You don’t need me to tell you how unusual 2017 was. With frenetic news cycles and social media pulling our collective attention in a million directions at once, last year frequently seemed like a punch-drunk blur.

Thankfully, good food still holds the power to bring us back to ourselves (more or less). And Maine seems to have more of it with each passing year.

Last year alone saw Washington Avenue in Portland continue its evolution into one of the foodiest streets in New England. We’ve witnessed a 40-ish seat restaurant in Freedom that became so popular its customers crashed an entire municipality’s phone system. Don’t forget that the rest of the country is starting to pay attention; we had so many local James Beard Award semifinalists last year that I couldn’t fit them all into a congratulatory tweet.

Looking back, I count myself extraordinarily lucky to have lived in Maine over the past 12 months – fork (and occasionally chopsticks) in hand to fend off the world outside.

Here are just a few of the reasons why. (Unless otherwise mentioned, these restaurants are in Portland.)



Chaval, in Portland. A confession: I could have written twice as much as I did about Chaval this November, all of it glowing. It’s the sort of restaurant where every new visit shines light into unexplored corners of your experience. One time, you encounter a vegetarian entrée so good, you return with non-vegetarian out-of-town guests just to make them taste it. Later, you accidentally observe bar manager Patrick McDonald’s secret ability to make a half-dozen varieties of daiquiri, including one with Xerez sherry. But perhaps best of all, after nibbling your way through chef/owner Damian Sansonetti’s fideos – toasted, broken vermicelli flavored with an uni aioli that whispers a rumor of the ocean over every bite – dessert still awaits. Sometimes, it’s pastry chef/owner Ilma Lopez’s legendarily crisp, light churros, served with a chocolate sauce that demands spooning into your mouth, long after the last bite of fried dough has disappeared. Other times, if you’re very fortunate, you’ll find treats like Bee’s Knees, a gin-and-lemon-curd flavored bombe Alaska wearing a stucco coat of caramelized meringue.

It, like Chaval, is spectacular and only getting better.

The restaurant and wine bar Northern Union.


Northern Union in Ogunquit. Although Matt and Lauren Wickert, owners of Northern Union, had their hearts set on opening a wine shop and snack bar in Ogunquit, they quickly altered their plans when they saw 261 Shore Road. Configured like a rabbit warren with more than half a dozen unique spaces, any one of which could inspire its own restaurant, the building imposed its own demands on the couple. So they opened Northern Union, a low-key, casual fine-dining spot open seasonally, from April to the end of January. Young chef Romann Dumorne gets his star turn here, showcasing his complete DIY ethos – he makes nearly everything, from steamed buns to crème fraiche, in-house. Ask him, and he’ll talk about food costs and consistency, but the reality is, he knows he can make better mostarda and pasta than even most artisan producers can. Dumorne’s late-spring ramp soup, as green as Astroturf and dusted with ash from charred ramp stems, is nuanced and gorgeously balanced. And his tagliatelle with fiddleheads and crumbly, salty cured egg yolk is a dish I still reminisce about a few times a month.

Honorable mention: The chef’s choice (omakase) dinner at Suzuki’s Sushi Bar in Rockland. Self-taught sushi master Keiko Suzuki-Steinberger’s restaurant is no longer a secret, but that’s okay. The world needs to know about her incredibly floral pickled summer squash and hakurai turnips, not to mention her gingery, lemon-lime lobster ceviche or saba nigiri, cut, skin still shimmering, from the last of the season’s local mackerel.



Pork ribs at Francine Bistro in Camden, coated in mustard and apricot jam, slow-smoked over apple and maple wood until they are as sticky as pine resin, then finished with salty-sweet Cambodian fish-sauce caramel and crushed peanuts. Messy, complex and undeniably extraordinary. The restaurant is closed until May, according to a sign on the premises.

Honorable mentions: Cast-iron seared monkfish tail with asparagus tips and fresh fava leaves at The Lost Kitchen in Freedom. So good it inspired me to cook with fava leaves all summer long.

And, glass noodle salad with green strawberries, surf clam and dime-sized globules of chive oil floating on sour coconut milk broth at Honey Paw.

A Buddha statue greets guests at the entrance of Huong’s Vietnamese Restaurant.


(TIE) Lobster pho at Huong’s Vietnamese Restaurant, an occasional special that deserves a spot on the permanent menu. Into her aromatic beef bone broth, chef Huong Le adds the meat from an entire lobster. Who knew charred star anise and cinnamon were such a perfect match for Maine’s most famous export?

Chef Bob Hoyt’s frothy, chilled avocado soup at XYZ in Southwest Harbor, so light and bright you can taste the white tequila in the broth. You’ll have to wait until this summer to sample it, but it alone is worth the trip to Mount Desert Island.



Kouign-Amann from Ten Ten Pié. Thanks to “The Great British Baking Show,” you’ll find plenty of bakeries that sell this suddenly trendy classic pastry made from ultra-buttery dough and sugar. But really, the only one worth trying is pastry chef/co-owner Atsuko Fujimoto’s. It’s no contest.

Honorable mentions: Speaking of excellent laminated dough, it’s hard to go wrong with the delicate almond croissant at Lil’s in Kittery, or the super-flaky pain au chocolate (chocolate croissant) at Belleville, a newcomer in Munjoy Hill.


Trevin Hutchins, no longer behind the bar at Tempo Dulu, moved to Rhum last year, where he created an entirely new menu of creative cocktails to fit with the restaurant’s Tiki theme. Perhaps the best of these is Another Cobra’s Fang, a riff on a traditional Manhattan made with dark rum, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, sweet vermouth and bitters. It’s sophisticated and tropical at the same time, like wearing a tuxedo for a stroll along the beach. Alas, you will not be able to drink Another Cobra’s Fang, or anything else at Rhum, as the restaurant closed just as 2017 ended.

Honorable mentions: Little Giant‘s savory, always-a-little-dirty martini made with filtered seawater. Baharat‘s rye-and-turmeric-based Curcuma Sour has foamy, vegan aquafaba froth in place of egg whites.



The “Vegetable” entrée at Chaval, with roasted celeraic, delicata squash, romesco Swiss chard and olive tapenade.

(TIE) The flattop-seared smoked spaghetti squash sandwich at Noble Barbecue.

The chunky-romesco-sauced “Vegetable” entrée at Chaval.

The stewed tomato onigiri at Mami, an absolute umami bomb.

I’d happily choose any one of these three over another boring chicken breast.



I ate more than my fair share of hamburgers in Portland this summer. My favorite of the lot was probably East Ender’s, made with house-smoked meat and jack cheese (and it’s even better if you add sautéed North Spore mushrooms).

Honorable mention: From bun to pickles, the 33 Burger at 33 Elmwood is homemade and designed to trigger comparisons to a Big Mac. You may never go back to the Golden Arches after tasting one.


(TIE) In 2017, I ate three fried chicken sandwiches that made my face flush with pleasure as I reached for a glass of milk, then went back for another bite. And another.

The Buffalo Chicken sandwich at Frontier in Brunswick, slathered with harissa paste cut with Sriracha, and topped with a cooling cilantro cream.

J’s Chicken Shack’s simple Little Bird sandwich made with stupefyingly fiery fried chicken breast.


BRGR Bar’s coleslaw-and-pickle-stacked Nashville Hot, a stealthily spicy charmer.


Out on North Haven island, Nebo Lodge collaborates every summer with nearby Turner Farms to host a five-course meal amid the fields where most of the evening’s produce was grown. The vaulted ceilings of rough-hewn wood and genial staff (many of whom also work on the farm) make the event feel intimate, like a countryside dinner party for 60. Total farm-to-table distance: about 4 yards.

The All-In, a large sharing plate with kabobs, mezze, spreads, pickles, sauces and Iraqi flatbread served at Baharat, is one of the best bang-for-your-buck choices at Portland restaurants.


(TIE) When it comes to bang-for-your-buck, two Portland restaurants stand out. First, the $30, four- or five-course omakase at Minato that ranges from delicate raw dishes to hearty comfort food like pork belly fried rice. Then there’s Baharat’s All-In: At $45 for two people, $80 for four, this sampler includes grill-marked kebabs, minty eggplant, cooling yogurt spreads, pickles and Iraqi flatbread. Good luck finishing it all.



(TIE) Hu Tieu Xao, prepared with broad, irregular rice noodles, jalapeños and coffee-infused sweet brown sauce at Cong Tu Bot.

Springy red pepper ramen noodles in cloudy, Hakata-style pork broth at Ramen Suzukiya.


(TIE) Schulte & Herr‘s Bauernfrühstück, a rustic, omelette-like dish filled with potatoes, onions and chives. Think of it as the German version of a Spanish tortilla.

The Cholula hot-sauce drizzled, open-faced deviled egg bagel sandwich from South Portland’s new Scratch Toast Bar. Get there before noon and be prepared to wait for a table.



Last March, I came very close to raving about Forage in Lewiston’s wood-fired veggie pie, topped with thin slices of butternut squash, mushrooms and a truffle aioli. Then, suddenly, they pulled the plug on their pizza dinners and shifted focus to finding Portland real estate where they could build a second business. Be on the lookout, because they’re scheduled to open this year, on (where else?) Washington Avenue.

The panna cotta with tropical fruit at Salt Pine Social.


I don’t generally seek out gluten-free sweets, but last year, a few made me sit up and take notice, largely because none of them felt like a compromise. One – a salted caramel flan cake comprising a wobbly layer of Japanese custard pudding, a smooth Filipino flan and a salted caramel topping – deservedly took top honors for Lorraine Fagela and Cornerstone Food Company at the Maine’s Best Bakers contest in November. Look for more of her desserts in Westbrook, where she is developing the menu for a new restaurant, Roots Cafe, scheduled to open this year.

Honorable mentions: The chickpea-flour-based housemade blueberry cake at Downstreet Market in Vinalhaven.

The tropical-themed panna cotta at Salt Pine Social in Bath, an homage to Krista Kern Desjarlais’ dearly missed Bresca.

The tender, tart lime-poppyseed cake at Ten Ten Pié.



(TIE) I’ve never been inspired to make cabbage my entire meal until I tasted the sweet and sour, wok-sautéed cabbage at Sichuan Kitchen. I could probably have done the same with this summer’s lightly battered, deep-fried smelts at Tipo, or (if I weren’t paying attention to my waistline), the crisp, skin-on French fries at Liquid Riot. That said, I could probably get away with eating nothing but the Little Gem salad with rye breadcrumbs and dill-forward Green Goddess dressing at Little Giant. And that would suit me just fine.

MORE BEST OF WINNERS: Read Andrew’s list from 2016

Andrew Ross is the Maine Sunday Telegram Dine Out critic. He 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:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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