Originally published in Maine magazine, October 2021.
In the thirteenth century, Albertus Magnus, philosopher, theologian, and alchemist, reportedly witnessed the transformation of an ordinary metal into gold. This magical process was believed to be crucial to discovering the philosopher’s stone, which would impart immortality to its owner. Over 700 years later, the insatiable curiosity of the medieval German thinker has inspired the four owners of Magnus on Water, a cocktail bar and restaurant in downtown Biddeford.
While it won’t deliver everlasting life, a meal at Magnus on Water does offer transformation. There, seasonal and foraged foods are converted into fine cocktails and simple, ingredient-focused fare. As a result of a chance meeting in a bar, Magnus on Water was opened by Brian Catapang, Carmen Harris, Julia Russell, and Brittany Saliwanchik in January 2020. Saliwanchik, Magnus’s wine director, tells me, “When we built this place, it was with everyone in Biddeford in mind. We want to have Red Stripe and shots of Jameson if you want it. We also want to have really high-end burgundy. This needs to be a place for everyone.”
The star of the bar program is Catapang’s inventive cocktail menu. A short list of nine original cocktails contains versions of familiar drinks, such as the Crowd Surfer, a riff on a margarita. Catapang constructs his classic sour with mezcal or tequila (for a “smoking” and “nonsmoking” version), fresh citrus juices, and dry curaçao, then tops it with a salted pineapple-poblano foam. “I’ve always found that bartending has a lot of feel in the natural world, and then uses a little bit of science to get to the end result,” Catapang says.
From the juicy rum-blackberry-lime highball to the mouth-wateringly savory gin martini made with watercress, peppercorns, and ramp oil, Catapang’s cocktails are full of foraged ingredients. Wild berries, herbs, and greens parade through the cocktail menu as the seasons progress, disappearing as they fade from the forest floor. Both Catapang’s cocktail list and Saliwanchik’s wine menu reflect their infatuation with fleeting essences that are gone as soon as customers become accustomed to seeing them.
Chef Ben Jackson joined Magnus on Water this April. Jackson is known for his time at Drifters Wife, the acclaimed Portland wine bar that closed in July 2020. At Magnus he delivers his signature cooking style that places high-quality, seasonal ingredients at the forefront of a dish. His menu changes frequently—it is tweaked daily as Jackson mulls over the best way to represent the food available at the farmers’ markets he frequents.
Jackson’s food feels elevated but approachable, not fussy or needlessly complicated. “I cook the way I want to eat,” he says. “It’s very seasonal. It’s just the only way that I know how to do it.” Bluefin tuna, harvested locally in the summer and fall, comes as a tartare with petite cubes of fish dressed simply with olive oil and lemon juice. After a few nights of preparing one version with a bed of sliced cucumbers, Jackson tinkers with it, substituting in smashed cucumbers. He strips away the excess additions until he feels a dish is in its purest, elemental form.
Jackson steams meaty littleneck clams that were harvested in Brunswick in Amontillado sherry with green garlic until their shells pop open. They arrive piled high in a bowl with crispy slices of toast that soften when dipped in the rich broth. The heavy char on thick slices of summer squash is offset by fresh goat cheese, torn basil, and a drizzle of agrodolce, a sweet, tangy sauce of reduced vinegar. A thick slab of rich country pâté is complemented by a zippy mustard and lightly pickled cucumber slices.
The night I dine at Magnus on Water, two friends and I sit outdoors on the expansive patio during a break from near-daily thunderstorms. As a few plastic pink flamingos peer at us from within the surrounding lush plantings of hydrangeas, ferns, and grasses, I savor my entrée: perfectly flaky hake hidden under a mound of warm cherry tomatoes scattered with basil leaves.
To end the evening, server Minx Gordon delivers dessert, a layered caramelized honey cake from baker Victoria Nam. Between the warm hospitality, Jackson’s food, and the strong drink in hand, it feels like we’ve struck gold in the heart of Biddeford with this meal at Magnus on Water.
Magnus on Water | 12 Water St., Biddeford | 207.494.9052
Brian Works His Magic
Magnus’s beverage director Brian Catapang loves to introduce wary customers to his innovative drink menu. He lures Scotch drinkers in with smoky mezcal and convinces “old-school Biddeford guys” to try pink drinks by the end of the evening. A group of ladies regularly came in for lemon drop martinis until Catapang turned them on to the Happy Camper, a bourbon drink with blood orange and vanilla. He says, “Watching people change, [have] that ‘ah-ha’ moment, is so rewarding.” Then he laughs. “It’s like, ‘I got you. No more Long Island iced teas for you!’”