The dining room at The Chef & the Gardener is down – down a dimly lighted hallway painted a deep, dark green; down a ramp to a lower level; down to a pub-like, subterranean space with low ceilings, small windows and a plain wooden bar. Unfortunately, dinner at this Saco restaurant is a downer, too, with cooking that ranges from mediocre to disappointing.

The idea behind The Chef & the Gardener is timely: “creative dishes [assuring] those with allergies or dietary restrictions that they are not consuming any problem foods,” as their website says. The well-informed, young waitress who welcomed us (and offered a sunny table at the secluded patio outside) reinforced that commitment, immediately asking “Do you have any food allergies we should know about?” She then reviewed the menu and reminded us “that we make everything here from scratch just in case you’re avoiding a particular ingredient or food group.”

The menu looked interesting, with a variety of fresh-sounding salads and healthful appetizers – many designated gluten-free – as well as 10 entrees including pork, beef, chicken, seafood and vegetarian options. I also appreciated the wine selection, which featured a few unusual reds and whites plus discounted bottles. But expectation crashed into reality when the waitress brought out a “home-made baguette” and a tub of maple butter, early indications that dinner was headed downhill – fast. That bread was spongy and dry with little texture, less structure and no flavor.

Be fair, I thought. A restaurant that works hard to satisfy gluten-free diners may not be the best place to find a stellar baguette. So I pushed the bread to the side with my plastic-handled dinner knife and turned to the appetizers.

A fig and brie tart ($7.95) didn’t look very attractive – only a few snips of chives relieved the monotony of ivory and brown – but the flavors were fine, up to a point, anyway. Slices of creamy brie oozed into the fluted edges of the tartlet and melted over chunks of fresh figs tucked underneath. Abundant drizzles of “black and white balsamic vinegar” promised sweetness and complexity, but a friend sitting across the table offered a forkful with a warning: “Careful if you inhale….There’s a lot of vinegar on this plate.” He was absolutely right: the vinegar overwhelmed the fruit and cheese.

Like the fig-brie tart, the sweet potato and quinoa cakes ($6.95) were uniformly brown and puck-like (they reminded me of the veggie sausage patties found in the frozen food aisle at the grocery store) and, again, garnished solely with chives. Fortunately, the orange pool of roasted pepper coulis underneath added nice color contrast. Creamy and sweet, it also provided a pleasant contrast for the starchy cakes, which were crispy outside and soft within – somewhere between golden crochette di patate and fried potato knishes. And while at first the cakes tasted bland, they grew on me, the way a bowl of oatmeal gets more soothing with every bite. These quinoa-potato cakes were simple and filling: comfort food for the gluten free.

I wish I could say the same for our entrees. The diver scallop special ($22) with risotto and cherry tomatoes was a calamity. The scallops were small, flavorless and so overcooked they were not just tough but fibrous. Three roasted cherry tomatoes lent brightness, but even they couldn’t do anything to save those scallops or elevate the mound of watery risotto. I could see slivers of lemon zest and onion tossed in among the rice, but I couldn’t taste them. The only defined flavor was from chives (again) scattered over the dish.

Tuscan chicken ($18.95) proved marginally better. While also overcooked, at least the chicken retained some moisture and tasted clearly of rosemary. It could have used salt, though. In fact, everything on the plate would have benefited from a sprinkle of salt – the chicken, the green beans and the handful of white beans presumably included to “up” the Tuscan quotient. A single, flavorful surprise under the chicken was the sliced artichoke heart that offered a tangy complement to the roasted meat.

Our kind waitress was so enthusiastic about dessert – profiteroles ($7) with chocolate sauce made in-house and gluten-free strawberry rhubarb pie ($7) from The Maine Pie Co. in Biddeford – that we tried them. Both were pretty good. The waitress told us the sauce was made from cream, chocolate and amaretto and the profiterole itself – filled with ice cream – was tender. The pie was particularly good; I liked its combination of sweet and sour fruit as well as an oatmeal crumble that gave it extra crunch.

Desserts notwithstanding, dinner was a letdown. But every chef (and most gardeners) miss the mark now and again. Perhaps lunch would be better?

No such luck. Cauliflower soup ($5.95) on my return visit was warm but hard to identify. Without the swirl of spinach pesto added to the cup, I might have mistaken it for Cream of Wheat. (Sure, the chef deserves kudos for developing a recipe for creamy-tasting soup made without cream, but I kept wondering why he also sacrificed flavor.) And a vegetarian Spanish vegetable tortilla ($8.95) wasn’t the traditional, robust omelet I expected, but a quesadilla made with an herbed flour wrapper and filled with tempeh, hummus and shredded vegetables. Call it a tortilla or call it a quesadilla, in either case, this sandwich proved too dry to enjoy, and the entire assembly was so compressed it appeared to have been rolled through a mangle.

The restaurant’s website says that chef David Glidden has a passion for cooking. Our waitress noted that his wife enjoys working in the garden. And a menu focused on accommodating those with allergies or dietary preferences and restrictions certainly makes you sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, what my guests and I noticed on two visits was food that for the most part fell seriously flat. I won’t be heading down to The Chef & the Gardener again anytime soon.

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.