SOUTH PORTLAND — Sometimes you get an idea in your head and run with it. Sugar, for instance, comes in handy in apricot crisp. In a syrupy sauce for a grilled pork chop, it might be too much of a good thing, but it works for most of us.

In Caesar dressing, it tastes wrong, even if it comes from a jar of Asian sweet chili sauce.

Everything at Zeta Cafe was cooked with a nice sense of timing. All salads were fresh, and every item held good ingredients. And if some of the recipes go south, in my opinion, no one wants to stop experimentation dead — the adventurer in this kitchen and others like it give us the only chance of ever encountering anything other than the same-old, same-olds of Maine menus.

But, as far as I’m concerned, the flavored coffee has to go.

Sue Ellen Whitmore, chef/owner of Zeta Cafe (Nancy Cooper is the other owner), worked at Fresh down the street and is now in charge of her first restaurant. She took care to renovate the space with so many charming old details that Ecomaine, a trash incinerator and recycling facility owned by 21 cities and towns, gave her a recycling award. Two-hundred-year-old church pews provide seating along the walls.

The table tops are handsome old wood. Some are barn doors that Whitmore’s contractor, a specialist in architectural salvage, devised. Mirrors are framed with antique wood, a coat rack employs her grandmother’s silver spoons, and the pots-and-pans rack is an antique ladder.

S.A. Prum Riesling 2008 ($8 by the glass, $26 by the bottle) from Germany’s Mosel region presented the “bright acidity on the finish” the menu promised. But Bodegas Espana Zeta “Z” Monestrell 2004 ($7 a glass, $25 a bottle) tasted a little too acidic. Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($9 a glass, $30 a bottle) also presented too much acidity, perhaps from having been open too long.

Creamy white beans ($5) in a soupy liquid tasted of garlic and rosemary. The oddity of an appetizer situated somewhere between soup and spread was easy to overlook when it tasted so good.

Marinated olives ($5) improved the flavor of pimento-stuffed green olives with red vinegar and herbs, with a pickled cherry pepper and capers making piquant additions.

Grilled shrimp ($9) — five medium-sized shrimp on a leaf of romaine — were paired with a kind of orange tartar sauce with lemon that the menu called herb aioli. The shrimp were perfectly grilled, bits of charcoal making their sweet flesh sweeter.

A crostini special consisted of five or six thick slices of grilled, chewy white Italian bread covered with glossy, bland ricotta and green peas rendered smooth by a blender. I missed the creamy rough texture that makes ricotta so appealing.

A Caesar ($8) with lots of crunchy, fresh romaine tasted sweet. Caesar’s siren call is founded on savory cheese, garlic and sour lemon, as well as anchovies at the rare place willing to use them. Whitmore adds Asian sweet chili sauce. But in this case, I think the original recipe cannot be improved on, and that additions are a mistake.

A flattened grilled chicken breast ($15) comes with an intriguing sauce made with Greek yogurt. The inspiration might be Indian tandoor or something else, but everyone can acknowledge the virtues of Greek yogurt. This version is mixed with oregano, lemon zest, capers and parsley.

The nicely grilled shrimp in the shrimp scampi ($15) are served on angel hair pasta. The menu lists the garlic, white wine and butter as well as lemon zest and chili flakes. But the dish I ate tasted sweet. However, Whitmore said there is nothing sweet added to it, so I don’t know how to explain that.

A pork chop special ($17) showed off more great grilling, the meat barred with burn marks. Hot, juicy sticks of pineapple burst with a pungent flavor, in precise contrast to the savory pork. A sauce made with a pineapple juice reduction pushed the sugar into overdrive. Plain mashed potatoes and a good little side salad on the plate stood their ground, both simple and exactly right.

Zeta Cafe has a knack for grilled sirloin ($15), a small and flavorful steak that might make you rethink garlic salt. Sirloin steak ($15) is marinated with Worcestershire sauce, garlic salt and chili flakes, and shares the plate with those same two sides. Anointed with butter mixed with capers, garlic and herbs, it topped the entrees sampled for a good, straightforward flavor.

The $10 burger, ravioli from Micucci’s and pork sausages on angel hair with white wine cream sauce are other entrees.

Chocolate chips gave good chocolate sauce some crunch as I spooned it up from its pool around a fudgy brownie. Apricot and cherry crisp ($5) featured crisp bits on the edges of its oatmeal topping amid slices of tender fruit.

But flavored coffee — one night decaf and another night regular — tasted of the artificial flavoring used in hazelnut coffee and burned, plain decaf. Since two different servers didn’t seem aware that the coffee was flavored, possibly a coffee bean grinder does the work for both. 

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s Web site,


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