Shannon Bard is a chef who cares about precision and order. You can see it in the perfect disk of chunky guacamole ($8) she serves at her Fore Street stalwart, Zapoteca. Rather than scoop a loose, sloppy lump of crushed avocado, tomato and onion onto a plate, she carefully shapes it with a steel ring mold and presents it like a miniature planet around which freshly fried tortilla chips orbit.

It may seem like a cheap trick, but on a rectangular plate, her plating shifts your attention away from the crisp and delicate chips to the real star of the show, the cilantro-scented, hintingly bitter guac. “When you have a big pile of something on your plate, I don’t think it looks right. I don’t think it’s appealing. I really like uniformity,” Bard said.

While that sounds like something a molecular gastronomist might say, primly tweezering microgreens onto a white saucer of infused foam, Bard’s expression of uniformity isn’t at all stark and clinical. And that hasn’t changed since the Maine Sunday Telegram last reviewed Zapoteca in 2011, two months after it opened. In her four-star review, our then critic remarked on the kitchen’s thoughtful use of ingredients, and noted that the restaurant is “not overly formal, nor is it working hard to be hip.”

Indeed, just check out the dark, exposed brick walls that run the length of the restaurant – there is an organic sense of tidiness here, broken up (or maybe highlighted) by a few long, mismatched mirrors and punched-tin light fixtures.

In the El Pepino margarita ($10) as well, we found a clean, almost symmetrical balance among flavors of muddled cucumber, citrusy Gran Gala and young plata tequila. Floating on top were three cross-sectioned slices of jalapeño so thin they could have been shaved with a razor, giving the cocktail a pleasing hit of slow-percolating heat.

Unfortunately, not all of Zapoteca’s gestures towards precision work out this well. In her interpretation of pork carnitas ($24), Bard serves pulled, slow-roasted pork not as a mound of shreds, but as a pressed brick of meat that has been seared in pork fat on a flat-top grill.

This pressing and second cooking yields a great shape, exterior color and crunch, but has the unintended consequence of removing moisture and completely drying out the pork. Even combining bites of the carnitas with the sensational accompanying pickled onions, black beans and lively red tomato chili sauce failed to resuscitate the meat.

Similarly, the generous half-chicken in mole sauce ($23) suffered from dry patches throughout. In particular, the edges of the chicken meat were dry and even chewy, especially in places where there was no skin, like along the fleshy portion of the breast and drumstick. Given that Zapoteca’s mole chicken involves a slow confit in duck fat, coriander, black pepper and thyme, the dryness came as a surprise. That is, until I learned that the chicken was cooked two more times before serving: Once involving a pan-sear to give it color, and then a turn in the wood oven to give it a smoky flavor and crispy skin (and if the skin still is not crisp enough, there’s an optional third firing with a blowtorch).

As I sampled the still-tender meat from the center of the thigh, dipped in Bard’s intoxicatingly aromatic Oaxacan mole sauce, it was hard not to think about missed opportunities. This dish might have been superb had the kitchen limited itself to one re-heating.

Nevertheless, the mole was such a darkly complex take on traditional flavors it would be tempting to order the dish again, if only for the sauce.

One very nontraditional dish, the cauliflower steaks ($9), pan-sauteed with mild black garlic, and served with tangy pasilla oil and a smoky-sweet chipotle-raisin sauce, found its way onto the menu after Bard made a visit to a Mexican food conference in San Antonio.

“I always wanted to do an interpretation because there’s a huge vegetarian population here, and plus, my husband (Zapoteca co-owner and manager Tom Bard) is a huge cauliflower fan,” she said.

We loved the combination of textures and the sear on the florets, but couldn’t get past the lack of salt, which made the bright, peppery flavors in the sauces taste disappointingly like Mrs. Dash.

The jalapeños rellenos ($9), with their simple, intentionally soft egg-white crust were much better. Bard and her team fire-roast, peel and de-seed jumbo jalapeños, fill them with freshly grated local Pineland Farms cheese and deep fry them until the cheese is melted and the exterior is just past golden.

If the heat from the pepper is too much for you – and it varies from pepper to pepper and from tip (least hot) to stem-end (eye-watering) – there are cooling chunks of tomato and avocado, along with Mexican crema and black bean-tomato sauce on the plate.

Zapoteca's Veracruzano halibut ($28) is made with green olives, capers, raisins and diced tomato, with thick slices of pickled carrots and jalapeños. Below, Diners place their orders during a busy dinner hour. The cilantro-scented guacamole, bottom, is shaped with a ring mold for serving.

Veracruzano halibut  Jill Brady/Staff Photographer Photos by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

If you’re on the hunt for spicy heat, our favorite plate of the night, the Veracruzano halibut ($28) offered plenty of it. Served in a pan sauce made from green olives, capers, raisins and diced tomato, the dish had an almost Sicilian personality, but the thick slices of piquant pickled carrots and fiery pickled jalapeños gave the whole thing a distinctly North American accent.

Not only was the halibut cooked beautifully, but the grilled tomato slice sitting atop the fillet added an extra dimension of sweetness, as well as another subtle element to balance out the other high-amplitude flavors.

As we enjoyed a duo of flans ($9) – one respectable, if slightly overset vanilla flan and an outstanding, caramel-and-cream fig flan – we couldn’t help but notice a different sort of amplitude taking over the dining room; what began as a relatively quiet meal had devolved into a struggle to be heard and understood across the table.

Much of this clamor came from boisterous (and possibly overserved) sports fans at the bar. The defeated-looking floor manager tried to convince them to keep their voices down, but the restaurant was already filling up, noise reinforcing itself in increasingly unpleasant layers.

When our very friendly server stopped by our table, mouthing an inaudible thank you as she set our bill on the table, I was struck by the disconnect between the careful discipline and order present in so many of Zapoteca’s dishes and the deafening racket of the dining room.

But in the end, perhaps that’s what the well-stocked tequila bar is there for – to help you embrace a little sonic entropy on a wild Friday night. Because after all, there are some things you just can’t control.

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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Twitter: @AndrewRossME