The Treehouse’s front-of-house team may very well be the happiest restaurant staff in town. Here’s how I know: When we arrived for our reservation, my friend told the host his name. “Hey guys, this is William!” she announced to the servers nearby. “Nice to meet you,” one replied. “Glad you came in tonight,” another said, smiling genuinely, taking our coats and asking, “So you haven’t been here before? Can one of us give you a tour of the place? I love it here – it’s amazing.” Such Disney-level enthusiasm is normally enough to make me wary, but once she started guiding us around the dining room, I realized: She wasn’t wrong.

Across the second-story space, woven tree boughs create arches that stretch from rough-hewn posts, outdoor string lights cast a warm, crepuscular glow, and vibrant green leaves from what must be a hundred living plants make the room itself seem impossibly like it is in the middle of a growth spurt. The outdoor deck, open when the weather is good, evokes the same kind of woodsy fantasy – you half expect to catch sight of a fairy.

Greg Gilman, the chef, owner, and – no surprise – former sculpture student, crafted the surreal space using materials salvaged from an old barn in Gorham. “It’s my baby. It’s like my art,” he told me, adding, “By the time someone walks up the 12 or 13 steps to the restaurant, they’ll forget they came in off of Stevens Avenue. The space is transforming.”

Despite names that match the fanciful room, our cocktails were not transformational. The Pearls and Buoys ($9), a bittersweet spiced rum drink, was not quite sweet enough, possibly due to the use of Orleans aperitif as an inexact substitute for Campari. The Crows Nest ($10), a coconut and tequila sour frozen cocktail, was significantly better, although not as satisfying as a well-prepared margarita might have been.

If the cocktails were a little uninspiring, the wine list was just the opposite. The wines by the glass represent a solid bunch of decently priced, New and Old World pours, but if you feel like having more than a glass or two, check out the short list of bottles. Here you’ll find fantastic values, including four wines under $30 – a real steal on unique bottles sourced from a small importation company. We tested the lower limits of the list, opting for The Bean ($23), a Stellenbosch Pinotage with a toasty, mocha nose and tons of pleasant ripe, black cherry flavor. Nothing subtle about this wine, but as I sat drinking it in such an outrageous dining room, that seemed like a feature, not a flaw.

The wine was also a great match for the juicy pork tenderloin ($19), with its garlic-and-herb crust and blueberry-ginger glaze, as well as the super savory wild mushroom flatbread ($10). The combination of goat and Romano cheeses, caramelized onion, and New Hampshire shiitake and king oyster mushrooms felt like a throwback to the autumn, but in the best possible way.

As successful as some of the dishes were, we did witness one real stumble. The pan-fried Brussels sprouts ($6) were undercooked and wet, mounded into a soupy balsamic-soy pool that hid slices of soggy bacon. For those with unhappy childhood memories of eating vegetables, the sprouts should probably come with a trigger warning.

Thankfully, the rest of our meal underscored Greg Gilman’s talents with seafood, especially the Maine crab cakes ($12), two tender patties stuffed with so much fresh crab meat, they barely held together – exactly the delicate structure a good crab cake should possess. When I asked Gilman about the cakes, he told me that they contain only four ingredients, which represents a sea change from the way he once made them. “I dated a woman when I lived on Peaks Island – a witch. Her son once showed me a voodoo doll with pieces of my clothing on it, and I think she bewitched me, because my crab cakes changed after being with her. They became really simple,” he said.

The similarly straightforward warm three-fish salad with littlenecks, shrimp and mussels ($18) required no magic in its preparation. The light seafood sauté with its flavors of shallot, lemon and peppery arugula can be eaten as a shareable appetizer or as an entrée for one person. Despite the greens not being dressed before serving, it is still easy to imagine enjoying this salad outside on the deck in the summertime.

Three Fish Salad at the Tree House Cafe

Three Fish Salad at the Tree House Cafe John Ewing/Staff Photographer)

And it’s a pretty safe bet that Gilman will keep this, or a similar dish, on the menu throughout the year, because, as he told me, he always tries to include three or four entrée-sized salads on his menu. He loves a simple salad-plus-protein combination himself (and eats one at the end of every shift when he cooks). Also, salads give him an opportunity to play with prepping garnishes. “I cut every single one to order. I like that crisp look – not something you’d even notice unless it was done wrong, but I like salad plates to look organic, not manipulated,” he said.

It is no surprise whatsoever to hear that a cook (Gilman is self-taught and refuses to call himself a chef) with such a strong visual sensibility would take the time to plate his food in a style that mimics the natural, almost wild, design of the dining room. That untamed aesthetic extends to other aspects of the restaurant as well: “I create a space that the crew gets to come play in. We all get to do what we love to do and they make up their job as they go along,” he said. Somehow, improbably, it all works – the staff seem happy and the dining room is nearly full every night. So what if normal rules don’t apply at The Treehouse? That’s exactly what makes you want to come back.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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