Nothing about Bresca is big or brash. It has 18 seats, a menu with four entrees and a limited bar. But what an outsized presence it has in Portland’s food scene.

A graceful iron bench surrounded by flowering pots adorns the sidewalk outside. Above this hangs a simple wooden sign for the restaurant (the name means “honeycomb” in Catalan), a tiny spot one could easily overlook.

Not to worry. Chef/principal owner Krista Kern Desjarlais, a James Beard Best Chef Northeast nominee two times and a finalist in 2011, has been drawing plenty of customers since she opened in February 2007.

The interior was redesigned within the last year, and it’s much improved. Before, you might have sat at a circular table that floated in the middle of the room. Now banquettes with bright accent pillows border the space, while the center is reserved for customer and server flow.

The walls are painted a warm, chocolatey brown and adorned with photographs. Sunflowers fill a huge glass vase on a vintage hutch that serves as a wait station. The atmosphere evokes an Old World simplicity and elegance, accented with the occasional contemporary touch.

The food follows this premise, and that coherence makes the dining experience at Bresca all the more enchanting.

At tableside, our server poured elderberry syrup over a sugared plump blackberry and finished with Prosecco. The near-black contents transformed to a deep purple with a lavender head that vanished after a moment, and abracadabra, we had a crisp, artful drink that tingled and refreshed.

A second aperitif, an agreeable port sherry, came with a tiny bowl of pickled fiddleheads, and was charming to look at and taste. Each morsel was a shot of ferment and dill. The drinks cost $11 each.

A house-made goat cheese ricotta with roasted red peppers and pine nuts started us off with a smooth tang studded with color and crunch. A second appetizer — raw brussels sprouts shaved and lightly drizzled with olive oil, Parmesan and pecorino — was an almost-too-delicate take on the popular vegetable (both $9).

Charred multigrain bread with melted kombu butter (kombu is edible kelp) — paired with braised black kale and a “six-minute” egg (no white runniness and a bright, creamy, perfectly centered yolk) and served with pancetta — made us swoon with pleasure. This was that simple and rustic elegance speaking, the dish’s from-the-sea umami touch adding the modern accent ($12).

Torchio pasta, so named because it’s shaped like the base of a torch, held a medley of caramelized red onions, dates, Fresno chilis, pistachios and ash-aged goat cheese. This ordinary-looking dish bore a depth and interest that I will remember for some time, the tinge of ash flavor mixing with the sweet fruit, nuttiness and light heat. No doubt the chef experimented at length to get this melange just right ($18).

The daily fish entree involved coalfish, a sustainable, North Atlantic pollack sourced from Casco Bay. The chef’s delectable preparation was a thick strip of the fish in a light ginger-carrot broth, served with English peas, sweet corn and crispy bacon.

“Smokey” bing cherries surrounded thin slices of marvelously spiced duck breast with velvety mascarpone polenta. For this dish, Desjarlais hand-mixes 12 different “Roman trading spices,” some of which are cumin, ginger, cinnamon and fennel pollen. This was duck to die for.

Charred onion, tomatoes and a romesco sauce of roasted peppers, almonds, hazelnuts, garlic, red wine and olive oil enhanced surprisingly tender slices of hanger steak (it’s considered a tough cut) sourced from Pineland Farm. The accoutrements made the dish sing with flavor. All entrees cost $28 each.

Then came the cloud, a heavenly cumulus that was the buttermilk panna cotta. The silky and luscious custard swam in a broth of caramel passion fruit studded with pineapple, papaya and mango. It was insanely delicious. Do not miss this.

For a second dessert, we chose warm chocolate soup, which our server poured over a colorful bowl of berries with vanilla gelato and coconut sorbet — a scrumptious sundae for grown-ups (each dessert, $10).

Few chefs can so successfully combine the char of the grill with the charm of flawless details and flavors to create a meal like this one, where every dish seemed to unfold as an ideal combination of ingredients. And while the chef’s expressions may be new, they pay homage to the best traditions of Old World kitchens.

This fervent attention to cuisine, combined with service in a graceful and intimate setting that felt like someone’s home, reminded me of our good food fortune in Maine. One does not have to travel to big cities to have splendid dining.

We stepped onto the sidewalk marveling at this tucked-away gem, one of Maine’s best, wondering when we might have the opportunity to return. 

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer. She can be reached at:

nancyheiser.com