December 2, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Oscars New American in Yarmouth

The chef is cooking in the fluid style of new American cuisine with southern and Spanish influences.

By John Golden

Now that we’ve become thoroughly versed in the exigencies of new American cuisine, consider this recent contender – Oscar’s New American. It opened in late September in the space formerly occupied by the Sea Grass café, a favorite dining spot and watering hole in Yarmouth. That it also operates in a small strip mall along the town’s Route 1 retail corridor augurs this stark fact – parking is easy.

click image to enlarge

Oscar’s New American in Yarmouth is located in the space on Route 1 formerly occupied by Sea Grass café, with fine food prepared by chef Nick Krunkkala.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

IF YOU GO

OSCAR’S NEW AMERICAN

***

WHERE: 305 Route 1, Yarmouth. 846-3885

HOURS: Dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday

CREDIT CARDS: Yes

PRICE RANGE: First courses, $5 to $14; entrees, $18 to $28; desserts $7 to $18

VEGETARIAN: Yes (a few choices)

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes (a few choices)

KIDS: Yes, welcome

RESERVATIONS: Yes

BAR: Full bar

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: This young chef is cooking in the fluid style of new American cuisine with southern and Spanish influences. Typical dishes include the butternut squash gnocchi, pepper-crusted scallops, marinated sirloin, lobster sliders, smoked fish cakes, chicken fried egg and such nightly specials as spice-rubbed petite tenderloin. Dessert offerings include terrific house-made ice creams and a luscious pistachio carrot cake.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value: * Poor ** Fair *** Good **** Excellent ***** Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

After several visits, I’m convinced this establishment will flourish in the fluid style of the new American cuisine genre.

The person responsible is Nick Krunkkala, the 32-year-old chef and owner. His journey to chefdom was a circuitous one. He wanted to be a professional athlete, and as a young man he enrolled in the New York Institute of Technology to play lacrosse. But as the tides turned, a sports career wasn’t in the offing.

His love of food and cooking was, however, a constant. And he enrolled in the nine-month program at the Culinary Academy of Long Island in Syosset, N.Y.

Originally from Cape Elizabeth, Krunkkala saw his fledgling career take off when he moved back to Maine. Two critical opportunities arose in the food-centric metropolis of Rockland. He landed at the Rock City Café as their new chef in 2011. And nearly a year later, he was the executive chef at another Rockland hot spot, the Fog Bar & Café.

When the Sea Grass space became available last spring he jumped at the opportunity to have his own restaurant. He corralled his family to help and opened Oscar’s (Krunkkala’s middle name).

On my first visit, though, with a dinner guest in tow, we found ourselves nipping into a very dark chamber. The lofty room was so dim that if someone had hired the Marquis de Sade to decorate, it would have revealed a sinister gloominess in which it was hard to focus, much less see the food on your plate.

Still, the restaurant on a recent Friday night was nearly full, and the bubbly hostess showed us to a small table by the window.

“This is my favorite spot, “she said. “The people watching is just fantastic.”

People watching? I thought. Were we destined to dine in darkness to ogle shadowy figures lurching from their cars in a pitch-black parking lot? The visual threw me.

Jumping ahead, the dinner turned out better than expected – that is, until our departure and parting salvo from the hostess, “Wasn’t that just the best table?”

Basically, Oscar’s is very much the neighborhood haunt serving some incredibly imaginative and well-prepared new American-style cuisine.

The menu is long on small plates, snacks and salads, followed by a short list of highly evolved entrées. We started off picking two of the snacks: popcorn ($5) speckled with tomato dust, garlic powder, sumac, onion powder and sea salt. The second snack was very crispy fries ($5), which were dusted with rosemary and Parmesan.

We gobbled up the popcorn with glee and could have done without the fries, though they were very good. My guest felt, however, that they needed salt, and there wasn’t any on the table.

Out of 10 very compelling small plates (like the deviled eggs with fried oysters, $9), a big hit was the fried green tomatoes garnished with whipped goat cheese, chipotle lime sauce and brown sugar bacon ($10). It had a rich crumb coating, and the savory accoutrements of sweet bacon and whipped goat cheese were brilliantly delicious. My guest flipped for the dish.

For me the chicken-fried soft-boiled egg ($14) hit the bull’s-eye. It’s a fanciful preparation, similar to the newfangled egg rolls that you’ll find in trendy fusion Chinese restaurants, with the filling wrapped up in an uber-crusty coating. It was a great dish.

The wine list is typical of new restaurants and needs more fleshing out. But there were some moderately priced choices by the glass or bottle.

The service throughout was excellent, and the kitchen kept pace on a busy night. Our waiter was very knowledgeable about every dish on the menu and guided us well to main-course selections.

My guest ordered the butter-marinated sirloin ($28), which was served with delicious truffle mashed potatoes, fried kale and piquillo pepper purée. The beef was excellent and the meat tender, but my finicky guest wasn’t thrilled that the steak was served already sliced. This might suggest that there’s a certain tactile buzz in carving a steak yourself to judge its tenderness and succulence.

My choice of seared arctic char ($25) was superbly done. The fish was precisely cooked, emerging flakey and moist. And I loved the medley of local vegetables: celery root purée, braised fennel, roasted baby carrots and beet chutney.

The dessert menu is short and sweet. There’s Oscar’s banana split ($10); a trio of house-made ice creams ($10); sour apple bread pudding ($10), buttermilk beignets ($7) and pistachio carrot cake ($8). We opted for the dessert sampler ($18), which included all of the above. The ice creams were superbly creamy, especially the intense balsamic strawberry and the bracing pinot noir dark chocolate.

A few days later I returned solo to dine at the bar, something I do often for a focused second impression of the food and ambiance. The room was much brighter than before (someone had raised the dimmer switch).

At the bar I was tended to by Trevin, the young mixologist (and a member of the chef’s family), formerly of Danny Meyer’s famed French brasserie, Comme Ca, at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas. I watched him make one of his fabulous drinks, a whiskey tango with bourbon, Benedictine, lemon, orange, maple syrup, bitters and thyme.

For dinner he suggested the butter-poached lobster sliders, the lobster meat bathed in an amazing smoked tomato aioli ($15). For an entree I chose the butternut squash gnocchi, wrapped in a silken cream sauce with wild mushrooms, kale and sage butter. These were phenomenally light, as they should be when made by a chef who knows his craft.

John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at:jdgmaine@gmail.com

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