June 26, 2011

Dine Out Maine: Bandaloop's dishes surprise with their originality and vigor

By NANCY HEISER

Cue the stirring overture. Train the spotlight directly on the food. The table is full of an energetic and colorful cast of characters. Think of this as the opening act of an exotic musical you suspect is going to end happy.

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Bandaloop is located at 2 Dock Square in Kennebunkport.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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BANDALOOP

WHERE: 2 Dock Square, Kennebunkport. Note: The entrance is on Cross Street and is hard to pinpoint from Ocean Avenue or Dock Square. Do not trust your GPS. 967-4994; Bandaloop.biz

RATING: ****

HOURS: Open seven days. Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. weeknights, until 11 p.m. weekends. A late-night menu is available.

CREDIT CARDS: MC/Visa/Discover

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers $7 to $14; small plates $8 to $11; entrees $17 to $32

VEGETARIAN: Yes. Many options, including vegan.

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes. Many options. All sauces are gluten-free, as are some desserts.

KIDS: Welcome. There's a separate menu of healthy choices (nothing fried).

RESERVATIONS: Recommended

BAR: Full. The bar stocks a dozen single malt scotches, five different sakes, and house cocktails that reflect the food's style, such as a ginger-infused Manhattan. Almost all the wines from the international list of about 50 are organic or from sustainably harvested or biodynamically cultivated grapes ($22 to $77 per bottle; $7.50 to $10 per glass).

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Bandaloop offers farm-to-table dining with bold flavors and a global flair. Dishes are a blend of conventional centerpieces with inventive trimmings. Create your own entree by mixing a protein with one of Bandaloop's signature sauces. The atmosphere is relaxed but upscale, and mirrors the food -- eclectic and lively. Excellent salads and appetizers as well as small-plate options mean you don't always have to spend a lot of money, allowing you to visit more often. Which you'll want to do.

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.

This is Bandaloop. The word is fun to say as well as puzzling. The restaurant is entertaining, too, with dishes that surprise with their originality and vigor. Many dishes you will want to repeat in the name of taste as well as good health.

Tom Robbins gave a fictional tribe the name Bandaloop in his novel "Jitterbug Perfume." The tribe knows the secret to eternal life.

The restaurant's owners, chef Scott Lee and wife Bridget, believe good food and wine are part of that secret. We traveled to Dock Square in Kennebunkport to find out if a single dinner here would hint at a heavenly realm for a few hours.

I'd be hard-pressed to identify better salads than the two we tried on a Saturday night in early June. Kale took center stage in a chiffonade of the leafy vegetable piled high, dressed with a strong but lightly applied sesame-tahini vinaigrette, and dotted with hemp seeds and candied pecans ($9). It was exactly the preparation needed to put this nutritious and often-spurned green into addictive territory.

A quick saute of baby spinach and grape tomatoes combined with red onion, broccoli, artichoke hearts and sheep's milk feta ($10) to create a delightfully piquant salad out of more conventional organic ingredients. Perhaps you would indeed live forever if you ate these dishes every day.

Several appetizers caught our eye. We ordered a cup of chilled Thai coconut soup ($4), a smooth and wonderful concoction of coconut milk, lime, fresh ginger, cucumber, tamari and tamarind that sparkled with refreshment.

Bandaloop "egg rolls" ($9) were fried egg roll wrappers filled with walnuts, spinach, red onion and -- roll the bongos, please -- Gorgonzola cheese. How's that for a twist?

The rolls oozed with the cheese's deep sharpness, the nuts added texture, and a sweet/sour port wine and balsamic reduction for dipping added a third and complementary flavor burst for the palate.

Entrees continued this theme of centerpieces jazzed up with distinctive and surprising accoutrements and sauces. Thick slices of yellowfin tuna lightly grilled in sesame oil were melt-in-your-mouth tender and placed on a ginger/lime/tamari glaze that would have inspired plate licking if this weren't a public place. A hearty dip of avocado mixed with wasabi brought it all home, the avocado cutting the heat and adding a fuller texture to the Japanese horseradish. This was a remarkable entree. ($32. Go for it.)

Tequila-flamed giant scallops with cilantro/lime butter ($31) was a more delicate fusion of flavors, but roasted sweet potatoes gave the platter some substance in a way that a customary side of rice might not.

Even a homey pork chop got robust treatment, the thick cut served with a roasted onion barbecue sauce that had plenty of cumin ($24), the platter all the more comforting with its mound of mashed potatoes to dab in that killer sauce.

Housemade desserts didn't let us down. A graham cracker and almond crust underscored a chocolate torte that was at once dense like fudge and creamy like ice cream. Carrot cake dabbed with the traditional cream cheese frosting held flecks with mango instead of pineapple or raisins. (Both cost $7).

The restaurant occupies the first level of a renovated barn, and its white clapboard exterior belies a freewheeling and funky interior of mismatched styles and unusual accents, including masks and local art. An addition turned last summer's patio into a second dining room of low and high butcher-block tables.

The kitchen is fully exposed in the first of the two dining rooms. I sat directly across, with an eye on flaming pans, spinning chefs and a refrigerator case with a fluorescent light. Not complaining. Just saying.

Service on our night was good, if a little lacking in grace. A server placed bread at the end of our table with four plates for us to pass out ourselves. We asked for water refills, but the busboy went to a different table, so we had to ask again. These tiny matters were eclipsed by the splendid food and fine table attention overall.

But don't come to Bandaloop if you want to feel showered with warmth and ceremony. Diners from the old school may be disappointed by an atmosphere that strikes them as too jangly and food that may seem experimental. (It isn't).

Three companions and I fully enjoyed our experience, and two of us debated the final star assignment into the next morning. To my husband, dinner approached extraordinary. (He had the tuna, by the way.) On this one, I am a tougher grader.

Yes, every dish we had was delicious. Will I remember the door-to-door event three years from now? Hard to say.

But I do know that our night deserved a standing ovation. Run out and get your tickets. 

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer who lives near Portland.

 

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