If patrons of the erstwhile SoPo Bar & Grill are still wondering where the restaurant’s signature Victorian-style mahogany wood bar went when the business shuttered in October, I have the answer. It’s in Waterville, and it’s the reason why The Proper Pig exists.
The heavy wood colossus – fortified by stocky square columns and a molded crown – seduced The Proper Pig’s chef and co-owner Fred Ouellette the instant he saw it for sale in South Portland. “It was so beautiful, I just fell in love with it. I bought that bar before (co-owner Bill Mitchell) and I even agreed what kind of restaurant to put it in. We had to cut it down by six or seven feet because it was just so huge, but I had to have it. That’s how we decided we were going to open a bar,” he said.
With a forgivable loan from the city of Waterville granted as part of the municipality’s downtown revitalization efforts, the pair gutted a building that Mitchell had recently purchased. Down came thin walls that chopped the space into tiny offices, and up went that bar, along with cushioned booth seating, exposed-bulb lighting, 7-foot cartoon prints of sandwiches and charcuterie and several black-and-white line drawings of a slightly menacing, monacle-sporting hog. “A friend came up with that character. The pig had a top hat, so we decided then that he had to be proper,” Ouellette said.
If the restaurant’s origin story seems like a fable whose moral is “always embrace the haphazard,” The Proper Pig’s menu reads like a tale from the same book. In the appetizer section alone, the menu features Mexican, Chinese, French-Canadian, Southern and even classic New England dishes side-by-side. Add in a few culinary references to New York, Hawaii and France across the rest of the menu, and you’ve got a pub-food game of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”
It’s all a bit confusing, but for Ouellette, who learned his craft by working at Waterville’s ultra-eclectic The Last Unicorn – a restaurant he and his wife eventually purchased and now run together – randomness is part of his style. “I study cookbooks like they’re bibles. I dive into any kind of food magazine I can get my hands on, just grabbing ideas and piecing them together. I get to be a mad scientist,” he said.
When it works, his dishes are playful and competently prepared, like the Piggly Wiggly ($10.95), a sandwich that revels in its own overspill. Hickory-smoked pulled pork butt, a crisp onion ring and dollop of aptly named “sloppy slaw” all barely stay within the confines of the plate, let alone the egg-washed brioche bun. And that’s OK. The pork is tangy, a Northerner’s take on vinegary North Carolina barbecue, and good enough to make you grab a fork when the bun’s structural integrity gives out.
Then there’s The Proper Popper ($11.95), a hamburger engineered to appeal to thrillseekers. Onto an unusually lean (10-percent fat) but remarkably juicy patty, Ouellete melts cheese made with nuclear-grade Bhut jolokia peppers (also known as ghost peppers) that clock in at more than a million Scoville units. They are orders of magnitude hotter than Tabasco sauce or Sriracha. He tempers the heat with a slice of grilled pineapple, a little bacon and a generous squirt of cilantro-lime aioli, and winds up with a sandwich that is complex and only just mouth-ticklingly spicy – a real pleasure to eat.
If you’re particularly sensitive to spice, you might want to have a drink at hand, like one of The Proper Pig’s dozen tap selections of Maine craft beers. I especially enjoyed the dry-bitter, citrusy G-String Pale Ale ($6.50) from the Funky Bow Brewery & Beer Company in Lyman, a straightforward brew that never drew too much of my attention and made an excellent pairing for most of the dishes I ate – the sort of beer you drink when you want to focus on something else.
I needed the mental space to focus on balance, or more to the point, its absence, as I began to see a persistent wobbly disharmony in the other dishes I sampled. In some, small faults threw things off-kilter just a bit, as in the Strawberry Garcia ($5.95), a chocolate “Swedish crème,” which was a thick, stodgy, too-cold chocolate mousse – almost the texture of a pudding – made with sour cream, whipped cream and sugar. “It’s like the chocolate silk pie filling, but without the pie,” Ouellette said. Served in a bowl, topped with whipped cream and a single strawberry fanned out across the top, the dessert was too tart, almost cheesy, and so rich that two of us could not finish a single small serving.
Elsewhere, salt was a problem. The cheese dip ($9.95), made with sharp cheddar, “beer cheese,” strong Dijon mustard and more beer for good measure, was agreeable enough on its own. But when eaten with the accompanying soft, kosher-salt-sprinkled pretzel, the combination was far too salty. “I’m imagining my future cardiologist telling me, ‘This is where it all went wrong,'” my 19-year-old dinner guest said, dunking a piece of doughy pretzel into the slightly split dip.
The Proper Pig’s version of Taiwanese gua bao, steamed white dough buns with a slice of crispy pork belly folded inside ($10.95) also fell short of its potential. Ouellette got both the crisp edges and yielding interior of the sliced cubes of pork belly, as well as all the garnishes (shredded carrots, cucumbers, scallions and cilantro), exactly right. But steam can be a cruel master: The pale buns – purchased from a supplier – were cooked so long that they became leathery and tough on the outside, crumbly on the inside. The sticky hoisin-ginger sauce on the pork was also excessively sweet, squelching the dish’s other, more nuanced flavors.
Things played out the same way with the smoked baby back ribs ($14.95), painted with a thick layer of brown-sugar BBQ sauce and served with a slab of honey-drizzled cornbread so sweet it tasted like a slice of semolina cake. The amplitude of the flavors might be an execution error, but the idea behind them is no accident: “I just love sweet with meat,” Ouellette explained.
Agree with him or not, chances are good that he’ll figure out how to rectify the menu’s problems in short order. Ouellette already operates in a “fail fast, fail often” environment thanks to his work at The Last Unicorn, where he changes his menu every day (and desserts three times a week). In a month, he cycles through more dishes than most chefs do in years.
The Proper Pig gives him a chance to take this vast experience and explore what it means to commit to a dish, improving it over time. That excites him. “At The Pig, we’ve done a lot of changing just within the first six months, and we’ll continue to. I can’t stop. I’ll just keep messing with it until I get it right,” he said. After tasting how his tinkering turned a ghost pepper hamburger into something I’d happily order for my 73-year-old mother, I’m willing to wager that Ouellette’s old mahogany bar sticks around in Waterville for quite some time to come.
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: