Before they moved to Portland to open Abilene, chef-owners Travis Colgan and Anna Connolly ran a seasonal restaurant in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains where the clientele had two things on their minds: eating well, and packing in 10,000 calories before daybreak. Every day, they served massive portions of fresh, homemade pasta, roasted chicken and barbecue to heavily blistered and exhausted groups of Pacific Crest Trail hikers.

“They would eat one huge entrée and come back for another one,” Colgan said, “But it was really a lot of fun, and we got to have a different through-hiker acting as our dishwasher every night.”

At their small New American restaurant near Woodfords Corner, the pair no longer serve dishes from their West Coast endurance menu, but their focus on making as much as possible from scratch has remained firmly in place – from homemade limoncello ($8) to astonishingly precise, al dente tagliatelle that creates a nest to hug garlicky breaded chicken cutlets, prepared marsala-style in a sweet-savory mushroom sauce ($17).

Even the shrubs – old-fashioned vinegar syrups that Abilene uses to concoct puckery cocktails like the strawberry basil rum shrub ($7) – are made in-house from fresh fruit and spices. “It’s just fermented fruit, but it has an indescribable flavor you can’t compare to anything else,” Connolly explained. Brewing their own shrubs lets Abilene keep cocktail costs down: an especially good idea when a tiny, four-ounce bottle of commercially made shrub can cost upwards of $15. And with so much of their own house blend on hand, the kitchen is able to experiment, using shrubs to add tang to salad dressings and marinades. Colgan and Connolly aren’t avant garde chefs by any means, but they do introduce a few welcome variations into familiar dishes, like their vegetarian tacos ($7). Made with soft corn tortillas loaded with caramelized sweet potatoes and tooth-tender asparagus spears, these palm-sized parcels are served with a drizzle of chimichurri-inspired cilantro cream that gives them a nuanced herbal aroma, not to mention a refreshing hit of acid.

Their take on the Caesar salad ($6 for a small portion, $8 for a large) also features small but compelling changes, like the use of roasted garlic in place of anchovies and shreds of kale that give the salad a bit of agreeable chew and color, not to mention making it vegetarian-friendly. “Everyone has a bad ‘Caesar salad in an airport’ experience, so we switched things up to give it an interesting twist…and more nutrition,” Connolly said. Well-considered alterations like these work wonders to freshen up a dish that can be a total snooze.

Kale makes another appearance in the decidedly less healthy flash-fried crispy kale ($11), a brilliant green appetizer dotted with tomatoes, shallots and pecans, and then covered by a fluffy veil of rasp-shaven Parmesan. Fascinated by its earthy, vegetal crunch and powerful thwacks of salt and umami, I could have eaten an entire meal of this appetizer alone. Who knew kale could be a guilty pleasure?

Not every part of the meal was this captivating, however. Our French 75 ($8) disappointed because it turned out to be just a simple St. Germain and Champagne cocktail, and not the ultra-lemony gin-and-bubbly cocktail promised. And then there was the Brussels sprouts and mushroom risotto ($16) – actually more of a pilaf – that suffered at once from two opposite cooking problems: The sprouts were underdone, while the mushrooms were limp and overdone. Worst of all, the dish arrived dry and brothless; one careless spark might have sent the entire plate up in a brushfire.

Fortunately, Abilene made up quite a bit of lost ground with dessert, a fudgy chocolate truffle cake ($7) with tart macerated blackberries and strawberries spooned over the top. “This is my favorite thing here. It’s just the right amount of sweet and not too indulgent,” our server – the only person working the restaurant’s cozy dining room and bar – said, as she set our plate on the table. I understood what she meant immediately. Neither the cake nor its presentation was showy, but the dessert didn’t need anything to amplify its homey allure. Just being a slice of well-executed, scratch-made chocolate cake with an uncomplicated fruit topping was enough.

The same holds true for the restaurant itself. With a calming, no-frills setting that reveals neither an expensive architectural makeover nor any real attempt at swank design, Abilene feels like a room in someone’s house – an ideal place to go when you want a quiet meal. You can see why all those lonely, fatigued hikers must have been overjoyed to find Colgan and Connolly cooking as they emerged from the California wilderness. The comfortable, familiar food and setting seem to spell “home.”

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:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME