Editor’s note: More than 80 people threw their hats into the ring (their spoons into the bowl?) when we advertised for a new restaurant critic last winter. This week, we are pleased to announce our new Dine Out Maine restaurant critic, Andrew Ross. This is his first review.

A menu that features dishes like eggplant parm and garlic bread sounds like something you’d expect to find alongside red-checked tablecloths, candleholders made from straw-wrapped Chianti bottles – and maybe even a pair of cartoon dogs sharing a romantic plate of pasta in an alley.

But in designing their new Washington Avenue restaurant, Roustabout, co-owners Kit Paschal (formerly of Portland Hunt & Alpine Club and Boston’s Eastern Standard), and Anders Tallberg (Hugo’s and Hungry Mother in Cambridge, Massachusetts) ditched the traditional red-sauce joint template, cleanly stripping away every stereotype and replacing it with imagery that reflects the nautical heritage of the city. “When you walk in, you know you’re in Portland, Maine,” Tallberg says.

It would be easy to interpret the mismatch between the restaurant’s image and menu as identity confusion, but to do so would miss the point. Roustabout is all about keeping customers guessing, rather like the “dazzle camouflage,” designed to help war ships confuse enemies about a ship’s position and speed, that breaks up the wall between the bar and the restaurant’s front windows. Indeed, Tallberg describes Roustabout as a place where diners order familiar Italian-American food and are pleasantly surprised when they get a “riff on what [they] thought it was going to be.”

Playing with expectations gives Roustabout freedom, and the kitchen takes full advantage. A perfect example is one of the menu’s standouts, the arancini ($10). Rather than use leftover rice and slop tomato sauce on top, Tallberg creates each component of the dish with arancini in mind. He begins with an unusual cheese stock made from Grana Padano rinds, ladling it into a risotto along with sharp grated caciocavallo, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. When the risotto is fried into balls and plated onto a velvety eggplant puree and topped with tart, shredded pickled cabbage, what results is a dish that looks like an old classic but tastes spectacularly complex and modern.

Similarly, the winter squash lasagna ($17), defies expectations in the best ways. Served with the corners of roughly cut homemade pasta sheets browned and draped over the sides of a cast iron pan, the dish looks nothing like a conventional lasagna. It doesn’t taste like one either, with layered textures moving from rich and lightly spicy béchamel and sweet butternut puree, to barely firm pickled apples, to a topping of funky shredded Brussels sprouts. Lasagna here is a concept, not an end-product, “a vehicle for great ingredients,” Tallberg calls it.

The kitchen takes the same approach with the excellent, almost creamy garlic soup ($9). Made from a base of sautéed onions, parsley, bay leaves, pepper and bread, the soup acts as a showcase for intense garlic flavors that come from hefty doses of raw garlic added three times during cooking, the last right before the soup is pureed and served.

Some items on Roustabout’s menu read simply as upgraded versions of familiar standbys. The whole leaf Caesar salad ($9) benefits from preserved lemons and an unexpectedly tangy dressing that lend the dish a fragrant brightness and balances out the umami from marinated white anchovies. Then there is the arctic char picatta ($21), cooked with a traditional butter, white wine and caper sauce, but served with broccoli rabe and salsa verde. It’s a small change that adds a little bitterness and welcome acidic, high note flavors to the flaky fish.

The arancini rest on eggplant puree and are topped with pickled cabbage.

The arancini rest on eggplant puree and are topped with pickled cabbage. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

The restaurant’s garlic bread ($7) appears to be a straightforward rendition. But what makes Roustabout unique is their homemade, tight-crumbed Tuscan bread and infused chili oil. For the spicy drizzle, Tallberg cures Calabrian chilies from Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham. The bread does its best to hold the runny melting garlic butter and oil, but this is an extremely messy dish – your face (and possibly your shirtfront) will gleam with oil after a few bites. Regardless, the pepper and garlic flavors are superb. “I could sit and eat this all night,” our server told us, “with a glass of wine and a really big pile of napkins.”

Roustabout’s bolognese ($18), served with homemade tagliatelle, takes the idea of a ground beef ragu and gives it a few key twists that dramatically elevate the dish. First is the restaurant’s use of fresh whole pork shoulders, which the kitchen grinds and adds to pancetta. Then there is the lush sauce base made from cream, sage, nutmeg and a fonduta packed with pungent tallegio. These elements produce a rich and incredibly smooth bolognese without a trace of graininess.

Desserts include stalwarts like tiramisu ($10) and a toasted almond panna cotta ($10) that is perhaps slightly too savory but rescued by a chewy candied fennel and raisin compote topping. But the standout is the decidedly un-Italian “Mess” ($10), a dense brownie served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sprinkles. The dessert is what someone might serve at a birthday party thrown for a sophisticated 8-year-old – all the best, uncomplicated sweet elements are there, with just a few adult touches like the fudgy, intentionally underbaked brownie and salted caramel sauce.

PORTLAND, ME - APRIL 8: Bolognese with tagliatelle, fonduta, and basil, photographed for Dine Out Maine at Roustabout Friday, April 8, 2016. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)

Bolognese with tagliatelle, fonduta, and basil at Roustabout. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

It’s a dish that makes perfect sense in a space that, when filled, feels a lot like there is a celebration happening. Which is to say, loud. All hard surfaces (except for the banquettes) and open spaces, the dining room can get so noisy you can’t hear the people seated at your own table. Tallberg describes it unapologetically as “a lively space,” one that reminds him of rowdy dinners around his godfather’s huge dining table.

That liveliness isn’t something you might naturally associate with a restaurant whose customers range so widely – from Baby Boomer couples out for a weekday dinner to groups of young professionals fresh from work. But it is one of the many surprising components that fit together to make Roustabout what it is: a welcoming and ambitious local restaurant that, despite its seafaring décor, just so happens to be a red-sauce Italian joint at heart.

The Salato Highball features house-infused spicy tequila, Strega, lime juice and a cucumber garnish.

The Salato Highball features house-infused spicy tequila, Strega, lime juice and a cucumber garnish. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

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