Who is Bibo of Bibo’s Madd Apple Cafe, and why is he or she bad at spelling?
Who cares, as long as the food is similarly freewheeling and perhaps delicious? Four of us headed to the cafe to discover this potential happy maddness (sic).
Conveniently located a few steps from Portland Stage and open for 26 years (13 under the helm of chef/owner Bill Boutwell), the restaurant draws many pre-theater showtime patrons and is known for its skill at getting them in and out in time.
We had no trouble getting a reservation on a Saturday night at 7, because the holiday show started right at that hour. For much of the evening, no more than half of the restaurant was occupied, and we felt relaxed and unrushed: We had no performance to make.
The cafe’s streetfront dining room is small, with a high ceiling that bears an enormous paper lantern orb in the center. A mural depicting an Italian villa, formerly a stage set from the theater next door, adorns the wall of the bar and back room.
On Dec. 3, Christmas carols were being piped in, albeit at a low volume. We ordered plenty of food, and lingered over courses that were paced just to our liking.
An appetizer of sesame chick pea fritters was crusty spheres with bumpy, spicy insides that the tangy tzaziki sauce of yogurt, garlic, and mint and cucumber salad nicely moderated ($7.95).
The interior of two large lobster and crab cakes were moist to the point of mushy, perhaps because a lot of binder was necessary to make the shredded crab and the lumpy lobster cohere. Spinach with tomato ginger coulis underscored the two large cakes, but the pairing was less exciting than it sounds (appetizer, $10.95).
Apple cider pulled pork tacos manifested some apple madness. The appetizer stood in as an entree for one of us, and the portion of three was plenty big enough. The pork and its slaw of chopped apples made the dish sweet, with no spicy or smokey sauce to offset this. I found the dish one-dimensional ($8.95).
Bacon crisped to a char wrapped around a tasty pork tenderloin, the night’s special for $17.95. The mashed on the plate could have been silkier, but the German-style braised red cabbage had a strong and welcome vinegary punch. It was a well-composed platter of deep, wintry flavors.
Shrimp and scallops mafaldine (a type of ribbon pasta) held four of each type of seafood in a mild tomato sauce, a standard entree for $21.95.
Wolfe Neck Farm grilled skirt steak was the best main dish of the lot. Perfectly cooked to order, the beef, marinated in a subtly sweet sauce, was served with a red wine glaze and sides of whole oyster mushrooms sauteed with onions and spinach, all served over a bleu cheese risotto ($20.95). Delicious.
We asked if we could try the brussels sprouts side dish ($4.95) that came with an entree we didn’t happen to order, and the kitchen accommodated. These were sliced and roasted but too sweet for our taste, due to added mirin, we learned later. The vegetable highlighted the sweet tendency we found in a fair amount of the food here.
We loved the housemade foccacia — moist and full of character. Dip this into olive oil and then dukka, a Middle Eastern mix of toasted and pulverized almonds, sesame seeds and spices as you sip wine and ponder the menu.
The chocolate tart was deeply rich and smooth with an intensely-flavored ginger crust. A strong cappuccino with a particularly thick mound of foam with cinnamon contributed to this lovely dessert course.
A second delicious dessert was a fruit crisp with cubes of skin-on apples and a thick and chunky layer of crisp. It was served warm with cream cheese cinnamon gelato, which I, being finicky about ice cream adulterations (no thanks to apple pie ice cream, Milk Duds gelato or any such thing) did not like. But my companions did, which confirms the adage: It’s all about individual taste. (Both desserts were $7.50.)
Service was acceptable and unerring, and the atmosphere quiet during our stay. While the food here may not blow your mind with creativity and flamboyance, Bibo’s (pronounced Bee-bo’s) is primed to get you to the show on time.
The restaurant also offers a leisurely and satisfying dining option in Portland’s arts district. And it’s a good spot for post-theater dessert and coffee.
Nancy Heiser is a Maine freelance writer. She can be reached at:nancyheiser.com