January 6

Bold idea for Portland restaurant fraught with challenges

All of the food will be grown or harvested in Maine – a restrictive standard, but chef/ owner David Levi thinks he can pull it off, even though items like lemons, olive oil and sugar cane don’t grow here.

By Mary Pols mpols@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

First in an occasional series

Today's poll: All-local menu

Do you think a Portland restaurant using only local ingredients can be successful?

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From left, chefs Ryan Quigley, David Levi and Kate Whittemore work Friday in the kitchen at Vinland, a new restaurant in Portland. For Levi, the owner, it’s his first attempt to open a restaurant.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Vinland is located at 593 Congress St. in Portland. The soft opening of the restaurant, which has been in the works for three years, was covered by the Huffington Post website.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

The chef/owner of Vinland, Portland’s newest and boldest restaurant experiment – no food served that isn’t grown or harvested in Maine – was shivering. January’s first snowstorm had created a layer of ice not only on the exterior of the front window, but also inside it. And the air conditioning was blasting – a jury-rigged fix to combat a last-minute humidity disaster that turned Vinland into Wetland during the soft opening.

“We had water dripping from the skylight onto the bar,” David Levi said ruefully. The cause: warm bodies, hot stoves, steamy dishwashers and inadequate ventilation in a space newly converted for restaurant use. The water ran onto the beautifully crafted birch bar (even the wood is local) and onto bartender Alex Winthrop while he was whipping up drinks like the Red Rabbit, a bourbon concoction that included Maine cranberry bitters homemade from wild berries foraged by Levi and his friends near Little Duck Pond in Windham. As Maine as it gets.

The chef himself won’t be foraging for dinner every night. The berries were gobbled up during the soft opening, which began Dec. 27, and organic Maine cranberries will suffice in the future. But they represent the incredibly high and complicated standard of going 100 percent local.

Even the hardcore farm-to-table restaurants tend to serve local whenever they can, but not as a rule. What first-time restaurateur Levi is attempting to pull off would be unique to Maine and quite possibly America – at least since well before the industrial age, when going all local was a matter of making do, not a statement about sustainability.

The air conditioner was the temporary fix until a $10,000 ventilation unit and heat recovery system can be installed. It marks at least another week-long delay and unexpected expense on the road to being fully open, but Levi, a former high school teacher who has a master’s degree in poetry from Bennington College, is quite accustomed to setbacks. After all, he has been paying rent on the space at 593 Congress St., adjacent to the renovated and renamed Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, since March 2013.

This ambitiously conceived restaurant has been in the works for three long and winding years, littered with obstacles that made some suspect that Levi, as someone with no experience in opening a restaurant, might not be able to pull it off. But not Levi.

“If he’s ever thought that, he hasn’t let it show,” said Ben Morley, a former server at Hugo’s who is Vinland’s head server and general manager.

JUGGLING MANY STARTUP TASKS

A native New Yorker of Italian-Jewish heritage, Levi has a thin, angular face that alternates between a sort of natural earnestness and the decidedly wry. Like he might crack a joke about the wet soft opening. Or maybe go write a poem about how we’re all mostly made of water anyway. Think Adrien Brody, playing the part of a chef with a serious, hardcore vision for living and eating local.

How local? The hake that Vinland served on New Year’s Eve was from Maine waters, but it was not served with lemon, or sautéed in olive oil, or seasoned with pepper, because you cannot grow any of those things in Maine. For a citrus-like experience, or something close to it, Levi uses condensed yogurt whey (that’s in the gimlets, too). Clarified butter, or ghee, steps in for olive oil. The only leeway that Levi is allowing is in the beverage department. The spirits are all from New England, the wines are organic, the coffee is roasted in Maine and the tea comes from a Brunswick importer, Little Red Cup.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Chef/owner David Levi, shown last month during preparations for the opening of his restaurant Vinland, is a former high school teacher with a master's degree in poetry. He got his culinary training in several countries.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

  


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Today's poll: All-local menu

Do you think a Portland restaurant using only local ingredients can be successful?

Yes

No

View Results