This is the time of year we put away our crockpots, which have been cranking out soups and stews all winter, and gingerly step back outside into a snow-free world filled with new restaurants to try. Yes, we know you still haven’t caught up on last year’s crop of new restaurants, or maybe even the year before, considering the wild pace at which Portland restaurants have multiplied in recent years. This year is no exception, and the newcomers are all over the culinary map – Thai, Korean, Spanish, Vietnamese, Japanese and, of course, American.
One thread running through three of these new ventures – and already a national trend – is the interest in communal “large-format dining:” shareable, family-style meals that typically feed several people. Chef Mourad Lahlou of San Francisco’s Mourad described its appeal to Open Table this way: “The act of eating from the same vessel is extremely powerful. It’s unifying; you just feel this togetherness.”
Or, as another San Francisco chef, Chris Cosentino, put it to Bon Appetit last year: “It’s like having Thanksgiving on a whim.” Another notable thread? Lots of new Asian options coming to the Portland area.
Here’s a sampling of new restaurants coming to Portland and South Portland this spring and summer. Dig in.
NORTH 43 BISTRO
North 43 Bistro, the restaurant that’s replacing Joe’s Boathouse at the Spring Point Marina in South Portland, may be on the waterfront, but don’t expect a seafood-heavy menu.
Chef Stephanie Brown, who co-owns the restaurant with Laura Argitis (owner of Old Port Sea Grill), says that while she will serve fish, hers will be an “American bistro” menu with Asian, French and Tuscan influences. “It’s going to be relatable food,” Brown said, “nothing that is overly extravagant and you don’t know what it is you’re eating. It’s all food that is uncomplicated but full of flavors. We will always have a steak on the menu. We’ll have a burger during the day. We’re trying to appeal to all palates under one roof.” That roof comes with a great view that, come summertime, can be enjoyed from an outside deck that seats 30 or an upstairs cocktails-only deck. The dining room, which has lots of windows that look out on the marina, seats 100.
North 43 Bistro will be open for lunch and dinner, beginning the first week of June.
1 Spring Point Drive, South Portland
Theatergoers lost a favorite venue for a pre-show dinner when Bibo’s Madd Apple Cafe, next to Portland Stage Co., closed at the new year. Now that void will be filled by YOBO, a Korean-American restaurant scheduled to open at the end of May.
The owners, Sunny Chung and his wife, Kim Lully, previously owned two restaurants in New Hampshire: the Korean Place in Manchester for about 10 years, followed by Sunny’s Table in Concord, which the couple sold in November. They now live in Portland, closer to home for Lully, who grew up in northern Maine and still has family in Caribou and South China.
YOBO, she says, “loosely translates into a greeting between husband and wife in the Korean culture. We always joke that at my house, it means ‘Yes, dear.’ ” The menu at the 35-seat restaurant will be Korean, but with a few twists to make it more accessible to people who are unfamiliar with the cuisine. It will serve dinner only, to start. A sample menu includes dishes such as a mu shu smoked duck and a “Maine Italian” pork belly bahn mi. But the focus, the Chungs say, will be on two Korean favorites: bibimbop, the traditional dish of rice mixed with vegetables, meat and an egg, and served in a stone crock that makes the rice deliciously crunchy; and bo ssam – tender, spicy pork wrapped in lettuce or other vegetable leaves with a variety of accompaniments.
“We’ll do a group bo ssam, and it will feed two to four people,” Kim Chung said. “It will be kind of like a lettuce wrap picnic that you’ll be able to have right here at the restaurant with everything that goes along with it – the condiments, the kimchee, the sauces.”
23 Forest Ave., Portland
Caterer Ryan Carey lives near the old Taco Trio space on outer Forest Avenue in Portland, and when the Mexican eatery closed last year, he was just as unhappy as everyone else in the neighborhood. So he decided to fill the restaurant void himself: He is moving his busy wood-fired meat catering business, Fire and Company, into the building and opening a 26-seat restaurant, Noble Barbecue.
Carey, who started out with mobile, wood-fired pizza ovens that he took to fairs and festivals, has spent the past couple of years traveling to such holy grail barbecue states as Tennessee, Texas and the Carolinas to hone his craft. His Portland menu will feature wood-smoked meats by the half-pound, 10 or so signature, barbecue-themed sandwiches, Belgian fries and eight local beers on draft. He wants to keep prices in line with Taco Trio’s, so those hefty barbecue sandwiches will sell for $9-$12. Customers can dine in or take out. The opening day is scheduled for June 13.
1706 Forest Ave., Portland
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CONG TU BOT
Vien Dobui and his wife, Jessica Sheahan moved to Portland from San Francisco a few years ago to help their friends open Tandem Coffee Roasters and Tandem Bakery. Now it’s their turn. They are opening Cong Tu Bot, a Vietnamese restaurant under development in the historic Nissen building in Portland. The 30-seat restaurant is scheduled to open in mid- to late May.
“Vien has been cooking off and on for the past eight years or so, and it was always his dream to have a Vietnamese restaurant,” Sheahan said. “The timing just seemed right.”
(The couple is also about to give birth to a second joint project – their first child.)
Dobui was born in the United States after his parents came over from Vietnam in the early 1980s, several years after the Vietnam War ended. He grew up in San Jose, which, according to the 2010 U.S. census, has the largest population of Vietnamese-Americans in the United States.
Dobui stage-ed, or interned, in several restaurants in San Francisco. Then, about five years ago, he traveled to Vietnam to visit his extended family. He cooked for four months in his uncle’s noodle restaurant and spent time exploring and eating Vietnamese food. In Maine, he has worked at Palace Diner and the recently closed Roustabout, in addition to Tandem.
The menu at Cong Tu Bot will be small and tightly focused. It will include noodle dishes commonly found in Saigon, accompanied by side dishes and snacks. Sheahan, who will run the front of the house, said they will start with dinner only. She has worked as a cheesemaker and a farm apprentice, and at a number of restaurants, including Roustabout.
What does Cong Tu Bot mean? It’s an old-fashioned Vietnamese nickname that Dobui’s older cousins gave to him when he was a kid. “It’s just poking fun at somebody at who is maybe a little fancy, who doesn’t like to get their hands dirty,” Sheahan said. “He’s just trying to reclaim the name.”
59 Washington Ave., Portland
Chaval is the new incarnation of Caiola’s, a popular neighborhood restaurant on Portland’s West End.
Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez, already the owners of Piccolo, an Italian restaurant in Portland, bought the restaurant last summer and kept things as they were for seven months so they could get to know their potential new customers and not scare them away with too many changes too fast. “It’s just respectful,” Lopez said. But they closed Caiola’s over the winter and have been busy since then carrying out their own vision with extensive renovations and a research trip to Spain.
Chaval’s menu will be focused on French and Spanish food. The couple were classically French trained, and both spent many years working for famed New York City chef/restaurateur Daniel Boulud. Sansonetti has spent kitchen time in Paris, and Lopez is a veteran of a couple of Spanish restaurants, including the famous El Bulli. But they say Chaval will be a more approachable, casual place, with family-friendly prices – similar to places they visited on their recent 10-day trip to northern Spain, with stops in San Sebastian and the Rioja wine region.
“There’s a part of me that just loves Spanish food and the style of it,” Sansonsetti said, “and the sense of family and how voracious they are with life, and how much they celebrate it when they are together.”
That family sensibility will translate into a few larger dishes that feed a group – a braised beef shank that feeds two to four, for example, or a whole coil of sausage served with a couple of sides that can feed an entire family.
The new restaurant is named, in a way, after their daughter. They named their first restaurant Piccolo because she was just 2 weeks old when they signed their lease, and piccolo means “small” in Italian. She is now 3 years old, and Chaval, opening in May, means “kid” in Spanish.
Lopez’ family is from Venezuela, so why not open a Venezuelan restaurant?
“Just wait,” she hinted. “We’re not done.”
58 Pine St., Portland
Cheevitdee, a 37-seat restaurant in Portland’s Old Port, will serve Thai food with a healthy twist. Cheevitdee means “Good Life,” explains Nuttaya Suriyayanyong, who co-owns the restaurant with her cousin, Darit Chandpen. (Chandpen also owns Mi Sen Noodle Bar on Congress Street.)
Suriyayanyong explained that Cheevitdee will serve low-sodium dishes made with organic ingredients. Most of the food will be steamed – never fried. The menu will offer chicken, shrimp, fish and tofu, but no pork or beef. Entrees on a sample menu include Ping Ngob, a grilled seafood curry with rice wrapped in banana leaves, and salmon choo chee, a red curry salmon with kaffir lime leaves.
Cheevitdee won’t serve white rice. Rather, it will be a deep purple Thai variety known as riceberry, which is rich in antioxidants, fiber and minerals. Cheevitdee may be open as early as next week, depending on when the last health inspection is done, and will serve both lunch and dinner. The family will do the cooking themselves.
363 Fore St., Portland
Jie Ming Liang wants you to get your kicks at his new fast casual, Asian fusion restaurant, 66s Fusion. The Portland restaurant is named after the famous Route 66, and Liang envisions a chain of restaurants all across America, “from the East to the West.” Another 66s is already under development in New York. (The “s” in the name is silent but indicates his plan for more than one restaurant, Liang said.)
The menu includes sushi, teppanyaki grill, ramen noodles and an Asian meat bun – all with prices ending in 66. An order of udon noodles, for example, will cost $7.66, while an order of teriyaki chicken or shrimp will be priced at $5.66.
Open for lunch and dinner, 66s Fusion will have about a dozen tables, with bar seating for 10 to 12 more. Liang had hoped to open at the end of April, but remodeling issues have pushed the opening day into May.
425 Fore St., Portland
OLD PORT LOBSTER SHACK
Old Port Lobster Shack, a string of California restaurants licensed under the same name and concept, announced a couple of years ago that it was coming to the original Old Port. Then, silence. So what happened? It’s complicated. The restaurateur who started the company, Russell Deutsch, was arrested in California last spring for tax evasion, according to several news accounts. But Michael Michalski, who is the licensee of the Portland branch and holds the long-term lease on the space here, says the real reason for the delay is that he’s been busy working with the West Coast restaurants, including one that opened in February in the Sacramento area. The Fore Street location is back under construction, and Michalski hopes to open for business in June or July. “This time we are determined to get it done,” he said.
425 Fore St., Portland
MORE NEWCOMERS ON THE MENU
• Blyth & Burrows is a cocktail bar, not a restaurant, but it will have a raw bar and food will be an important focus, according to a recent press release. Well-known local bartender Joshua Miranda, the owner, has hired an executive chef and executive sous chef/fish monger from Napa Valley, Calif. to oversee the food. Blyth & Burrows will open in May on 26 Exchange St.
• Bujabelle, opening this spring at 249 St. John St., will cater to Portland’s growing Central African population, according to partners Jerome Niryumwami, Thierry Mugabe and Jean Claude Nitunga. The proposed menu includes sambusas, salmon cubes, beignets, fried meatballs, and goat meat.
• Chad Conley’s as yet unnamed restaurant on Forest Avenue is making progress, but Conley, co-owner of the Palace Diner in Biddeford, doesn’t want to give any details, even the name or concept, for another few weeks. He will work at the new place as well as at Palace Diner, he said, but he is searching for a sous chef and kitchen manager for the new restaurant.
• Island Creek Oysters, based in Duxbury, Mass., will open a retail shop and restaurant at 123 Washington Ave. in Portland by June. The restaurant will sell oysters from Maine and Massachusetts waters.
• Little Giant, a mid-priced, family-oriented restaurant from Briana and Andrew Volk, owners of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, will serve dinner every day and breakfast on the weekends. The 60-seat restaurant, opening in May on 211 Danforth St., will feature “Continental European” food and offer shareable, large-format dishes. It will be the kind of place you can bring your family and still enjoy a good cocktail, Briana Volk says. Imbibe 75 named it one of its “Places to Watch” in 2017.
• Lio, a wine-focused restaurant at 3 Spring St. in Portland, is unlikely to open until around Labor Day, according to Chris Peterman, director of operations and sommelier for chef Cara Stadler’s restaurant group, Eighty-Ate Hospitality. The group owns Tao Yuan in Brunswick and Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland.
• Mami, the long-awaited brick-and-mortar version of the popular Portland food truck, is scheduled to open Thursday at 339 Fore Street in Portland. Austin Miller and Hannah Tamaki will be serving okonomiyaki, yakisoba and other casual Japanese favorites. The prices range from $4 to 6 for steamed buns, onigiri (rice balls) and Japanese-style hot dogs to $12 to $15 for noodle dishes.