That’s the pre-review grace period we allow new restaurants when they open. A little breathing room offers them a chance to see what’s working well, reshuffle their teams and food suppliers, and with any luck, wear a comfortable groove into dinner service. Then, I come in.
Three months is also the chunk of 2020 that elapsed before indoor dining was halted in Maine. I had been visiting and writing about new places, but March detonated my review queue. Even after this summer’s incremental re-opening, things are not back to normal, and writing critically about restaurants remains a bridge too far, at least for me.
It’s undeniable: Maine’s food scene has decelerated. But it has never stagnated. Businesses across the state have reinvented themselves to adapt to a world that prizes QR-code menus and contact-free takeout. And while too many have had to shutter forever, most restaurants persevere however they can.
Which makes the decision to compile a Best of 2020 list a simple one. How can I not celebrate 2020’s bright spots? There’s plenty of cheer here to tide us over until the pandemic ends — until we go back to the days when hiring a new pastry chef and tweaking the settings on the fryer are the most important things on a new restaurateur’s mind.
Maybe, if we’re lucky, another three months?
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of four recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]. Twitter: @AndrewRossME
Best new restaurant:
Someday I hope I’ll be able to write a full review of this fast-casual, Levantine “Hummusiya and Falafel Bar.” Back in March, I had dined at Nura three times already, twice indoors in the plate-glass-walled space overlooking Monument Square, and once at home after the shelter-in-place guidance was issued. Every one of those meals was terrific. Looking back on my notes, I see that I had intended to score Nura four stars.
But now that I’ve had my fingers stained red with a few more orders of shawarma-spiced fries, several more crisp-fried falafel, pickle and hummus bowls, and a couple za’atar-and-garlicky-toum-seasoned spicy eggplant pockets, I’m rethinking that score. I might have sandbagged Nura.
The brick-and-mortar outpost of co-owners Dylan and Cameron Gardner’s popular Falafel Mafia food truck, Nura opened at the tail end of 2019. Immediately, I started hearing about it from friends, most of whom reported the same thing I discovered when I visited: The extra kitchen space and equipment improved the quality and execution of the Gardners’ Middle Eastern cooking.
Freed from the confines of the truck, dishes like fried Brussels sprouts strewn with pomegranate and Aleppo chili crisp arrive magma-hot, while cooler plates featuring tahini-forward hummus benefit from the air-conditioning. Once downtown workers return to their offices in force, prepare yourself to stand in line for lunch at Nura, but do it anyway. It’s worth the wait.
1 Monument Way, Portland (207) 536-0065
Best single meal I ate:
Like Vessel & Vine owner and chef Nikaline Iacono, I also own a toaster oven. But I can’t seem to force my little Black & Decker to produce anything close to the Southern-style cornbread she bakes in hers, nothing as tempting as her turmeric-and-pumpkin bread pudding, nor even baked oysters sprinkled with diced purple daikon and preserved black beans.
Sure, Iacono could move her Brunswick business to a space with a better-equipped kitchen. But that might erase some of Vessel & Vine’s eclecticism, force it to surrender one of the mosaic of businesses it showcases. Where else can you buy a bottle of vermouth, a vintage Depression-ware coupe to serve it in, all while snacking on anchovy-and-radicchio-topped “fancy toast” and sipping a bespoke Golden Ratio cocktail as you listen in on a sewing class?
My January dinner at Vessel & Vine defies description, just like the wine shop/art gallery/restaurant/(insert another of Iacono’s clever, creative endeavors here). Eleven months on, it’s the one dining experience I keep reminiscing about more than any other of 2020. I have no idea what to expect when I return, and really, that’s the whole point.
4 Pleasant St., Brunswick (207) 721-3000
Dine Out Maine review: Is it a restaurant? A classroom? A vintage store?
Best single dish I ate:
Beautifully blistered Maialino pizza from Washington Avenue newcomer Radici, Una Pizzeria. Last month, I fell hard for this single-serving pie, whose savory crumbles of pork sausage and funky Tallegio cheese are offset by a thin rivulet of caper honey. It’s in the running for the best pizza in Portland.
52 Washington Ave., Portland (207) 835-6012
Best preview of what’s to come (tie):
Starting a new business during a pandemic requires a special kind of tenacity and courage. Few attempted the feat, and even fewer were successful. Among them, three standouts emerged, restaurants whose current efforts signal their potential to be future superstars:
Yazmin Saraya and Kyle Robinson’s French bistro, Chez Rosa in Kennebunkport; South Portland’s Judy Gibson, an upscale-casual neighborhood restaurant from former Velveteen Habit chef Chris Wilcox; and Raquel and Jake Stevens’ pasta-centric, pan-Italian Leeward on Free St. in Portland.
Chez Rosa, 2 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport (207) 204-0183
Judy Gibson, 171 Ocean St., South Portland (207) 808-8649
Leeward, 85 Free St., Portland (207) 808-8623
Best cocktail (tie):
Blyth & Burrows’ Armistice, one of their range of bottled cocktails. This one features aromatics on overdrive, everything from marjoram to dry vermouth, olive oil vodka to lemon oil.
Close your eyes and imagine what you’d be served if Jamba Juice sold booze. That’s Local 188’s Anti Bloody, made with ginger vodka, green Chartreuse, and turmeric-spiked carrot juice.
26 Exchange St., Portland (207) 613-9070
Double-pattied up on a Thursday afternoon, it’s the oniony, joyously messy Smash burger from Christian Hayes’s pandemic spinoff, Thoroughfare. Launched this summer at The Garrison, the fast-food-inspired sandwich shop is slated to open in February as a standalone business in downtown Yarmouth.
81 Bridge St., Yarmouth (207) 847-0566
Best contact-free curbside pickup:
Boda – from zero to hero: This Congress St. veteran Thai restaurant never even offered takeout meals before the pandemic. Now, its online ordering portal submits your ticket to the kitchen, and the fleet-footed staff slip outside with your food, depositing it on the table outside just as you arrive.
Honorable mention: The four Basket Island Oyster Company honor-system coolers (two in mainland Portland, one each in Saco and Peaks Island) where $20 cash or Venmo will score you a dozen freshly harvested oysters.
Boda, 671 Congress St., Portland (207) 347-7557
Basket Island Oyster Company, 72 Commercial St., Portland (207) 712-3681
Best restaurant/grocery hybrid:
Monte’s Fine Foods, Steve Quattrucci’s sleek, chic reimagining of the former Angelone’s space as half-Italian supermarket, half-pizzeria is a pleasure to drive past. Better still is what’s inside: a thoughtfully selected range of local produce, meats and cheese, a few choice bottles of olive oil and wine, and a menu of Roman-inspired sandwiches and spelt-crusted pizzas. Monte’s warm, knowledgeable staff have made my weekly visits a genuine comfort during stressful times.
788 Washington Ave., Portland (207) 613-9873
Crisp, crunchy pork schnitzel with mustard and an egg-and-caper relish on a bulkie from Other Side Delicatessen. And if that’s not enough pork for you, try the Sunday porchetta sandwich with frizzled greens on a Standard Baking Co. roll from West End newcomer Roll Call or its distant relative, the Roast Pork hoagie from Ramona’s.
Other Side Delicatessen, 164 Veranda St., Portland (207) 761-9650
Roll Call, 81 Clark St., Portland (207) 200-4050
Ramona’s, 98 Washington Ave., Portland (207) 956-7194
Best (natural) wine under $20 (tie):
Peppery, herbaceous 2018 Vina Echeverria “No Es Pituko” Cabernet Franc from The Cheese Shop of Portland.
La Bodega de Pinoso “Fermina” 2019 from Maine & Loire, an inky, 100% Monastrell crackling with tannins and juicy fruit.
The Cheese Shop of Portland, 107 Washington Ave., Portland (207) 400-5344
Maine & Loire, 59 Washington Ave., Portland (207) 805-1336
Best cake on a frigid winter night (tie):
Parchment-wrapped Basque burnt cheesecake served with sticky cranberry-and-fig compote from Anoche, a new Washington Ave. cider (and gin & tonic) bar.
Slice of the buttery, clove-dusted “Blessed Cake,” a lemon-and-sour-cream reinvention of an old family recipe at Bandaloop’s roomy new Arundel digs.
Anoche, 43 Washington Ave., Portland (207) 613-9748
Bandaloop, 1200 Portland Road, Arundel (207) 967-4994
Dine Out Maine review: Spain’s Basque country touches down on Washington Avenue
Best flavor surprise (tie):
Dank, with a distinct top-note of apricots, the chanterelle-infused vodka “nips” from Sammy’s Deluxe in Rockland are mesmerizing.
Less wacky but equally hypnotic are the red clover fruit slices from Christopher Hastings Confections in Waterville ($.50 apiece). Set with vegan-friendly apple pectin, dusted with sugar and infused with a local apothecary’s clover blossom distillate, these jelly-like candies taste faintly of vanilla and caramel.
Honorable mention: I am usually a bit of a bagel purist, but I secretly adore the cranberry-ginger bagels from Maple’s in Yarmouth.
Sammy’s Deluxe, 488 Main St., Rockland (207) 466-9059
Christopher Hastings Confections, 24 Common St., Waterville (207) 209-0551
Maple’s, 881 U.S. Route 1, Yarmouth (207) 846-1000
Best online ordering experience:
An untethered, pick-and-choose riff on a traditional CSA, Portland Farm Drop makes shopping for local produce easy. And it’s not just fruits and vegetables. The online shop sells cheeses and meats from area producers, as well as baked goods from Lorelei’s Loaves & Treats, who (alongside Lil’s Café and Bakery in Kittery) make my favorite challah in Maine.
Honorable mention: Fork Food Lab, whose new online market allows shoppers to choose from among its broad range of vendors like Empanada Club and Lake & Co.
Portland Farm Drop
Fork Food Lab, 72 Parris St., Portland (207) 558-08811
Just like many of you, I ate too much this Thanksgiving. My favorite dish wasn’t turkey or stuffing; it was a cranberry-and-condensed-milk-custard set into a crumbly crust of pulverized almonds and sunflower seeds—a seasonal special from Norimoto Bakery in South Portland.
Honorable mentions: The pudding-like Banana Split pie from Helen’s Restaurant in Machias; the flaky-crusted classic apple pie from Berry Fruit Farm in Livermore Falls (sold with its ought-to-be-mandatory counterpart, a pint of lightly sweetened local whipped cream).
Norimoto Bakery, 740 Broadway, South Portland
Helen’s Restaurant, 111 Main St., Machias (207) 255-8423
Berry Fruit Farm, 54 Main St., Livermore Falls (207) 897-4767
Best excuse to raise a glass to dearly departed friends:
The Cider House, Drifters Wife, Drouthy Bear, Flood’s, Lio, Milk & Honey Café, More & Co., Nicky’s Cruisin’ Diner, Old Port Sandwich Shop, Piccolo, Royale Lunch Bar, Salt Pine Social, Sip of Europe, Uncle Andy’s Diner, Vinland, Woodhull Public House.
Send questions/comments to the editors.