Customers flock to tiny, out-of-the-way Trattoria Athena, considered by many (including me) to be one of Brunswick’s best restaurants for its mix of Italian and Greek entrees using mostly local ingredients and served with wines from a well-conceived list.
Owners and chefs Tim O’Brien and Marc Provencher recently took over a larger, more visible space once occupied by a toy store on Maine Street and built out a new restaurant, a casual wine bar, which opened in May. Their first continues to serve on Mill Street.
Following a food trend that emphasizes creative libations and small plates, this sister restaurant, Enoteca Athena, has developed a following as well. Rightly so.
It’s not just the fact that it’s easier to stumble across. Enoteca Athena has embraced a winning formula of these times with intriguing cocktails and interesting, flavor-deep food in a variety of portion sizes in a stylish, casual atmosphere. Liquor aficionados will warm to its build-your-own Negroni menu as well as a wine list featuring family vineyards in the mother countries. Apres theater folks will welcome the lounge seating and hours. And dinner here won’t cost a fortune.
We found summer refreshment in an icy cocktail of house-made limoncello and lavender gin, the latter light herb infusion being a fine blend with the citrus. I put in a request for the bartender to go easy on the simple syrup, and she created tartness exactly to my liking.
Our knowledgeable waitress helped a friend choose among components for his Negroni. When we mentioned our tippy table, she brought over a folded piece of cardboard to make it level. Thusly settled, we did not spill a drop. Excellent drinks and attention.
Two artichoke hearts, swaddled like babies in prosciutto and finished with a flourish of truffle-infused balsamic vinegar, captivated with their exquisite and simple conception ($5). Zucchini fritters ($6) were light in texture, flavored with dill and feta, and were delicious.
Caesar salad was exceptionally sharp and distinctive, and appropriately salty with a bagna caoda (a substantial dressing of mashed anchovies, garlic and olive oil) sprinkled with house-made, hand-torn croutons and kelp flakes. That last touch from the sea made an excellent salad into something unique and memorable ($8). Finally, a Caesar you want to seek out. Do.
Short ribs, which appear on many menus across the state this year, stood among the best for their rich soffrito-and-red wine sauce as well as the light, cheesy polenta squares alongside. This, the restaurant’s most expensive plate, comes in at $20.
Our waitress warned, as did the menu, that the tuna was not sushi-grade and would be cooked through. It was, and then some, to an exterior that you had to break into with a sturdy prong. The caper, lemon and wine sauce was a piquant delight, however, redeeming the texture — as did the price, a mere $13.
Order the sampler for a taste of pork, lamb and tuna marinated and seasoned Greek-style ($16). Pork was the juiciest on this plate, which only suffered from being monochromatic: Flecks of green in the tzatziki, a garlicky Greek yogurt sauce and served with warm pita, was not enough for the eye.
A classic lamb gyro, dense in herbs, wrapped in foil, doused with that superb house-made tzatziki and sided with herb-roasted potatoes, was a splendid, hearty platter ($12).
Two of three desserts were gone by the time we got to this course, and the special, a lime rice pudding, was the default option ($7). It was a mound of lime-flavored sticky rice with a dollop of whipped topping. The kitchen can do better than this.
Fresh coffee helped, but tea was unavailable, as were espresso drinks, which we felt the style of Enoteca Athena cried out for.
Aside from the skill at the bar, the best things going at Enoteca Athena are its full-bodied flavors. To have almost every item served stand apart for its depth of interest and taste (if not always beauty or texture) takes expertise. A touch more attention would elevate the food to top-notch.
Still to work on here is the flow from kitchen to table. Our four mains came out sporadically. At 6:30 on a Friday night, the only pasta dish on the menu had run out (and O’Brien is known for his toothsome pasta), as had two desserts of the night’s three. Presumably the restaurant will be able to predict better after more time in business.
Despite these matters, Enoteca Athena is nearing excellence. It’s serving delicious, interesting local food at very good prices. But that smooth and effortless ride — the complete pleasure that comes when the Lamborghini hums on all cylinders — is not yet here. It can take a few months for a new place, especially one with a new mission, to find its rhythm and perfect its dishes.
Give this wine bar a little more time, and I suspect it’ll be a four-star spot. But I’ll go back well before that, just for fun.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer. She can be reached at: