The summer after I graduated from high school, I started having recurring dreams. Not exactly nightmares, they were florid, gaudily colored and full of pointless action. But what was most memorable about them is where they took place. Each one began in a school library that, impossibly, was also part of a floating amusement park. I awoke every morning feeling disoriented and more than a little unmoored.

When I told a friend what was happening, she confessed something similar was going on with her. “I bet it’s because we’re leaving home soon. I think the dreams will stop when we figure out where we’re going,” she said. And she was right. That autumn, I had my last imaginary adventure shelving books underneath the roller coaster. I have hardly thought of them since. That is, until last week, when I stepped inside Woodhull Public House.

Located in a low-slung Yarmouth office park, in a building whose graying cedar shakes and brick walkway are right out of Maine central casting, Woodhull feels like the last place you’d expect to find surfboards, a ukulele and a floor-to-ceiling, 1960s photographic mural of people splashing around in Oahu’s Waimea Bay. But wait. Unfocus your eyes and look again – the way you might at one of those maddening Magic Eye prints – and you’ll see something else entirely: rough, reclaimed wood cladding one wall; a set of vintage wooden skis in the vestibule; and a chalet-style wall of chunky beer mugs behind the bar. “The vibe goes back to my love of the ocean with all the surf things, and (co-owner Katie Abbot’s) love of the mountains with lots of Sugarloaf stuff,” explained co-owner and general manager Seth Balliett. “When you step in, you step out of Maine, like you’re on vacation somewhere reminiscing about adventures you went on.”

This dislocation isn’t at all unpleasant, even if it does not prepare you for your next surprise: the menu. In choosing “global street food” as its theme, Woodhull rejects the entire concept of a culinary perspective, replacing it with a focus on dishes that are linked only by how and where they are eaten. Liberated from culture and geography, the kitchen is free to offer items from Jamaica, Japan, India, Mexico, Korea, even the United States, among others. If it’s available from a cart or a street vendor somewhere on the planet, it’s fair game.

The table settings reinforce the theme. Instead of plates, diners eat off of square, utilitarian, deli paper-lined aluminum trays. Balliett explains that “even though we use cotton napkins, we try to find a balance between nice and comfortable, so we give it a little down-home feel with the trays. We’re not a white plate kind of place.” It’s clever, but the trays create problems. The paper gets soggy quickly, and after a few dishes, disintegrates and rips into pieces that hitchhike, unwelcome, onto your food.

That goes double for wetter dishes, like slaws or the Thai papaya salad ($8) with crisp green beans, housemade shrimp oil, “gourmet tomatoes,” (really just heirloom tomatoes), shaved papaya and peanuts. Overall, a fresh, light salad, but with a dilute, too-mild “som tam” dressing that was undersalted and tasted as if it had been prepared by someone terrified of fish sauce.

Similarly, the hanger steak skewers ($10) were grilled to just the right temperature and consistency – not too rare, not too chewy. Missing was any hint of flavor from their day-long marinade in lemongrass, ginger, soy and garlic. Had I not read the menu description, I would have guessed they were plain, unobjectionably prepared strips of grilled beef.

Both dishes fit a broad pattern: Asian flavors are not Woodhull’s strong suit. It’s true of the Indian kulfi ice cream sandwiches with homemade brown-sugar cookies ($6), too, that tasted tinny and of excess saffron. Or the shishito pepper skewers ($6), featuring small, mild green peppers grilled over very high heat. The trouble here was with the Japanese “tar sauce” that chefs Matt and Rachel Chaisson make by slow-simmering gallons of tamari, sake and mirin with ginger and vegetables, until it leaves just two quarts of sticky basting sauce. Unfortunately, the cloying tar sauce caramelizes too quickly on the grill, leaving the peppers underdone and not very blistered.

Another long-bubbling sauce, this one made of Korean gochujang chili paste, tamari and ketchup, is used to baste bite-sized pieces of chicken thigh for the ginger chicken skewer ($6). On my recent visit it, like the heavily reduced sauce for the shishitos, was too sweet, overwhelming the flavor of the skillfully grilled chicken.

One exceptional Asian fusion plate was the Korean BBQ beef taco ($9) with thin slices of hanger steak, gochujang mayonnaise and shreds of pickled carrot and daikon. Here, a robust, mango-infused bulgogi-style marinade excavated something primal and hematic from the beef – a flavor balanced out by grainy sweetness from the housemade soft corn tortilla.

Don’t underestimate the importance of those rough-looking tortillas. Twice every day, the Chaissons and their team grill and stack fresh batches for the next service. Woodhull’s menu even features a step-by-step description of the preparation method. “For us, they are as much of a main attraction as the (taco) fillings. Not every one is perfectly round. You’ll get little creases and bumps, but they have a flavor that store-bought ones don’t,” Matt Chaisson said.

The decor themes at Woodhull Public House range from Hawaiian surf to Sugarloaf chalet.

As much as the kitchen struggles with Asian dishes, it pulls off strong, confident versions of nearly every item inspired by Latin America. Case in point: a splendidly simple-looking taco filled with brawny black beans ($4) slow-simmered with cumin, onions and garlic. Even better is the one loaded up with tender roasted cauliflower; a tart, pepita-thickened romesco sauce; basil; and cotija cheese ($5).

Even without the boost from a soft corn tortilla, Woodhull’s Mexican flavors shine. The Baja rice bowl ($8), with steamed jasmine rice, roasted-corn salsa, red cabbage slaw and house-pickled jalapeños, achieves an impressive, multidirectional balance of tastes and textures.

It’s also here that the menu takes a few well-calculated risks, such as in the aspirationally named “fritter mountain” ($6). “Really, it’s more of a fritter bump,” one of my dinner guests said under her breath so our attentive server wouldn’t hear. But when it comes to quick-fried corn patties mounded with beans, red cabbage and garlic mayo, size really doesn’t matter. What counts is the smoky, earthy tang from the pre-roasted corn, amplified in every bite by corn salsa and a sprinkle of chipotle salt. A fantastic dish.

If the fritter mountain’s grandiose name doesn’t match its modest size, that seems perfectly in line with Woodhull’s efforts to befuddle the diner’s sense of space, place and expectation. There’s a puckish playfulness here that can honestly be a lot of fun. But the overly eclectic menu seems to have pulled the restaurant a bit off course, especially with chefs who possesses dominant strengths in one cuisine. I don’t know if the way forward requires skis or a surfboard, but I do know that there’s a lot of promise at Woodhull, as long as it can figure out where it’s going.

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]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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