Vinland chef/owner David Levi walks through the Portland Farmers’ Market at Monument Square, lamenting an inevitability of June in Maine: “Everybody has greens,” he says. Everywhere around him farmers are peddling tender spring greens, pea shoots, arugula or seedlings, things that promise of summer crops to come. It’s all lovely, and the customers weaving their ways through the flower-filled market looked almost dazed with pleasure at being warm and outside.

But if you’re trying, as Levi is at Vinland, his 100-percent Maine-sourced restaurant just down Congress Street, to build entire meals around what is freshly available in the state at this minute, it is undeniably limited. Fine dining can’t be built on salad. What Levi is looking for are vegetables with more caloric content, nutritional value and oomph on the plate. If he were the kind of person one could use the phrase “he’d just about kill for” about, which he is not, it would be fair to say he’d just about kill for the miracle of a Maine-grown onion right now.

Come July, Vinland will have been open six months. During that time Levi’s philosophy and more important, his flavors, have been celebrated in the pages of The Wall Street Journal and Bon Appétit. He’s about to start an ice cream business out the restaurant’s back door. People who care about food know his name, know about the restaurant, even if they haven’t been in to eat yet. But business isn’t exactly booming. Along with those ups from national media have come some downs, in staffing, in bookings that didn’t come through and lunches where customers were so scarce that ultimately it didn’t make sense to stay open for service.

Simultaneously, the last few months, Levi has gotten a closer look at the challenges of local food sourcing than just about anyone else in the state. He’s so enmeshed in the patterns of the local growing and harvesting seasons that there was a discernible shift in his message and mood in the space of mere weeks as temperatures rose and gardens took root.


“Sourcing wise, the whole thing has been hard,” he said on a relentlessly glum day in May.


He was sitting in the lounge area at Vinland and he looked slightly glum himself and definitely tired. Part of that had to do with the fact that general manager Ben Morley left the restaurant in February. It was an amicable split, Levi said. “I would never say anything negative about him,” he said. “I think he just realized very early on in the game with us that he wanted something very different in his life.” But the loss meant that Levi had been handling most of the general manager duties himself. Some of the special events he’d like to pull off, like dinners dedicated to specific farmers, haven’t been feasible. (A new general manager is due to start at the end of this month.)

A few feet away from where Levi sat was the restaurant’s small nod to farming, a lonely-looking tray of beet greens growing from the tops cut from the last of the restaurant’s stored beets. Levi and his staff, including sous chefs Ryan Quigley and Kate Whittemore, were so thrilled to see new growth when the beets sprouted that they’d installed the tray in the front window, possibly mystifying passers-by.

“Every now and then we have to say a regular menu item might not be available and increasingly, we are running specials,” he said. “I don’t particularly like 86ing an item (the restaurant term used when something runs out) but it is a good thing for us to have to be flexible with our ingredients and our menu items.”

It felt like winter was over, but in terms of vegetables and produce, Levi was out of some key items and had been for a while. “In January, it is only storage crops left and those are starting to run out,” he said. “Then from January to April, you are basically seeing the disappearance of beets and onions and carrots. Until you get to the point where there is nothing but potatoes.”

And this was hardly an average winter. Even an established farm-to-table restaurant like Nebo on North Haven, opening for the season in May, was still feeling the force of the Polar Vortex. Chef Amanda Hallowell is much less stringent than Levi about sourcing locally, allowing for chocolate and coffee and imported cheeses because she loves them. But she uses local fish, meat and vegetables, and has noticed the late start of the growing and harvesting season. Visiting a favorite vendor that usually produces crops early, Beth’s Farm Market in Warren, she was startled at the delays. “I thought, what is going on? This is serious.” Vinland survived by being thrifty, stashing things away, and dehydrating beets like crazy (thousands of chips at a time, Levi said) .

Chef Josh Mather knows this routine well from nearly 10 years as the chef at Joshua’s in Wells, where much of the food is locally sourced. He focuses on serving root vegetables in the winter, using a cellar to “keep upwards of 3,000 pounds of potatoes, carrots, squash and onions,” he wrote in an email. “It takes up a massive amount of storage space.” He buys in advance because such foods are so sought after in his community. “Bottom line, if I don’t get them someone else will.”


Levi got a few lucky breaks, in large part because he’d quickly fostered relationships with many farmers and purveyors. At a point when he believed every last Maine onion was gone, he managed to acquire a few hundred pounds at a good price, courtesy of a farmer he works with regularly, Ian Jerolmack of Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham. Jerolmack hadn’t grown the onions himself, but he’d heard about a guy with some onions to unload. As for Maine-grown carrots, hard to find in May and early June, Levi had wisely done a pre-buy with Goranson Farm in Dresden that kept him in carrots through spring. Good relationships with vendors are important for all chefs, but particularly so for a chef like Levi.

Fish were plentiful, and Levi had taken full advantage of scallop season and experimented with crabmeat specials (he sources seafood from Browne Trading, Harbor Fish and Upstream Trading). But he’d struggled to find poultry he felt good about serving. “It is kind of a sad fact that even the poultry you find at the farmers market or Rosemont – and forget Whole Foods – is confinement-raised and fed on corn and soy pretty much exclusively,” he said. On the plus side, because word had spread about the restaurant’s uncompromising local credo (no olive oil, no pepper, no lemon, no chocolate, but yes to everything that Maine sea and soil can yield or nurture), almost every day someone turns up at Vinland’s door with something to offer.

“Yesterday a guy came in with some really nice-looking fiddleheads, and it turns out that he also raises ducks and geese on pasture,” Levi said. That vendor, who farms near Bangor, might be a future source. And in what has become Maine’s new-old farming style – serious diversification of crops – that farmer also grows Concord grapes and other varieties indigenous to the area. He’s on Levi’s list now; those grapes stashed away in some corner of Levi’s brain, waiting for an autumn dish.

Twice the conversation at Vinland on that May day was interrupted by people coming to the door, potential lunch customers whose smiles faded as they learned that no, Vinland was not open for lunch anymore.

On the very day Levi had 86ed lunch, Mark Bessire, the director of the Portland Museum of Art, was the first person to knock on the door. It’s hard not to second guess a decision when a regular customer with a high local profile has to be turned away.

But Levi brightened at the mention of the museum, which sits just across the street. He’d just booked a dinner with the museum for June 11, the night internationally renowned artist Alex Katz was giving a talk at the museum. They’d sell the place out and, he hoped, word would spread about Vinland. The restaurant had been lucky with early adopters from Portland and the surrounding areas, but Levi understands the importance of extending that reach. It needed, he said, to reach the larger segment of the dining-out population whose attitude is, as Levi sees it, “I want to wait until I have heard from 10 or 20 people that this is really great and then I’ll go.”



He waited for the museum to send a contract, but it never arrived. Apparently, the dinner outgrew Vinland’s 34-seat restaurant.

“It’s a big hit for us right now,” he said, not hiding his disappointment. It was a couple of weeks later and Levi stood in the middle of Monument Square wearing a red T-shirt that proclaimed, “Know Your Farmer” and “Consuming Living Foods.” He was back at the farmers market on the very day that he should have been shopping for the Katz dinner. Instead he bought a lone bunch of Hakurei turnips to munch on – nearly as sweet as an apple – and made his rounds, negotiating deals as he went.

The empty seats at his Sunday brunch (the restaurant serves brunch on Saturday as well) were a bummer, too. The tourists, the kind who read The Wall Street Journal and stay on top of dining trends, were still a few weeks away from descending on the state. It was still make-do season.

Hallowell of Nebo was sympathetic; business at Nebo has been slow in May, too. After that winter, a lot of Mainers aren’t eating out. “Nobody has any money,” she said, “and everyone has these huge oil bills.”

At Goranson’s stand, Levi and Jan Goranson talked shop. In season, he buys parsnips, carrots and celeriac from her. They share a love of raw, aged meat and a roll-your-eyes approach to the machinations expected of small-time food producers under the Food and Drug Administration’s new Food Safety Modernization Act.


It’s clearly a fond, teasing relationship, forged in food. A few weeks earlier, Goranson had told him that she’d been interviewed for a television program about hipsters. She’d been asked how she defined them. “I hope you didn’t tell them David Levi!” he joked, standing in front of her in his skinny jeans with a shopping cart that would have done an old lady from his native New York proud. She’d laughed and handed him his allotment of a 25-pound bag of carrots.

On that June day, the same one that saw him shaking his head over the prevalence of salad greens and reminiscing about his last onions the way some people talk about their lost lovers, Levi negotiated a purchase of yogurt whey from Sean Pignatello of Swallowtail farm. Vinland buys it in 5-gallon pails and uses it for many dishes and some drinks; it’s his lemon and his lime, fruits that can’t be sourced locally in Maine. He also roamed over to the Stonecipher stand to visit with Jerolmack, his onion broker. The bags of cucumbers at the Stonecipher stand looked good. They might do nicely for a drink bartender Alex Winthrop has started making at Vinland.

Cucumbers aren’t quite in season yet. These were grown in a hoop house, Levi said, maybe with a little heat, and were certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. He’s is a purist, but he doesn’t demand a vegetable emerge from the ground unaided by, say, some extra warmth arranged by human beings.

“I don’t know if you want all of them,” Jerolmack said. And he couldn’t go below $3 a pound. Levi said he’d take 5 pounds, to be delivered when Jerolmack headed out of town. Levi inquired about Jerolmack’s laying hens. Since he, as his shirt declared, knows his farmer, he was aware that some of the birds were aging out of usefulness in the egg department. He’d be happy to take them off Jerolmack’s hands, he said. “You’re going to stew them?” Jerolmack asked. Levi answered in the affirmative, and Jerolmack, a vegetarian, said he’d have to think about it.


Vinland’s back door, which faces on to Congress Square Plaza, is newly emblazoned with words “Vinland” and “ice cream.” He and his staff have hatched a plan to sell ice cream out the back door (the price is still being negotiated but the cups and spoons have been purchased). Since dairy is in ready supply year round, one wonders, is the ice cream a way to tap into a steady income stream that might be less complicated to source? Levi said no. “I don’t think we’re going to be the next Baskin-Robbins.” There might be more profit in, say, popsicles, which the restaurant may add. It’s meant to be fun, he said, and they’ll do it “as long as it is not losing money.”


But he’s never going to make the cheapest ice cream in town, because none of his ingredients, so lovingly sourced, are cheap, he says, and won’t be in the forseeable future.

Nor will he ever make the cheapest dinners in town. Reviews have been strong, but there are plenty who balk at his prices; his early fans may be fine with $38 strip steak or a $25 celery root “steak,” but those who hang back need to be convinced that the steaks are worth it. Levi is aware restaurant-goers make careful decisions these days, but he believes he’s serving up good value. And he said some diners have told him they were pleasantly surprised by the check at the end of their meals. “One guy was almost upset, he was saying, ‘How can you be charging so little?'” Levi said.

“People who recognize what we are doing and how we are sourcing and the amount of labor that is going into the food, they realize that we are undercharging from any reasonable business perspective.”

Soon I-95 will be jammed with cars bearing New Jersey and Pennsylvania plates. The summer people are coming. And at farmers markets now, there may not be onions, but soon Levi can expect scallions, and he has discovered they work just as well in his turnip soup. What he said now about sourcing sounded more optimistic. Finding Maine-grown or harvested food presented “problems only insofar as they are perceived as such.”

“Locally we are forced to come up with new dishes,” he added. “I would view that not as a problem but a welcome challenge.”

He’d rebounded. He’d cycled through a Maine winter the way we all do – in stages that start with anticipation, move into embrace (it’s here, try to enjoy it), weariness (end anytime now, why don’t you?) and disbelief (the calendar claims spring; the land seems uninformed). And like the rest of us, David Levi lives now in the anticipation of fat, full months of Maine’s bounty.

From that perspective, six months into the most complicated experiment in modern Maine restaurant history, when he says, “I’m having a blast,” it is possible to believe him. Not that long from now, the vines will be heavy with tomatoes, and who knows? Vinland’s tables may all be full.

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