night, but that they save plenty of tables for walk-in customers. When I arrive a few days later, the brick-walled bar and dining room are a hive of activity, with a large party of several generations enjoying a celebratory dinner and Augusta’s young locals filling the 12-seat bar. There’s about a ten-minute wait, so I walk down the street to the Oak Table and Bar, another relatively new restaurant contributing to Augusta’s downtown renewal, for a drink.

After only a few sips of my Earl Grey–infused vodka grapefruit cocktail, my table is ready, so I head back to State Lunch for a seat at the long stone bar. Above the bar’s extensive collection of local spirits, 85 of which are whiskey, two televisions play 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and then the 2005 remake. The classic film inspires me to order the Golden Ticket, a take on a whiskey sour with added complexity from the addition of amaro and a housemade chile syrup.

As I sip my cocktail, I peruse the menu, which proves to be a mix of familiar Italian American specialties, like rigatoni with Italian sausage and chicken Parmesan, and dishes with a pan-Asian flair, ranging from fried Kung Pao Brussels sprouts to pork belly steamed buns. I order a selection from both categories: an order of Rhode Island calamari and a Thai beef salad, both nightly specials, of which there are several. The calamari sports a thick, crunchy coating and is mixed with pickled peppers and arugula that deliver a zippy tanginess. The Thai salad is a fresh mix of seared beef strips and vegetables, tossed with a lime–fish sauce dressing and showered with chopped fresh herbs. An order of pork belly bao buns offers a rewarding contrast of fatty pork and crisp, pickled vegetables in a thick, pillowy bun.

My husband and I share entrees—the spicy shrimp shio ramen is a must for us, and while it’s difficult to narrow down our other choice, I ultimately am swayed by the seared scallops in an enticing pool of potato-leek puree with spinach, pork belly, and mushrooms. Six scallops with a perfectly crusty sear arrive on a large plate with nearly as many cubes of crispy pork belly. The vegetable puree creates a silky, cream-like base for the seafood, while floating dots of a green herb oil lighten the dish. The handmade ramen noodles and fat shrimp are surrounded by a rich, savory broth that Margolskee makes from a variety of roasted poultry and beef bones. He’s been developing the broth recipe since the restaurant opened and says it only gets better each week.

My next cocktail is a Hot Pursuit, a mezcal-based drink with a tropical blend of mango, jalapeño, and strawberry-infused Aperol. It showcases McLaughlin and his bar team’s talents behind the bar, which clearly are a big draw. Later he tells me that, while he never planned to serve margaritas, after offering them to-go during the pandemic they have become the restaurant’s top-selling drink. He now features a “margarita of the moment,” which changes frequently—recent iterations have included spicy blackberry-peach and strawberry-ginger.

McLaughlin and Margolskee recognize the give-and-take required to run a neighborhood place. They certainly have ideas about what State Lunch is and should be, but they also recognize that, to truly fit into a community, a restaurant needs to be there for its customers just as the customers are there for it. “At the end of the day,” says McLaughlin, “food is food, and you can get it at a lot of places, but the most important thing to me is the experience you give people and the way you make them feel.” And if that means serving margaritas alongside specialty cocktails with more obscure ingredients and preparations, then McLaughlin is happy to do just that.

State Lunch | 217 Water St., Augusta | 207.213.6025

A Serendipitous Discovery

Augusta’s Water Street was once a thriving downtown district that featured State Lunch, a diner that served breakfast and lunch. When the 2019 renovation of the long vacant space uncovered a stained-glass window that spelled out the restaurant’s name, McLaughlin was initially dismayed, feeling obligated to give his project the same name. Ultimately, he’s glad he embraced the location’s history. “Kind of like your kid’s name, you define your name and it becomes what it is,” he says. “Turns out, that’s who we are, and who we were supposed to be.”

August 1, 2022

Wolfpeach: Maine’s Most Popular New Restaurant is a Locavore’s Delight

 Ed. note: Wolfpeach has since closed. Originally published in Maine magazine, August 2022.

I’m sitting at the six-seat bar in the 190-year-old building that now houses Wolfpeach, a new fine-dining restaurant in downtown Camden. My back is to the historic brick hearth that doubles as makeshift wine storage, and I’m enjoying a few deviled eggs and an intriguing terrine made from eel and pork. I finish the last of a flight of four house-made soft drinks— kombucha and kefir flavored with various tree saps and herbs—then turn to the cocktail list for my next drink. As I decide on a gin and tonic made with Blue Barren Distillery gin brewed in nearby Hope, a casual remark from owner Gabriela Acero makes me completely reevaluate the experience of my meal up until that point.

As she prepares my drink, Acero tells me that she doesn’t use lime as a garnish: would I like a pickled carrot instead? That’s when I realize that nearly all the food and drink served at Wolfpeach is grown or made in Maine. That seems easy enough to accomplish with dishes like smoked herring and crispy potatoes, but the owners’ goal also extends to less visible but crucial ingredients, like sunflower oil and apple cider vinegar. I take another look at the beverage list and see that the wine selection is exclusively from New England and Canada, while Maine beer and spirits fill out the beverage offerings. And, naturally, that means there are no lime wedges.

Wolfpeach, which takes its name from the Latin word for tomato, opened in December 2021 after Acero, who grew up in Waterville, and her partner, Derek Richard, bought the building once occupied by the Drouthy Bear, a Scottish pub. The two had met when they helped to open Oxbow Beer Garden in Oxford, where Richard developed the sourdough pizza recipe and Acero was the general manager. Richard, who is originally from New Jersey, worked in the kitchens of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and then at Barley Swine, a fine-dining hyper-local restaurant in Austin, Texas, before moving to Maine. At Wolfpeach Acero and Richard use locally grown and foraged ingredients to create what Richard describes as “just really good, simple food.” He pauses before he adds, “Well, seemingly simple.”

The menu’s short descriptions belie complex flavors that Richard and his crew create through days and even months of effort. A robust fermentation program produces flavor-packed ingredients, like the vinegars that replace the acidic element typically provided by lemon juice, and a fish sauce called garum that is made from various seafoods and salt. Between the kimchi, garum, miso, and vinegars, Wolfpeach’s kitchen is full of bubbling containers of fermented condiments to amplify each dish. “All our ferments are funneled into the sauces, just helping with flavor,” Richard says.

All that behind-the-scenes effort is apparent in my entree, a smoked pork loin. Its preparation started a week prior, when Richard dry-aged the pasture-raised pork, then rubbed the meat with a fermented tomato powder before it went in the wood smoker. Before dinner service, Richard warmed the meat in a bath of liquid smoked pork fat, a trick he says he learned during his time in Texas, and then seared the chop to order. The thick slice of bone-in pork arrives, perfectly tender with a blackened, crispy edge, in a dark puddle of jus, the result of a multi-day process of reducing pork stock and a bottle of red wine from Cellardoor Winery into a rich, sticky sauce.

Dishes are served à la carte at Wolfpeach. A side of tender, charred collard florets complements the smokiness of the pork loin. The slight bitterness of the greens is offset by a silky house-made aioli that delivers a salty kick from the addition of a few raw oysters that were blended in. Richard says his goal is for the menu items to complement each other—and ideally be enjoyed with a side of his signature sourdough bread. He uses Maine Grains whole wheat flour, which results in loaves with a tender interior and a nutty, hearty crust. The butter, also made in-house, is mixed with locally grown kelp and then fermented for a few days, making it salty and slightly tangy.

Richard has a deft hand with pasta dough: he is filling thin sheets with spinach and a tangy cow’s- and goat’s-milk cheese. He flavors the mixture with a maitake mushroom miso and then serves the stuffed pasta in a browned butter sauce. He tells me he felt the dish needed to be finished with Parmesan cheese, so he bends his rules to include the Italian import. Of the exception, Acero says, “We’re not trying to make any aggressively hard-and-fast rules. At the end of the day, if we think the food needs something, we will use it.”

As I enjoy my dessert—a scoop of honey-thyme ice cream made by a local farmer—I’m left thinking that so often the discussion of a meal made exclusively with Maine foods focuses on its limitations—no lemon, no olive oil, no French wine. It’s a testament to Richard’s skill in the kitchen and Acero’s natural hospitality that you can be halfway through the meal at Wolfpeach before it occurs to you that anything might be missing.

Wolfpeach | 50 Elm St., Camden | 207.230.8315

No Tips, Please

Wolfpeach operates on a no-tipping model. Servers are paid $20 an hour, with the goal of everyone reaching $25–$35 an hour. Although the idea is not without its detractors, Acero says customers are receptive to it despite the higher prices. She’s quick to say that she knows the model doesn’t work for many small businesses: due to several factors Wolfpeach has “a deep freedom to do things the way we want.” (Although the prices initially seem higher, the total cost of the meal ends up comparable to that of a tipped fine-dining restaurant.)

July 1, 2022

If You Haven’t Tried Cafe Louis in Knightville, It’s Time

 Originally published in Maine magazine, July 2022.

Chef Evan Richardson has strong opinions about mustard—specifically, the mustard sauce used on the pressed pork sandwich known as a Cuban or a medianoche. He insists there shouldn’t be just mustard on the sandwich, but a sauce made from the drippings from roasted pork mixed with mustard. “I’ll never win that argument. It’s just one I’m willing to have,” he says with a laugh as we sit in the sunny dining room of his South Portland restaurant, Cafe Louis.

When I try Cafe Louis’s medianoche, I am struck by the difference made by the mustard sauce (or “salsa Louis,” as Richardson calls his version). Where mustard alone is usually sharp and overpowering, the addition of the drippings makes his sauce mellow and creamy. The heavily griddled pan suave bread is sweet and dense with crispy, browned bits of Swiss cheese. Inside, salty Virginia ham, roast pork, and briny pickles mingle together for a rich and satisfying lunch.

Cafe Louis’s menu is inspired by the food Richardson grew up eating while visiting his paternal grandparents outside of the Costa Rican capital of San José. He remembers eating the “tipico food”—traditional Costa Rican dishes—his grand-mother made. One of these is casado, a hearty plate of black beans, rice, cabbage, fried plantains, eggs, and homemade tortillas that now appears on Cafe Louis’s brunch menu. “I’m just cooking food that I used to eat as a kid,” Richardson tells me.

Richardson first made a name for himself in Portland with his Creole cooking at Eaux—classics like gumbo, po’boys, and jambalaya. The native New Orleanian opened Eaux in 2017, first as a food cart and then, a year later, as a 40-seat restaurant on Portland’s Exchange Street. At Eaux, which closed in November 2020, Richardson served French-inspired Creole food as a “sit-down, proper dinner [with] white plates,” he says. But at Cafe Louis, he’s exploring his family’s Central American heritage with a lively, fun vibe. “At Louis, you can come as you are at any given time and pop in for a burger. It’s a neighborhood spot,” Richardson says.

The casual atmosphere at Cafe Louis invites diners to linger over bocas, small snacks that are served at bars in Costa Rica. Patacones, or fried plantains, deliver a crispy, salty crunch that yields to a tender interior. The gallo pinto—black beans and rice—is packed with flavor from a base of aromatic vegetables called sofrito, spices, and a drizzle of Salsa Lizano, a flavorful bottled Costa Rican condiment that’s similar to Worcestershire sauce. Slices of queso para freir—a soft cow’s milk cheese—are grilled until brown and crispy, then finished with honey and chopped macadamia nuts.

I enjoy dinner at Cafe Louis’s seven-seat bar with helpful recommendations from our server Peter Murphy, who also operates the food cart Rebel Cheesesteak. We exchange banter under the gaze of a large toucan featured in a mural on the far wall of the restaurant. The cafe is small, roughly 700 square feet, but despite its size, it has seating for about 35.

Costa Rican food has a reputation for being a bit bland. But Richardson’s skillful cooking amplifies the signature flavors of the cuisine, particularly evident in his take on ron don, a Jamaican fish stew popular on the East Coast of Costa Rica. Plump Bangs Island mussels are nestled into a sweet, slightly spicy green curry of coconut milk broth thickened with cassava. Slim slices of corn on the cob, sweet potato, and crab meat crowd the bowl. When it arrives, I initially focus on the mussels, thinking they are the star of the show as usual in steamed mussel dishes, but then I realize the flavor-packed dish is more reminiscent of a New England chowder, so I eat the broth with a spoon.

Richardson upgrades another relatively simple Central American staple in his marmahon. In this Lebanese dish, which migrated to Honduras with Arab immigrants, he stirs Israeli couscous while it cooks, making it decadent and creamy like risotto. Several preparations of mushrooms—pickled, fried, and powdered—are added, and it’s finished with a shower of nutty, aged Manchego and a spiced, bright red achiote oil to make for a hearty vegetarian entree.

Despite the focus on Central American food, Richardson is quick to say Cafe Louis is not “handcuffed” to one region’s fare. Richardson and chef de cuisine Khristian Martinez use seasonal, local ingredients in their rotating vegetable dishes and salads, like charred bok choy with fermented kohlrabi and an empanada filled with fiddleheads and cheddar. “We do our best to use seasonal ingredients,” Richardson says. “We’re not going to not use fiddleheads, but if I showed them to my grandmother, she’d have no idea what to do with them.” While she may not recognize all the ingredients, his grandmother would surely be proud of how well Richardson is representing the cuisine of Costa Rica in Maine.

Cafe Louis | 173 Ocean St., South Portland | 207.536.0169

SoPo Restaurant Row

Cafe Louis joins a flourishing neighborhood of South Port-land in a strip of new businesses on Ocean Street. The closure of longtime favorites RJ’s Pub and Uncle Andy’s Diner made room for Cafe Louis along with Judy Gibson (helmed by Eventide alum Chris Gibson) and SoPo Seafood, a raw bar-cum-fish market. With Taco Trio and Foul-mouthed Brewing nearby, this South Portland neighborhood provides several enticing alternatives to dining on the busier Portland peninsula. 

June 27, 2022

New Menu at Crown Jewel on Great Diamond Island, Portland, Maine

If you've spent any time at all reading this blog over the years, you know one of my favorite summertime activities in Maine is to visit Crown Jewel on Portland's Great Diamond Island. I first visited in 2018 when Chef Rocky was at the helm and then featured it the following year for Down East magazine

In 2020, we enjoyed some takeout and cocktails from then-chef Sara's menu on our friend's boat, as it was mostly serving to-go during the pandemic. Then in 2021, we tried it both as a pop-up at Little Giant and in July for our friend's 50th birthday. 

2022 brings a new chef, Chef Jef, formerly of Sur Lie, so of course I booked a reservation for my family's visit last week. We ended up going for brunch, which due to the available reservations, happened to be on a rainy Sunday, so it was a pretty chill afternoon in the restaurant. 

I started with one of their fantastic cocktails, but virgin because #aging. The Run the Jewel is typically gin, rhubarb shrub, Campari, and yuzu, but with some magic they made it into a fantastic brunch mocktail. 

There's always been great deviled eggs ($8 for 3) on the menu and this iteration is no exception—with bacon jam holding a fingerling potato chip on top.  

I really struggled not to order so many things but kept it restrained with the oysters Rockefeller, crunchy and herby with butter, green Chartreuse, and breadcrumbs ($24 for 4). 

I must insist you try the snap pea salad ($9) which I mostly ordered like "fine, a vegetable" but it was perhaps my favorite dish of the visit. It was just crispy snap peas tossed with miso and sesame and then showered with ricotta salata. So fresh, salty, and savory. 

The whitefish over corn and tomatoes with chimichurri ($24) was delicious, summery, but still great for the dreary day we had. There were so many other tempting options, from the seared scallops to the eggs and crab on the brunch menu. 

My mom and sister both had the Spanish French toast, making an excellent substitution for the Dutch baby that everyone was looking forward to. It's soaked through with a creamy custard, and then caramelized on the outside and piled high with Maine blueberries. 

We never pass up pudding for dessert, this one topped with a marshmallow fluff and some graham cracker crumbs, giving it a S'mores vibe. 

And that was another great meal at Crown Jewel! I love that owner Alex Wight mixes it up every few years. While the incredible experience that is boating to an island for a meal alone would be enough to make the trip every summer, I also love to see how Alex and the new chef work together to create the perfect island escape—even on a glum June day. 

 Crown Jewel | 255 Diamond Ave, Great Diamond Island, ME | 207.464.2829

June 1, 2022

Smalls is Portland’s Hippest New All-Day Cafe

Originally published in Maine magazine, June 2022. 

The first time I stop in at Smalls, a new cafe in Portland’s West End, it’s for a breakfast sandwich. A friend told me it is in the running for the best in the city, so I parked on a steep hill off Brackett Street and found the entrance to the shop, which is in a rambling gray-shingled building. Inside, a long white counter with a gleaming blue espresso machine runs the length of one wall and provides bar seating for seven. A large mirror with a mod black and white tile surround hangs over the bar and reflects three globe pendant lights.

After I place my order at the counter, I walk through the cafe into the next room to peruse the selection of housewares, beauty products, and pantry items. Shelves display tapered beeswax candles, herbal tinctures promising relaxation, and small, funky ceramic pieces. Yet another room of goodies beckons me up four slightly crooked stairs, where I find tins of cured fish, honey-sweetened jams, spice mixes, and vegan candies. A refrigerator case holds local beers, funky wines, cured meats, cheeses, and pickled items.

The curator behind the eclectic offerings at Smalls is Samantha Knopf, who opened the cafe and market in January with business partner Karl Deuben of East Ender, a restaurant on Middle Street. Knopf lived in New York City for over 20 years and worked at times as a designer, bartender, server, doula, and florist before moving to Maine in February 2020. She says her aim at Smalls is to provide a comfortable space for people to connect with friends over good, affordable food and drink while also showcasing products from small, independent makers.

The early popularity of Smalls indicates it has quickly built a loyal following with Portlanders. The breakfast sandwich does end up being superlative-worthy, with a soft, toasted bun, crispy bacon, and a square of tender steamed eggs. A garlic-herb feta spread delivers a sharp saltiness without overwhelming the mild egg, and a smear of tomato mayonnaise lends sweetness to the whole thing.

The cafe’s kitchen is just a small corner of the space behind the bar. Chef Chelsea Cayer borrows kitchen space from East Ender to prepare many of the makings of the cafe’s 20 menu items. At Smalls, Cayer turns out a selection of sandwiches, salads, and snacks like marinated beets and spiced nuts using just a convection oven and a panini press. When I return to Smalls for dinner, I grab an available barstool next to a couple and a pair of friends. The rest of the seats are full—six more barstools line a counter along the other wall, and a table and bench seating are tucked into the nooks next to the front entrance. Knopf says she loves the small space of the cafe, which seats about 20, and has no plans to expand. The simple counter service model allows one or two staff members to keep an eye on all the customers.

I begin my meal with a Last Word cocktail, a gin-based classic with lime and green chartreuse over crushed ice in a vintage tumbler. My half-portion of the Caesar salad is simple and well done. Knopf tells me she judges a place by its Caesar salad, so if you offer one, it has to be good. Smalls’ version is indeed good, dressed with a shallot-Parmesan vinaigrette and filled with pebbly nubs of cheese and craggy croutons.

A wide ceramic bowl full of fat white cannellini beans warmed in olive oil arrives next. I scoop up the beans with a thick piece of toast from South Portland’s Solo Cucina market. They’re pleasantly salty and contain chunks of oil-poached swordfish and dabs of a bright arugula pesto. I round out my meal with half a ball of burrata and a few slices of salty serrano ham in a pool of housemade red pepper jelly.

My third visit to Smalls is for happy hour with a few friends, and we cozy up on a striped window seat. We share the crispy grilled cheese sweetened with caramelized onions, and chicken liver pâté complemented by a tangy cherry chutney. Afterward we browse the shop, and I weigh purchasing a rose-pistachio spice blend against restocking my chili crisp from Portland’s Little Brother Chinese Food.

Whatever you find yourself in need of, Smalls likely has the answer. Whether it’s a latte in the morning or a flower bouquet and a bottle of wine on your way to a friend’s, this cafe and market can provide. Special enough for date night but casual enough for a laptop session, Smalls successfully navigates the changing landscape of dining as we all reestablish our habits in this new world.

Smalls | 28 Brackett St., Portland

What’s in a Name?

Smalls’ owner Samantha Knopf envisioned a cafe/gift shop/ market that would be at home in the back of a New York bodega. She says the name refers to “small makers, small products, small space,” and the idea of treating yourself with something every day. The accessible prices of Smalls’ food and drink make daily visits possible.

May 5, 2022

Portland Public Market House Update

If, like me, you haven't been into the Portland Public Market House for a while due to the pandemic, here's an update on the businesses there. 

I went a few weeks ago to check out Frying Dutchman, one of the newer business there, for one of its pop-up dinners. But before we get into that, here's a rundown of the other businesses in the building:

On the first floor, Mr. Tuna and Roll Call are the sole vendors. Mr. Tuna serves sushi and other Japanese food and has plenty of bar seating along the counter. I frequently pop in to pick up my takeout after ordering online, which I find a really easy experience. 

Roll Call, which opens today, began as a food cart serving roast beef sandwiches. It's run by the same people that own Wayside Tavern, which has great food. But it's so much more than roast beef—there's an amazing grilled cheese, kale salad, and caramelized onion dip. Plus a fantastic sounding pot de creme that I haven't tried yet. So I am very excited to experience Roll Call in its new home.  

Upstairs, Kamasouptra (soup), Daily Greens (salad), and Pho Huong (Vietnamese) are joined by relative newcomer Dila's Kitchen, which serves Turkish food like kabobs and bulgar bowls. 

There's also Yardie Ting, which is always tempting me on Instagram with its tantalizing Jamaican curries and chicken. 

But this time, it was Frying Dutchman that drew me in. When it first opened, it served Dutch-style cones of French fries with toppings. But the owners took a break from fries for a while—for some R&D, I believe—and began offering other fried treats like a Korean cheese dog and a fried chicken sandwich. 

So I made the very adult decision to try both for my dinner. The fried cheese dog was a real delight, simple some breaded, fried cheese with a wasabi aioli and smoky bonito flakes. The sandwich was super crunchy with a Thai red curry mayo. 

Its Instagram now says it serves "global street tapas," so stay tuned to see what other international delights they come up with. 

Hopefully you're inspired to check out a new Public Market House business! Each business has different hours, so be sure to check its website or social media for the latest. 

May 1, 2022

Chez Rosa Brings French Dining to Kennebunkport

 Originally published in Maine magazine, May 2022.

Yazmin Saraya Jean, owner and general manager of Chez Rosa, says she and chef Kyle Robinson have only one hard-and-fast rule: “We’re pretty strict about not putting things on the menu that are not French.” She says it’s tempting at times to stray from their self-imposed edict, but they enjoy researching until they discover a French dish that fits the season and the availability of ingredients in Maine. “We’re not quite purists, but we always want to stick with French cuisine,” Saraya Jean says.

To that end, Chez Rosa’s menu is full of French classics like steak frites, beef bourguignon, and crème brûlée. The husband-and-wife team opened Chez Rosa (a portmanteau of the couple’s last names) two years ago in Kennebunkport’s Dock Square. Since then, the town has enthusiastically embraced Saraya Jean and Robinson’s bistro as a destination for socializing with friends with a glass of earthy Bordeaux or a plate of perfectly crisped frites. 

Although Chez Rosa opened in late May 2020, Saraya Jean and Robinson had intended to open the month prior, after leaving their jobs at Portland’s now-closed Five Fifty-Five. Due to coronavirus restrictions, they were limited to serving takeout until the owners of nearby Abacus Gallery offered their patio for outdoor dining. “They were our angels. We would literally not be here without them,” says Robinson. The couple accented the patio with string lights, which, along with the lush greenery and the gallery’s sculptures, made the perfect al fresco bistro scene.

By the time my husband and I come to dine at Chez Rosa, it’s midwinter, and Robinson has swapped lighter coastal French cuisine like ratatouille and salade Niçoise for heartier dishes such as beef bourguignon and cheese fondue, which are popular in the snowy mountainous regions. Saraya Jean says, “French cuisine is so big, and the regions are so different, that you can almost never get bored. The options are endless.”

We begin our meal with a round of original cocktails from bar manager Julia Russell. My well-balanced Noix de Pecan is a rum-based sour made with lime juice and a tea brewed from pecans. Next, our server recommends we try the charcuterie, as Robinson makes his own spreads like chicken liver pâté and chicken and mushroom terrine. I opt for the pâté, a customer favorite, and slather it on toasted bread from Kennebunk’s Boulangerie bakery. The rich flavor of the liver is cut by a dollop of tart cranberry compote.

Before our entrees, I enjoy a ramekin of onion soup, a savory beef and chicken broth packed with caramelized onions. It’s topped with a few slices of baguette and a salty, smooth lid of browned Swiss cheeses. Robinson says the soup’s components take three days to make, and that customers order this French classic no matter the weather: “Even in the summer, it’ll be so hot out, and we’ll still sell 30 of them.”

With tempting options like steak frites and cassoulet, narrowing down our choice of entrees proves difficult. Robinson makes two versions of cassoulet: one with locally raised duck and chicken, the other topped with delicately fried cubes of tofu that are enlivened by a sprinkle of herbed salt. Intrigued by the vegetarian version, I try the tofu, which proves to pleasantly lighten the hearty bean and vegetable dish.

My husband orders an entree in which Robinson wraps fish, kale, and a crème fraîche lemon mousse in a square of puff pastry. The filled golden pastry, scored with small semicircles to give the appearance of scales, is nestled alongside nutty farro and roasted cauliflower. The surrounding vadouvan velouté, a creamy sauce with Indian-inspired spices, gives the dish a luscious finish.

Both of the main dishes we enjoyed at Chez Rosa have since been traded for others to match the changing seasons. By early spring, Robinson features in-season Maine day boat scallops instead of the pollock, and mushroom bourguignon in the tofu cassoulet’s place. He says he’s looking to strike a balance, offering dishes that feature seasonal ingredients while also keeping customer favorites available. “I’ve learned that, if you’ve got to take something away, whatever you put in its place better be good!” Robinson says with a laugh.

My one regret after dinner at Chez Rosa is that I didn’t order the cheese fondue. I spied a couple at a neighboring table dipping skewered cubes of fruit, ham, and bread into a miniature cast-iron dish of gooey cheese kept warm by a small Sterno can. A return visit to the cozy bistro in Kennebunkport is in my future, and while the menu may have changed, I know that I’ll find Robinson and Saraya Jean taking cues from the Maine seasons to create dishes that are, first and foremost, French.

Chez Rosa | Cross St., Kennebunkport | 207.204.0183

Ocean Approved

Chez Rosa is one of a handful ocean-friendly restaurants in Maine, a certification given by the Surfrider Foundation. The restaurant recycles, composts, and uses compostable takeout containers and drink straws made from hay. All of the seafood served at Chez Rosa is sustainably sourced, which means that the salade Niçoise served in the summer features Maine lobster or crab instead of tuna, a species that has been over-fished in some areas. Since Chez Rosa received its certification, several other Maine restaurants have followed suit.

March 21, 2022

First Look at Paper Tiger

Paper Tiger, the latest from restaurateur Mike Fraser (Bramhall, Roma), chef Nace Cohen, and manager Marcus Alcantara opens today. The restaurant in on Fore Street, in the space formerly occupied by Maine Lobster Shack. The renovation changes the look from New England seafood shack to a moody cocktail bar. 

Cocktails are the focus on the bar menu here, with three pages of original drinks to choose from. Many have a tropical or tiki theme, featuring coconut, fresh juices, rum, and tiki syrups. There's also two large format choices, a scorpion bowl and party punch, meant to be shared. 

My husband had the spicy cilantro swizzle which was very tart and herbal. We also enjoyed the slushie, a delicious frozen blend of lime, ginger, and tequila. 

The menu at Paper Tiger is inspired by "traditional fast food, oyster bars, and late night Chinese restaurants." And there is a little bit of everything—wings, fries, and a burger, but also scallop crudo, roast oysters, stir-fried vegetables, and whole roast fish. 

We started with the wings and fries. The wings ($11) are coconut sambal with pineapple and cilantro and were a great combination of spicy and sweet. We also ordered the tuna crudo ($18) and the scallop crudo ($14), each thinly sliced with different vinaigrettes. 

Next, we went for a round of veggie sides, the garlic-sesame-peanut baby bok choy ($9), the Brussel sprouts with caramelized onions ($12), and the black pepper mushrooms ($10.50). The mushrooms were my favorite, as the slightly thickened sauce delivered the most unique flavors of the night, with plenty of black pepper and Szechuan peppercorns. 

To finish, we shared the classic double patty burger ($16) and the monkfish tail for two ($35). The burger was delicious, with a soft bun and crispy fries. The fish came with a great chili-crisp like sauce on top and then a plate of accoutrements (herbs, kimchi, sauces) to make lettuce wraps with. We had also ordered a side of sticky rice to go with our veggies, so I added in some rice to make a nice finish to the meal. 

Paper Tiger is a nice addition to the Old Port's restaurant scene. I will definitely be back to explore the very deep cocktail selection and enjoy some nice snacks.  

Paper Tiger | 425 Fore St, Suite 104, Portland, Maine | (207) 613-9823