The plotline is familiar: After much seeking, the girl falls deeply in love with the boy who lives next door. Except in this case, the boy next door is the restaurant around the corner — and the “restaurant” is actually 91 South, a wine club tucked inside Gorham’s Pine Crest Inn.
What is a wine club? Well, 91 South is a private food and wine establishment with membership open to the public for a dollar annual fee. Sound cool? It is.
Like a speakeasy, the dining room is accessed by the Pine Crest Inn’s side door, and this side door opened directly to the small kitchen where chef Noah Gaston was hefting a cookie sheet loaded with roasted lobster shells. At first I thought I had misdirected and moved to apologize, but before I could speak, jovial innkeeper Matt Mattingly appeared, double-checked his reservation list and welcomed us by name.
He led us to the dining room, situated about five steps to the left of the kitchen. Small and dimly lit by suspended mini fixtures and table votives, I counted seven tables and an L-shaped, two-toned wooden corner bar. The overall decorative effect was tired but undeniably cozy, and the padded seats were comfortable.
On this Thursday night there was just one other patron. Angelo, we learned, owns the Gorham House of Pizza just down the street, and caught between Matt and Angelo’s friendly banter, my husband Trav and I felt immediately like regulars.
Matt personally hand-selects each bottle of wine — and, oh, the wine! According to the website, bottles at 91 South are never priced more than $10 above retail cost, and with 65 by-the-glass options, we placed ourselves in his expertise. I requested an accessible red wine that, if I loved, I could afford to regularly buy and drink in my living room, and Matt brought a 2008 Bogle Vineyards Phantom ($13 a glass; $30 a bottle) blend.
In my experience, people either love or hate blends. I love them, believing the excitement of the mix can be part of a wine’s anticipation. This wine, a Zinfandel, Petite Syrah and Mourvedre combination, was super-smooth, and I did, indeed, seek it out later that week.
Not a wine drinker? No problem. The bar is fully stocked, and Trav worked his way through a tasting flight of Johnny Walker Blue, Gold and Black. Interestingly (and proving my cheap date status), I preferred the Black’s smoky taste (and much lower-price) to both the peaty Gold and even the ridiculously mellow, high-end Blue.
As cool as the wine concept is, the star at 91 South is the food. I do not know how Noah Gaston came to 91 South, but his culinary vision is, well, visionary, and he prepared a memorable meal worthy of any fine dining kitchen.
That sounds like inflated praise, but I do not exaggerate. We started with the Fall Harvest Salad ($9) — golden and red beets, spinach, cabernet cranberries, roasted squash, toasted pumpkin seeds and aged gouda, with additional flavors of maple, balsamic and onion. This complex salad is made simple with its unified autumn theme, and the flavors — each distinct — combined to create an orchestral feast. (Yes, I just typed “orchestral feast.” It was that good.)
The Shaved Brussels Salad ($9) with toasted walnuts, local honey and pancetta mixed with pecorino and parmesan cheese felt inspired. Presented in a narrow, rectangular-shaped dish, this cured meat-lover’s salad balanced salty and sweet in perfect proportion.
Next, the appetizer. I learned that a saganaki is basically a small Greek frying pan. Similar to how “casserole” signifies both the dish itself and the food it contains, saganaki usually refers to some form of fried cheese. At 91 South, the Saganaki ($9) is Ouzo-flamed Greek cheese with tomato, onion and olives.
Between the wine, the food and the spirited conversation, when the entrees arrived, it was a bit of a surprise. More food? Already? By this time, three additional gentlemen had joined Angelo at the bar, and they were a gregarious mix — all ready to talk travel, politics, wine and fine dining.
I ordered the Moonfish ($22), which is one of a half-dozen names for the humble cusk. In this case, the Moonfish was pan seared and not, as my husband did a good job of lying to me, a subset of cusk that feed each night by the light of the moon. With a meaty texture — think scallops more than a flaky haddock — this Moonfish was served on top of tiny braised beluga lentils, roasted cauliflower and sunchoke puree with a chorizo cream sauce.
When Matt asked how Travis preferred his Louisiana Shrimp Etouffee ($19, add a lobster for $14 additional) — Maine-style or authentic — Trav resisted the urge to request the hottest possible heat level and instead deferred, “the way the chef thinks it tastes best.”
Billed as a shrimp, scallions and vegetable trinity in a rich Cajun sauce, Gaston’s subtle layers of flavor and heat could convince Louisiana enthusiasts that it was, in fact, a bayou moon shining over Gorham’s Main Street.
Even though Matt said he has been in operation for six to seven years, I hesitated before writing about 91 South, knowing that once diners are reminded about this fabulous location just a short drive from Portland (with plenty of parking), any future Thursday nights (and I plan to have many) might be far less intimate.
But, food lovers must try this wine club dining room because, in addition to feeling like a locals-only secret, it offers a mix of cozy and cultured, quaint and quality, and extraordinarily well-prepared food.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”