There’s a heavy set of curtains lining the doorway of Blue Spoon on Munjoy Hill. Outside it’s cold and snowy and the wind is whipping up Congress Street from the bluffs below the Eastern Prom. But on the far side of those curtains, it’s warm and welcoming and instantly appealing. The wait staff is friendly. The lighting is muted. A pleasant buzz comes from the small bar and the 10 or so tables scattered throughout the intimate space. This is a neighborhood bistro. There’s little pretense in the dining room or on the menu, just ease and comfort, relaxation and familiarity.

Take the small plates and starters that the waitress describes after you sit down: a simple bean soup with pancetta ($8), mussels in white wine ($9), the daily terrine ($9) and a few salads and roasted vegetables. We start with lighter choices, including the crock of jewel-like roasted beets ($6) served with a sprinkle of toasted pistachios. They are good – not particularly surprising but definitely tasty and a reminder that thoughtfully cooked vegetables often need little embellishment. (Blue Spoon sources vegetables, meats and cheeses from a network of local farms listed on each night’s menu. The beets usually come from Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham.)

A winter vegetable salad ($12) is also good: a julienne of turnips, cabbage and radishes tossed with Brussels sprouts and dressed in a mustardy vinaigrette. Though mixed together, the root vegetables retain distinct flavors and textures. (If you like your greens crunchy, try this starter. It’s an acoustical experience.) The vegetables are enlivened by shreds of apple that add sweetness, and rings of fried shallot that lend a welcome contrast to the raw fruit and vegetables.

Halfway through the starters, we notice an odd phenomenon. As the tables fill with new customers, the restaurant becomes decidedly noisy. But somehow (because the ceilings are high? Or the hefty columns and the bar are crafted from wood instead of metal?) we have no trouble hearing one another. Not shouting at a bustling restaurant is a pleasure. In this era where clamor has become commonplace, Blue Spoon is an agreeable exception.

A good appetizer for sampling is the mezze plate ($12) – actually a wooden board piled with feta from Winter Hill Farm, pita, walnuts, chunks of apples and mozzarella plus one unexpected addition – a few slices of house-cured tongue. You know about tongue. You either like it or you don’t. (One friend told me she wouldn’t taste anything that ran the risk of tasting her back.) But these slices are rich and thin and mild and slightly fatty, fine all by themselves and even better with the florets of pickled cauliflower served alongside. Pickled vegetables are appearing on menus all around Maine this season. Carrots and beans are the usual suspects, but at Blue Spoon chef and owner David Iovino is pickling everything from slices of fennel to matchsticks of eggplant. I’d order the mezze again for the array of pickled treats alone.

Iovino, who studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York, says he changes his menu “on a whim…with three or four new things each week at this time of year and preparations that seem right for the season.” When I visited, the dinner menu was all about braising, roasting and grilling. I tried pan-roasted monkfish, a favorite because the flesh is so meaty, served with roasted butternut squash and a timbale of braised winter greens. While the greens were good – earthy and slightly bitter – the pan sauce was too tart (blame a profligate splash of lemon) and overpowered the fish. I moved the fillet out of the sauce and enjoyed it solo.


A nightly special “from the braising pot” ($25) proved more subtly flavored. On Friday it was a ragu of smoked pork shoulder, beans and goose sausage served with house-made rigatoni and Parmesan. This was satisfying food for the seriously famished – each bite of pasta coated with the hearty meat sauce and a few creamy white beans. You can order this dish large ($25) or small ($14), and the waitress told us to try the larger bowl if we planned on sharing.

The real test of a bistro is basic fare – chicken under a brick ($26), for example, served here with Swiss chard and a rich pan jus. With dark brown, crackling skin; moist, juicy breast and thigh meat; and perfect seasoning, Blue Spoon aced the test. A basket of bread on the table was good for mopping up the sauce, but mere bread paled next to gruyere fritters; Iovino’s are outrageous. They’re the color of burnished mahogany, crunchy and salty on the outside, rich, soft and steaming within.

A sign hanging in front of the restaurant says “food from friends, family and travels,” and I wish I knew the friend who contributed a recipe for coconut caramel flan ($7). “We’ve kept that on the menu since we opened in 2004,” Iovino said. “It came from a Cuban grandmother.” Like many of the dishes at Blue Spoon, it was comforting and familiar rather than complicated or fancy, with a dense, silky custard and the distinct, tropical taste of coconut. Slices come out of the kitchen beneath a cloud of whipped cream, but, frankly, that’s gilding the lily.

Munjoy Hill remains slightly off the beaten path for visitors staying downtown and others who prefer to stick to the Old Port. But Blue Spoon is a reminder of what’s most appealing about a neighborhood bistro. The atmosphere is casual. The dishes are filling. And – flan or no flan – you head home feeling soothed and satisfied.

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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