Editor’s note: After about a year of Dining Out and telling readers about it, James H. Schwartz has decided to step down as restaurant critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram. We regret to say that this is his last review. The Dine Out column will be on hiatus while we look for his replacement.
Thomas Malz doesn’t like to call Custom Deluxe a bistro. “That word’s overused,” the 31-year-old Vermont-born chef says with a laugh. “Our place has the spirit of a bistro – unpretentious, easy and accessible – but with the same kind of service you’d find in a really good restaurant.”
And the same kind of memorable food. The popular Biddeford bistro (apologies, Chef) that Malz opened last summer with his fiancée, Megan McVey, serves American favorites with some serious twists – baked beans finished with miso and sesame seeds, dried cranberry and farro salad tossed with an almond pistou, maple doughnuts that cozy up to smoked cheddar and cracked pepper. Custom Deluxe may be small (the restaurant seats just 25 customers) but Malz’s cuisine makes a big impression.
Take the plate of pork ribs ($11) served with a fennel and apple slaw. They’re fall-apart-tender on the inside, extraordinarily crisp on the outside – as if the entire rib had been plunged into a fryer prior to serving. “That’s because it was,” Malz explains. “First I put a rub on the ribs for several hours, then I steam them to tenderize the meat, and smoke them. And then we put them into the fryer.” That brief descent into boiling oil produces a coating as noisy and crunchy as cracklings, and it encases shreds of meat as moist as confit. While the dish needed salt the evening we visited (in fact several dishes here benefited from a sprinkle), the intense pork flavor was bold and unmistakable. Malz sources most of his meat locally, from Hoglund’s in Biddeford: “They’re dedicated to quality,” he says, “and we want to keep our money local.”
An appetizer as mundane as mushroom soup ($9) makes a splash, as well. It’s poured tableside from a colorful sauceboat into a broad, white bowl filled with fresh peas and a scoop of tangy Greek yogurt. Why the haute presentation? Malz, a Culinary Institute of America grad, and McVey met while working at The Greenbrier, the fabled resort hotel in the mountains of West Virginia. “Serving the soup this way is old-school and French,” she says. “It’s a little bit of a surprise and a throwback to where our paths first crossed.” Drama aside, that soup is rich and velvety and has robust mushroom flavor. Malz combines white button mushrooms, portobellos and dried shiitakes for a stock with a savory, woodsy aroma. Hints of tarragon and sesame oil also waft from the bowl. His signature soup is extraordinarily filling – and marvelous.
The only modest disappointment here was the simple pasta ($12), a small bowl of house-made spaghetti that the menu said was tossed with Quebec cheddar and enriched with a soft egg. The noodles were decidedly bland.
Perhaps all the flavor and texture meant for that dish landed in the farro salad ($5) we ordered as an accompaniment? Too long overlooked by American cooks, farro – Italian-born pearls of wheat with a chewy texture and a hearty taste – is showing up on menus across the United States today, and the farro salad at Custom Deluxe exemplifies its appeal. While the dried cranberries are a fairly predictable addition, the almond pistou elevates the dish and accentuates the grain’s distinctive nutty flavor.
Malz’s tribute to his New England roots – a bean supper ($14) – may be his best entrée. At first glance, it looks ordinary, with a few alarmingly crimson chunks of Maine Reds piled into a bowl with a spoonful of baked beans. But looks are deceiving. The beans are earthy, sugary, complex. And no wonder. Malz cooks them with turnips and carrots and – get this – bottles of Moxie and root beer, then finishes them with miso, the traditional Japanese seasoning made of fermented soybeans. As for the Maine Reds, they’re boiled in dashi, a Japanese broth flavored with fish flakes and seaweed. Underneath the beans, dogs and a few fatty chunks of ham, is a mound of sticky rice showered with sesame seeds. Though a crazy cross-cultural mashup, the dish is as comforting as a warm blanket. I loved it.
Dashi, miso and Maine Reds? What inspired this dish? Part family, part place and part imagination, Malz said on one of his regular forays into the dining room. He always ate boiled Reds during summers spent in Wells, and he liked the way dashi imparted a deeper salty flavor (“appropriate because we’re close to the ocean.”) Finally, he’d heard stories about U.S. servicemen in Asia combining typical American dishes with donburi rice bowls. “I’d been thinking about a bean supper since we opened and a riff (just) made sense.”
Like most of the food at Custom Deluxe, the desserts ($7 each) are satisfying and packed with contrasting flavors. The “Fancy Cakes,” as they’re called on the menu, are an updated version of pineapple upside down cake. In place of canned pineapple, the restaurant uses sweet, citrusy satsumas and mild, floral Meyer lemons. The cakes are seriously moist. As if they aren’t filling enough on their own (they are), they’re served with a frozen yogurt meringue that melts so quickly on the tongue, you wonder if you’ve imagined it.
I’d have enjoyed a bigger portion of the yeast donut, but a friend across the table scarfed hers down before I could grab a second bite. What I did manage to steal was delicious, a classic raised donut tossed with sugar and served over spiced apple sauce with house-smoked cheddar cheese grated over the top, plus a scoop of frozen maple mousse and – for added punch – black pepper. The dish is a showcase for apples, cheddar and maple syrup, what Malz calls “the best that the North Country has to offer the rest of the world.”
Custom Deluxe is already a local favorite. When it first opened you could easily nab a table if you went early most weeknights, but the owners say they’ve given up predicting when or why the place fills up. The night we visited, every table was full – including the most secluded one (and the best one for avoiding drafts) in the nook overlooking Main Street. You may have to wait a few minutes to be seated, but the smells wafting out of the kitchen will compel you to stay.
On the way out, we noticed a framed automobile title hanging on the wall near the front door. It’s for a blue, 1973 Chevy Custom Deluxe – a classic that once belonged to the chef’s grandfather. “We carried the model name over to our restaurant,” Megan McVey says. That tale is heart-warming, unpretentious and American. Like the bistro itself.
James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.