Vinland, a new restaurant in Portland’s arts district, is the ambitious venture of chef and owner David Levi. With the exception of the wine list (a selection of exceptional organic and small batch wines mostly from Italy and France), Vinland uses 100 percent local ingredients – right down to the salt.
Adjacent to Congress Square, Vinland’s exterior is rather unassuming. There’s heavy foot traffic in this neighborhood, and it might be hard to spot the restaurant, situated between busy Forest Avenue and High Street, at first. But once inside, the noise of the street quickly falls away, thanks to sound cancellation panels on the walls that double as decorative (local) artwork.
Levi has paid an enormous attention to detail at Vinland and because of the size of the restaurant – eight tables and eight seats at the bar – economy of space was imperative. The location has gone through a number of iterations through the years. More recently, it was a one-room yoga studio.
Two rows of four tables each create aisles that lead straight to the bar and open kitchen, an area of the restaurant that is brought to life by a striking skylight.
Weekends have been busy for Vinland. The website recommends reservations and the bar seats can also be reserved. Weeknights are quieter, and while reservations are suggested, you should be safe to walk in for a seat at the bar.
Bar manager Alex Winthrop says there are already quite a few regulars who come in just for drinks. And once you experience one of Winthrop’s creations, it will be clear why.
Winthrop has expertly taken on the task of 100 percent local for his cocktail list, concocting house-made bitters and foraging for many of his ingredients, such as berries and herbs. He hails from Philadelphia and got his start behind the bar at Beau Monde, a well-known creperie there that at one time had an award-winning wine list.
An artist by trade, Winthrop moved to Maine with his girlfriend, Kate Whittemore, who is sous chef at Vinland.
After the Storm ($10) is a cocktail Winthrop named for the lobster boat he worked on the first summer he moved to Maine. His own take on the dark and stormy, After the Storm is fashioned with Maine Craft Distilling’s Ration Rum, ginger syrup, condensed yogurt whey, Urban Farm Fermentory’s (UFF) ginger kombucha and served on the rocks. A piece of ginger, left over from the syrup, is dehydrated, candied and finally used as a garnish.
The cocktail list includes eight other drinks, many of which are rotated or augmented because of a newly found ingredient or a shortage of another, and all are $14 or under.
The Red Rabbit was named for a funder of Vinland’s Kickstarter campaign (the restaurant raised a total of $45,000 in order to open). Red Rabbit is the name of the person’s camp in Maine, where they grow cranberries, and the Red Rabbit at Vinland is chock full of them. BMD bourbon is added to house-made vermouth, raw cranberry, Vinland cranberry bitters and served chilled with brandied cranberry. Winthrop says it’s one of the more popular drinks on the menu.
In addition to the wine and cocktail lists, there are eight local beers available, UFF’s cider and kombucha, before- and after-dinner cocktails, house-made spritzers and even raw milk.
The staff is subtle but attentive. The sous chef might come to the bar to deliver an appetizer or say hello, while Winthrop tells you how he chars apple wood and white oak chips for the “smoke” in his cocktail Gun Smoke.
The mood in Vinland is very calm and confident. If something more complicated is going on below the surface, you won’t detect it. Levi has succeeded in making a seamless dining (or bar) experience for the food curious. Stop in for a drink and see for yourself.
Claire Jeffers is a Portland freelance writer.