“Daddy, are you scared?” the little girl asks, one table over.
Seated cross-legged on a bar stool, as if meditating to gin up his courage, the man next to her replies, “I am – but just a little bit. I know it’s worth it.” The server has just told him that Frontier’s kitchen is willing to accommodate his special request to serve his hamburger with the spiciest hot sauce they can brew up.
“You’re lucky, because we have a chef working today who loves hot stuff. He promised not to go easy on you,” she says, first setting down his burger and then very slowly, a small bowl. Everyone looks at the bowl. I’m several feet away, and it’s all I can look at, too.
With a knife, the man spreads a little of the weapons-grade sauce onto his patty. Meanwhile, his daughter gingerly dips into the sauce with the very tip of her pinky finger, touches her tongue, and quickly grabs her glass, swiveling the straw in a panic to get it into her mouth, STAT.
They don’t realize it, but I’m not the only one watching. Several of the staff observe the scene through a steel-framed window that Noly Lopez, Frontier’s food and beverage manager, calls “the porthole,” offering a clear line of sight from the dining room into the kitchen. Eventually, the chef comes out to the table to chat about peppers with the man and to say hello to his daughter. She smiles, a little teary, and mumbles something gurgly, the straw never leaving her mouth. “That’s my kid: not afraid of flavor!” he boasts.
Lopez later tells me that, in a restaurant with a more traditional, top-down kitchen hierarchy, none of this could have happened. Under the aegis of founder Michael “Gil” Gilroy, all the chefs in the kitchen are independent and relatively equal in status, which gives them autonomy to accept an unusual request and tackle it as a personal project. “It really encourages people to take a lot more ownership of their work. It also builds more creative collaboration,” Lopez said.
Likewise, that spirit of co-creation is the keystone that holds together the Brunswick restaurant’s perilously wide-ranging, eclectic menu. On it, you’ll find warming, Thai-inspired curried mussels ($9.50 half order/$16 full order), practically levitating off the plate on steamy clouds of fragrance: kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, ginger and Madras curry powder – the whole dish tethered by long scallion stems that have been cooked down like French leeks.
Just a few lines down on the menu, there’s a superlative fish taco ($6), made with rice-flour battered, buttermilk-soaked pollock chunks. Every bite is like a syncopated 1930s drum battle between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, with dueling, yet harmonious crunchy components vying for supremacy. Just when you think the golden, gluten-free fried fish has the edge, the slow-marinated golden raisin and red cabbage slaw snaps into focus. All you can do is keep chewing and wait for the tangy kimchi remoulade to set things back on the right pace, just in time for the next mouthful.
Then there’s a cilantro cream-topped Buffalo chicken sandwich ($14) with a difference: a generous slathering of sauce that leaves out the Texas Pete and Tabasco in favor of a unique blend of floral, aromatic harissa and Sriracha. It’s assertively spicy and very messy, but worth every drop that ends up on your trousers.
Despite the restaurant’s dizzyingly global scope, every dish begins with a careful team assessment of what is available locally – an easy conversation to have at a place where several staff members are farmers themselves. “We ask our people, then start with what we can get our hands on locally. Then we ask what we can do with it that is out of the box,” Lopez said.
However, amid the sushi bowls ($10) and falafel burgers ($13), you’ll find a scaffolding of simple dishes that stay well within the walls of that box – not always to good effect. The salt-roasted, skin-on onion ($7) with a thick apple cider vinaigrette is one example. After being nestled into a bed of salt, roasted slow and blasted in a convection oven right before serving, the onion is served split into delicately charred quarters and sprinkled with pepitas. Ours was sweet and tender at its center, but nearly raw toward the exterior. And, as if in impudent disdain of the several hours it spent in a very hot oven, our onion cooled to room temperature within a minute or two after it arrived at the table.
A chocolate cake with mocha frosting ($9), made by a local baker “keen not to receive recognition,” according to Lopez, was not much better: dense, dry and crumbly, with no hint of the Chambord flavor the menu advertised. Or a humdrum rigatoni bolognese ($23), made with agreeably al dente pasta, but sauced with a glug too much cream and not enough acid. Frontier’s better dishes, it seems, are the ones that reflect the staff’s zeal for border-busting experimentation.
That seems about right for a business that does not even conceive of itself as a place to dine. “Actually, it is more of a gathering space, not a restaurant, per se. It’s a place where some people come for food, some for drinks, some for film, some for art, and some for all at the same time,” Lopez said.
Frontier, which opened in the renovated, centuries-old Fort Andross in 2006, is certainly spacious enough to accommodate every one of its multiple personalities (and a few more to boot), with ceilings that tower dozens of feet overhead, restrooms larger than some studio apartments, an 85-seat cinema and enough wall space to host an enormous exhibition of local children’s art, including the eerie, entertaining marker-on-canvas portrait work of young artist John Hall.
Between courses, my dinner guest and I wandered, nursing glasses of snappy, tart bRosé ($7) from Burlington, Vermont, the evening’s draft cider selection. As we walked, we saw the site of Frontier’s upcoming expansion into the rear of the converted mill building, and heard one of the hosts telling a guest about designs to make an adjacent space into a new coffee bar.
Every once in a while, I thought I could also hear the thrum and rush of the Androscoggin River that flows right outside the windows. Yet now that I think about it, it could easily have been the sound of Frontier’s enthusiastic team and their bold communitarian ambitions, animating the space as it evolves rapidly into even more of a “third space” for locals. Are they scared? Probably – but just a little bit.
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: