Never underestimate the power of pretty. In restaurants, as on runways, looks make a difference.

I thought a lot about looks after finishing my meal at Ebb & Flow, the Mediterranean-inspired restaurant that opened last November inside the historic Thomas Block in the Old Port. The space is a stunner with high ceilings, brick walls, floor-to-ceiling glass windows that frame views of Commercial Street and clever use of architectural elements, such as the enormous multi-paned window that divides the large dining room. (There’s even a dramatic “grow wall” where the kitchen cultivates herbs and microgreens.) And the tables are pretty, each one set with English china and water glasses that catch the light from tumblers filled with polished pebbles of colored glass.

Chef/co-owner William D’Auvray’s kitchen certainly appreciates the power of presentation, whether it’s chunks of seafood tossed with golden olive oil and piled onto elegant white plates or the Brobdingnagian portions of braised lamb nestled in ribbons of pappardelle and offered with a few green fava beans scattered on top. The dishes are eye catching. The space is soothing. The lighting flatters. The noise level is low. Ebb & Flow leaves a lovely first impression.

I wish I could say the same for the food. While the menu is varied and the ingredients obviously well sourced (co-owner Angelo Ciocca has owned Nova Seafoods in Portland for over 20 years and says he is committed to serving the finest local meats, seafood and produce), I found the cooking uneven and the seasoning unreliable: Several of the dishes we tried were enthusiastically salted. Others proved so bland we had to ask a waitress to bring over salt and pepper shakers – and use them liberally.

With most entrees starting north of $25, Ebb & Flow can’t get by on good looks alone. Yes, the restaurant is still fairly new (a planned crudo bar won’t begin serving until next spring), but if it’s to thrive in the months to come, chef D’Auvray’s team needs to up their game.

Take their version of charred octopus, at $18 the most expensive appetizer on the menu and a generous plate of large and small chunks tossed with rings of translucent cippolini onions. Sweet, salty and distinctly meaty, well-prepared octopus should be tender, even supple. But this version fell short. Some of the morsels tasted overcooked and a few of the tentacles were coated with…well, fishmongers call it slime, which should be removed by scraping or scrubbing before cooking. Specific elements worked: the citrusy vinaigrette was bright and tart and the onions provided a delicious crunch. I just wanted less: less chew, less slipperiness, less work with every bite.


A bowl of cauliflower soup topped with a ribbon of red crab ($7) was the textural opposite: super smooth and creamy but strangely absent of cauliflower flavor. Without having seen the menu, I might have confused this with a vegetable puree. Most vexingly on a cold night, the bowl of soup arrived warm, not hot. In fact, several of the dishes we tried came to the table tepid. (This can be easily solved as the wait staff works on coordination with the kitchen. I hope the owners make that a priority.)

Contrast this soup with the outstanding house-made pita that arrived at the table searing hot, appealingly charred, and painted with Spanish olive oil, sea salt and a scattering of za’atar, an intensely aromatic Middle Eastern spice mixture. The waitress explained that the pita is cooked at 1200 degrees – just long enough for the bread to brown and puff up before it’s pulled from the hearth and plated. I kept nibbling and cracking off corners until nothing remained but a few grains of salt. (Apparently, I’m not alone. “We can’t bake enough of it,” D’Auvray said.) If I go back, I’ll order one of the mezze, or small dishes, so that I have something moist and savory to pile atop the pita.

Our entrees were a study in contrasts. Slow-roasted pork rib chop ($25) arrived in a glistening pool of jus and veal stock beneath an onion gratin and a crispy shard of prosciutto. The caramelized figs on the side were excellent – intensely sweet and jammy – but the pork itself was a bit tough. And why so salty? Perhaps it was that extra piece of prosciutto. The flavor of the meat disappeared beneath the sodium.

An enormous lamb shank, conversely, arrived undersalted. The meat was dramatically tender and falling off the bone, just as our excellent waiter had promised, but where was the flavor? Where was the seasoning? And why was the serving plate cold once again? I liked the ribbons of pasta beneath the lamb, but the dish as a whole was a letdown. A $24 letdown.

Just as I began wondering whether Ebb & Flow was little more than a pretty face, I tried galaktoboureko ($8), the house-made dessert that wraps egg custard inside thin sheets of phyllo dough beneath a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon and a honey-based syrup. I stopped. I took another bite. I marveled. I took another bite. D’Auvray’s version of the often heavy pastry is light and floral (he adds elderflower liqueur to the custard). It is soft and sweet, eggy and fragrant, with the sugar-cinnamon dusting providing texture and spice. It’s easy to see why one Greek friend swooned when I called to ask her about galaktoboureko. It’s Hellenic comfort food, and D’Auvray prepares it beautifully.

Ebb & Flow is a lovely place to relax, an elegant spot for people watching, and a welcoming restaurant where you’re spoiled by the professional staff. But beauty is only skin deep. If they want me back for dinner – not just dessert – the kitchen has some work to do.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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