First in an occasional series
The chef/owner of Vinland, Portland’s newest and boldest restaurant experiment – no food served that isn’t grown or harvested in Maine – was shivering. January’s first snowstorm had created a layer of ice not only on the exterior of the front window, but also inside it. And the air conditioning was blasting – a jury-rigged fix to combat a last-minute humidity disaster that turned Vinland into Wetland during the soft opening.
“We had water dripping from the skylight onto the bar,” David Levi said ruefully. The cause: warm bodies, hot stoves, steamy dishwashers and inadequate ventilation in a space newly converted for restaurant use. The water ran onto the beautifully crafted birch bar (even the wood is local) and onto bartender Alex Winthrop while he was whipping up drinks like the Red Rabbit, a bourbon concoction that included Maine cranberry bitters homemade from wild berries foraged by Levi and his friends near Little Duck Pond in Windham. As Maine as it gets.
The chef himself won’t be foraging for dinner every night. The berries were gobbled up during the soft opening, which began Dec. 27, and organic Maine cranberries will suffice in the future. But they represent the incredibly high and complicated standard of going 100 percent local.
Even the hardcore farm-to-table restaurants tend to serve local whenever they can, but not as a rule. What first-time restaurateur Levi is attempting to pull off would be unique to Maine and quite possibly America – at least since well before the industrial age, when going all local was a matter of making do, not a statement about sustainability.
The air conditioner was the temporary fix until a $10,000 ventilation unit and heat recovery system can be installed. It marks at least another week-long delay and unexpected expense on the road to being fully open, but Levi, a former high school teacher who has a master’s degree in poetry from Bennington College, is quite accustomed to setbacks. After all, he has been paying rent on the space at 593 Congress St., adjacent to the renovated and renamed Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, since March 2013.
This ambitiously conceived restaurant has been in the works for three long and winding years, littered with obstacles that made some suspect that Levi, as someone with no experience in opening a restaurant, might not be able to pull it off. But not Levi.
“If he’s ever thought that, he hasn’t let it show,” said Ben Morley, a former server at Hugo’s who is Vinland’s head server and general manager.
JUGGLING MANY STARTUP TASKS
A native New Yorker of Italian-Jewish heritage, Levi has a thin, angular face that alternates between a sort of natural earnestness and the decidedly wry. Like he might crack a joke about the wet soft opening. Or maybe go write a poem about how we’re all mostly made of water anyway. Think Adrien Brody, playing the part of a chef with a serious, hardcore vision for living and eating local.
How local? The hake that Vinland served on New Year’s Eve was from Maine waters, but it was not served with lemon, or sautéed in olive oil, or seasoned with pepper, because you cannot grow any of those things in Maine. For a citrus-like experience, or something close to it, Levi uses condensed yogurt whey (that’s in the gimlets, too). Clarified butter, or ghee, steps in for olive oil. The only leeway that Levi is allowing is in the beverage department. The spirits are all from New England, the wines are organic, the coffee is roasted in Maine and the tea comes from a Brunswick importer, Little Red Cup.
He’s the head chef, but along the way he also became the general contractor, the head designer, the personnel manager and the public relations chief. He’s particularly good at this last piece of the puzzle. He’s more softspoken than flamboyant, but he knows his way around social and old media.
Vinland’s soft opening was covered by the Huffington Post news and blog website, and last spring, when he started a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the restaurant (raising $45,023), a promotional video of him gathering seaweed and chopping greens was deemed food-newsworthy enough to get prominent play on New York magazine’s food website, Grub Street.
But he says he is not by nature a multitasker.
“No, no, just the opposite,” Levi said. “I think of myself as being single-minded. I love having a specific task and just throwing myself at it. So it has been very, very difficult for me to learn to manage juggling many, many balls at once. And I think a great growing experience.”
Among the tasks he’s been juggling to get Vinland (almost) open: a lot of bartering with vendors and friends. Many of the 366 Kickstarter contributors have free meals or cooking lessons coming to them. So do many of the contractors.
Will he be giving meals away for the next five years? “No,” Levi said. “But we do owe a lot of food.” They’ll be doing a lot of pre-paid meals for the first three to six months of operation, he said.
“We’ve had to be creative and think broadly about how to pull together funds to minimize costs and defer costs,” Levi said.
He also has bargain-shopped, picking up a gently used Thos. Moser leather-and-wood couch for Vinland’s lounge on Craigslist for a third of its normal price, and toting an induction stove-top home from Oregon in his suitcase because the price was right.
He and his friends cut down the birch branches and trunks that adorn Vinland’s Angela Adams-esque sound-muffling system. On the night of the soft opening, there was his girlfriend, Portland native Liz Trice, helping Morley with the door while her mother, Sally, sipped the broth from a simple mushroom soup and confided that Levi, despite the intimidation factor that one might expect from someone of his lofty culinary goals, had proved a cheerful and easy guest to feed at Thanksgiving dinner.
SKEPTICS AND STINGING WORDS
Levi knows how to network – he doesn’t have much in the way of long-term restaurant experience. While he was getting his degree in poetry he took on tutoring clients, including the son of famous chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Cedric Vongerichten, who reignited the passion Levi had for cooking in college, and even as a child. A family friend gave him a chance to study with a butcher in Tuscany, and that led to a gig with the younger Vongerichten at Perry St in New York. Levi then moved on to another apprenticeship, or “stage,” with another Italian butcher, Dario Cecchini, and then on to Scandinavia for apprenticeships at Noma in Copenhagen and Fäviken in Sweden, both of which served intensely local, wild food menus. These were rich experiences, but ones measured in months rather than years.
Which largely explains why there are skeptics out there. Levi is hardly oblivious. The Kickstarter campaign prompted a blunt Facebook remark from food blogger Joe Ricchio. Ricchio didn’t mention Vinland by name, but in late November, when he wrote on his status update that “if you don’t have any money, maybe it’s not the best idea to be opening a restaurant,” and followed it up with “when you look to the rest of the world to fund your restaurant for nothing, I suppose that eliminates a lot of the risk for you,” Levi got the hint. “That hurt,” he said. He’s said he’s bothered by the idea that only the rich or well-funded are supposed to pursue their idealistic dreams.
Ricchio, who is now editing food coverage for Maine Magazine, declined to comment further, writing that he “would prefer to have no part in anything regarding that restaurant.”
But Levi is too smart and self-aware not to know that until the restaurant proves itself, there will be those who see the whole production as off-putting or holier-than-thou, even before they spot the Rumi or Ralph Waldo Emerson poetry on the chalkboard-painted walls of the bathroom. So when he talks about using the name “cooked cream” on his menu to describe a dessert that most people would call panna cotta, he knows even the simplicity of that may bring mockery.
“I am sure some people would scoff at this, but we are trying really hard to be unpretentious with our verbiage,” Levi said. “It is just kind of a signal of trying to make a move toward trying to establish this as part of a Maine cuisine rather than borrowing from an Italian cuisine. After all, we did make it from not only local ingredients, but even our gelatin we made in-house from local, pasture-raised pigs.”
PRIDE IN – AND ADMIRATION – FOR GOALS
Levi would prefer not to be called “purist” – or even worse, puritanical – because of Vinland’s all-local stance (it is also a gluten-free restaurant, because Levi doesn’t eat gluten; he says he cured his asthma by adopting the diet). He’s proud to be the first modern American restaurant he knows of serving only local foods. But the words make him cringe because of their implications of dogmatic thinking.
“For me, (this) is not coming from a puritanical mindset,” he said. “To me, it is about creating a beautiful and interesting form within which to work, which happens to also maximize our local support to farmers and fishermen and foragers, to cheese makers and artisans.”
Even if some in Portland are skeptical, the city has given him something he couldn’t have gotten in New York or San Francisco. “A bootstrapper has a chance,” Levi said. “If you have a vision you can open a restaurant here for a few hundred thousands of dollars that would cost $1 (million), if not several million, in one of those cities.” He estimates his costs in the ballpark of $200,000, and says the Kickstarter money raised about 20 percent of what he needed.
The kind of dedication to sustainability he’s espousing at Vinland draws admiration from plenty of quarters. Levi was invited to compete in the Harvest-on-the-Harbor farm-to-table competition in September, where he served up a beet chip appetizer adorned with condensed yogurt whey. He did not win, but received a warm introduction from Fore Street’s Sam Hayward. Steve Corry, the chef/owner of 555 and Petite Jacqueline, both of which are just a few blocks from Vinland, said he’s glad to have such an ambitious new restaurant in the neighborhood.
There is no doubt that the all-local menu will draw customers who want to see how Levi works his way around a problem like ingredients that can’t be produced in Maine’s climate. For instance, how do you make desserts without cane sugar? You use honey in ice cream, or maybe maple syrup in custard. But there is no getting around one missing ingredient.
Levi laughs when a visitor scanning an early menu comes to this gloomy realization: The Pine Tree State produces no chocolate. “I know,” he said. “And I am one of the more chocolate-obsessed people I know. But we can all go one meal without chocolate.”
And what if after, say, a year, he starts to go a little stir-crazy living under his own restrictions?
Levi smiled. “Then I can open another restaurant.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: