When a restaurant’s name recalls a mythical creature, fun facts and literary devices abound. Some are weirdly regional, like in 1933 when a University of Maine professor engineered a bull with a unicorn-style horn. Others offer bits of broader interest, like how in addition to Bible mentions, unicorns appear throughout both Eastern and Western history. (For instance, Japan and Africa note unicorn legends.) Some references, though, border on snark. Finding a creatively prepared higher-end meal in central Maine? As rare as stumbling upon a unicorn.
Portland’s reputation as a foodie destination shines so intensely, that it’s easy to overlook Maine’s other sparkles of food culture. Waterville may not be on a gourmand’s immediate travel list, but The Last Unicorn’s legendary menu is worth pursuing.
The original Last Unicorn opened in 1978, and while the most-recent incarnation closed earlier this year, the restaurant relaunched under the ownership of former Unicorn chef Fred Ouellette and his wife, Amy. The menu, they reassure locals, is largely the same — the same, inasmuch as the extensive list of special offerings changes each night.
The seating arrangement is a holdover from its former incarnations. With two distinct dining areas and an unusual red crescent booth near the doorway, the sense of space is awkward, but not irrevocably jarring. Front and center is the bar. Turn right, and the French blue walls, blond wood, and brightly colored paintings feel eclectic, as if moved from an artistic and quirky aunt’s kitchen. Simple bud vases decorate the bare tables, and the napkins (black, thank you) wrap nicely weighted cutlery. Wide arched windows offer natural light and a street view. It is a languishing chic motif, but a comfortable one.
While the wine menu is small, it is varied enough to offer something for almost every taste, and the affordable Hinojosa Malbec ($7 glass/$27 bottle) arrived exactly as promised — smoky with a slight vanilla note, though I found myself wishing the menu had listed the vintage.
Here is where The Last Unicorn gets interesting. The regular menu includes a long list of perfectly serviceable entrees, but the special menu (printed daily), is where the fun happens. Housemade Harvest Ravioli with Amaretto Cream and Toasted Almonds ($17.95)? North African Spice Rubbed Lamb Rack ($24.95)? Tennessee George’s Sweet Whiskey Grilled Pork Tenderloin ($19.95)?
I confess my surprise now. Central Maine-based friends suggested the restaurant would be good, but in my ignorance, I expected “good” would include a “for the area” disclaimer. Not so. The Last Unicorn’s menu is ambitious, and its unifying theme seems to be flavor. Big, distinct flavors. Ample portions. Extremely vegetarian-friendly.
While deciding on entrees, we worked our way through the Combination Snack, a longstanding menu item featuring wedges of Syrian bread, Muenster cheese, hummus, and Swedish mustard ($9.95). This house-made hummus is delicious — lemony and garlicky and ridiculously smooth. The hummus alone is worth the drive, but served in “make your own mini sandwich” form with accoutrements, and the experience felt like a casual, fun, communal snack time.
Same for the Sesame Crusted Tuna Medallions ($12.95) — four thick circles of seared rare tuna, rolled in a sesame coating and served with a tangy soy vinaigrette. A simple preparation, for sure, but satisfying.
The kitchen should feel especially proud of the Chesapeake Style Crab Cakes ($20.95). Served with a choice of sides — Thai peanut sauce, Thai garlic or Cajun mayo, the two cakes were hamburger-sized, heavy with crabmeat, bound lightly with a flavorful breading, and fried to a golden and not-even-close-to-soggy crisp.
I was most curious about the Sesame Sumac Crusted Salmon ($19.95), served over fresh spinach and topped with cucumber chutney. Although the salmon arrived a bit dry, and the heap of mashed potatoes, while tasty, seemed inelegant beside such a delicate preparation (next time, I will request the rice), the tastes fascinated me. I could not decide if the complex dish with many textures was too much competition or just plain lovely. Salmon, already so flavorful and distinct, combined with the tart and citrus-y sumac, the mellow sesame, and the bright and crunchy cucumber. The portion was large, and I encourage other diners to try it.
Also, the Thai Sizzling Catfish ($19.95). While the kitchen volleys “Thai-style” on its menu with some abandon, this item is one of particular note. Exceptionally tasty catfish is cooked with a savory, medium-spice-level heat, delicate and deliciously free of any potentially muddy taste.
Dessert brought a choice of Vanilla Panicotta with Wild Blueberry Sauce, Coffee Toffee Pie, and Almond Cheesecake with Cherry Sauce. The Coffee Toffee Pie had a chocolate crumb crust that, I’d wager, was pressed into the pan by the kitchen staff that morning, a layer of toffee caramel, and at least 2 inches of thick and creamy coffee filling. Magnificent, decadent and food dream-worthy, this pie is good, and I urge all diners to save room if it appears on the dessert menu.
The space was clean, the decor inviting, and the service was pleasant. The menu is interesting enough to merit a special trip, and given the alternative bland chain options in the vicinity, I hope locals continue to embrace this lovely downtown gem.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”