The chef at Figa had me in the palms of her capable hands within two bites of the eggplant Napoleon ($6), one night’s appetizer special. Humble eggplant had been transformed into discs of creamy tenderness and lacy, crisp edges as slightly browned goat cheese chimed in with sour and tangy richness.
Nothing slapdash came before us as we happily foraged through appetizers, entrees and desserts from a menu worthy of rapt attention. The first two are categorized as spoons (very small servings), forks (appetizer-size), and knives (entrees) — but those spoons work for me as the right size for an appetizer that teases the appetite instead of slaying it.
My dinner companions were just as pleased with the scallop “spoon” special ($6), two translucent scallops fringed with golden sev — a fried coating made with sieved, fried chickpeas. Jicama, pear and apple slaw paired with tangy miso-citrus vinaigrette and a red chili oil jazzed up the scallops.
Shrimp patia ($6) showcased Maine’s sweet shrimp to stunning effect in a smoky sweet sauce. To make it, the chef sweats onions in a hot pan, pops mustard seeds and toasts cumin, curry, garam masala, chili powder and chili flakes, then simmers the mixture with diced ginger, garlic and stewed tomatoes for two hours.
“Oh my god, it’s like the garbage can in that thing,” said chef/owner Lee Farrington with a laugh.
The perfectly cooked shrimp are set on a thin, dense blini, a lovely foil to the vibrant spice of the sauce. It’s made with corn meal, corn, scallions and curry powder, among other things, from a recipe tweaked by the sous chef, Justin Edgerton.
Farrington cooked at Tabla, a Danny Meyer restaurant, and Raga on East 6th Street in New York City. Once in Maine, she worked at Uffa and got the lay of the land.
In 2008, she bought the building that Figa is in. In December 2009, a neighbor cut off a shared water line, and a legal battle ensued. A $20,000 water line had to be put in before she could open, which created a long delay.
Carved teak mirrors from Bali hang on the exposed brick walls. The back of the wall bench was made from pews from the former Chestnut Street Church. Iron bar stools were made by Ed Lutjens of Portland.
Ryan Wallace Custom Woodworking and Renovation built the entire room in what was formerly a hair salon. “It turned out exactly how I wanted it,” Farrington said, “And you can’t ask for better than that.” The honey, gold and red tones of the repurposed wood, gold cork hanging lights and warm sage walls infuse the room with informal beauty.
A little slider ($7), distracting us from the surroundings, put all the fast-food American delights inside a little round meat sandwich, candied cucumber pickles topping caramelized hamburger inside a crispy toasted bun.
Wines by the glass include Niento Senetiner Malbec Reserva 2008 ($10), meaty and full-bodied, and Clos St. Thomas Les Gourmets Blanc 2008 from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon ($9). Crisp with fresh citrus, they show a knack for choosing good wine. Carm White Reserva 2006 ($39) from the Douro of Portugal was laced with restrained oak, buttery vanilla and caramel. Apaltagua Estate Carmenere 2007 ($28) from Colchagua, Chile, blended a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon with Carmenere grapes to produce a robust dark-red wine.
We particularly liked the bread. House-made, chewy and dense with an exquisite flavor, it’s a kind of bread that is rarely found even in Portland’s sophisticated bakeries. The butter had been infused with honey, an unwelcome distraction from the bread’s flavors.
Wild boar Rendang ($6 for a spoon, $20 for an entree) is a signature dish, our courteous and capable server told us. The tour de force of dark-red sauce is warmed with curry spices, but “that’s a top secret sauce, I can’t tell you how it’s made,” Farrington said. That powerhouse sauce only accentuated the pure, wild taste of the moist and tender meat from wild pigs that live on three farms in Texas. “They run between a thousand acres,” Farrington said.
Apple compote with white raisins provided a lyrical contrast alongside excellent rice.
Hanger steak ($19) was so tender, my friend wanted to know the secret — no hanger steak he’d made, however long marinated, ever cooked up so nicely. Farrington later said she thought the secret was the meat itself, Meyer Natural Angus, “certified humane” by the Humane Farm Animal Care program.
Porcini-speckled couscous and sauteed spinach were the intelligent sides.
The one flaw of the night came in the bowl of mussels ($11). Cooked with coconut milk, Indonesian spices, homemade chili paste and white wine, the mussels themselves were fat and fresh, but the liquid tasted too salty to be enjoyed. We were simply too happy to complain.
Three flavors of creme brulee ($6) presented dark chocolate dominating its own little ramekin, bittersweet and almost dry in texture. Lemongrass creme brulee turned that aromatic herb into silk custard, and the orange cardamom displayed both restraint and skill.
Pound cake topped with drunken figs (reeling with red wine, port and sugar) and lemon mascarpone — so much better here than in tiramisu — was a Dolce Vita version of cake and berries, seductive and irresistible.
House dolce de leche ice cream with pecans ($3) made us aware, as though we might have doubted it, that the kitchen could cook sugar down to the exact right pitch of brown.
A little goblet of Madeira, 1968 d’Oliveira Boal Reserva ($16), tasted sophisticated and rounded by its years, high acidity emphasizing its complexities.
Coffee comes in press pots and is from Coffee Design.
N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s website, www.chowmaineguide.com.