Living with a roommate is an adult experience that teaches you about yourself as well as others. Sometimes, it all works out perfectly, with everyone amicably sharing common spaces and splitting utility bills with a smile. Other times, things don’t go quite as well. As I discovered with my first college dorm mates, pitched battles about little things like the stereo (country music vs. Depeche Mode) can annihilate budding friendships. To this day, the biggest argument I have ever had remains whether it is ever acceptable to borrow your roommate’s toothbrush. Reader, it is not.

Chef/owner J. Harris of Esidore’s Bistro @ Night has had much better luck with his choice of roommates for his new Falmouth restaurant. Harris, a Mainer from Orono, had been living in Colorado, where he opened two successful restaurants. After a rough divorce, he decided the time was right for him to leave the state. So he came to Maine to scout out real estate, then sent his cousin, Adam Shapiro, the owner of Bernie’s Foreside, a message, proposing they work together. “He called me instantly, right after I sent it to him. He told me, ‘I’ve got this great space that’s not being used at night. It’s a great opportunity.’ So I did it. My family is here, my parents have spent summers here. I came back right away. Adam even helped me with a place to stay,” he said.

Since opening four months ago, Bernie’s and Esidore’s seem to be getting along swimmingly. Harris arrives to start dinner prep in the afternoon, and his team scrubs the dining room of any evidence of the bistro at night. When I visited for a late meal recently, his front-of-house manager Christy Stenger bopped and bounced to the Dave Matthews Band as she replaced salt shakers and packets of jelly for the morning. “Don’t mind me,” she said. “I’ll just be here turning this place back into Bernie’s while you eat!”

Stenger, who followed Harris from Colorado, was an extraordinarily entertaining server, offering generous pours of the Mureda Cabernet Sauvignon ($9) along with color commentary on the menu that guided us to one of the night’s best items: a non-traditional chicken tikka ($16) that might be the healthiest version of that dish I’ve tried. “It used to be a special, but people just kept asking for it and asking for it. So I told J. just to get over it and put it on the menu!” she said.

Harris’s version, served with steamed brown rice, could also rightfully be called “chicken and cauliflower tikka,” given its equal proportions of vegetables to poultry, all simmered in a creamy red sauce of ginger, garlic, toasted garam masala spices, yogurt and tomato paste. The texture contrasts – tender florets against chunks of moist chicken breast and crunchy slivered almonds – give tikka a welcome personality upgrade.

As with all of the restaurant’s dishes, it is gluten-free, which is possibly the last thing you’d expect from a chef whose first business, Izzy’s (also named after Harris’s great-grandfather, Esidore Shapiro), was a bagel shop. “I was a baker, a French- and Italian-style chef who used to make fun of people who didn’t eat gluten. I was like, ‘No, that’s not real,'” he said. “Then I got diagnosed with celiac three years in, and it all changed. No roux, no plain pasta, all the things I was used to eating.”


Trips to San Francisco, Mexico and Vietnam exposed Harris to new cuisines that don’t necessarily rely on wheat, and very quickly, he was hooked. As he has learned about new cuisines – as much from the internet as from his travels – his personal style of cooking, “an American melding of world flavors,” according to the menu, has evolved.

Occasionally, he finds clever solutions to intractable problems, like what to do about hamburger buns. Gluten-free breads can be gummy and tough, sometimes seeming to go stale the second they are taken from the oven. What makes the bun for Harris’s Esidore Burger ($16) remarkable is that it isn’t really a burger bun at all; it’s a Brazilian pao de queijo roll. Made with a piped choux pastry of tapioca starch, eggs and cheese, it has more in common with a cream puff than a brioche, but as the bookends to a patty of American Kobe-style beef, it is fantastic – airy and a little crisp, but webbed and even a little custardy inside.

His cross-cultural dishes aren’t all quite as successful, like Maine pho ($16), a chicken-stock-based version of Vietnamese pho ga, to which Harris adds an entire filet of pan-seared haddock. It’s unwieldy and tricky to eat, with limp, underseasoned broth that makes it feel not quite worth the effort. Still, cubes of delightfully sticky-sweet, soy-braised pork belly go a long way toward redeeming the pho. A few squirts of sriracha also help.

Other dishes just narrowly miss the mark, like Brussels sprouts ($8) tossed with a too-sweet soy, mirin and maple syrup reduction that would be excellent with a little less maple and a little more soy. Or Ezzy’s fries ($8) that crackle like a lighted sparkler with Japanese shichimi togarashi spices: orange peel, ground ginger, chili and sansho peppers. What’s missing is just another few dashes of kosher salt.

Back in the realm of uniquely American dishes, Esidore’s pumpkin-butterscotch macaroons ($8), an agreeably dense dessert served with strawberries and whipped cream, made me suspect that, deep down, Harris remains a baker at heart. I got that inkling from the bonus second sweet treat on the plate: irregular squares of shatteringly crunchy peanut brittle stacked next to each cookie. I wouldn’t have thought to pair caramelly brittle with soft, pliable coconut macaroons, but tasting showed me that the two really do belong together, harmoniously sharing a little 6-inch square of real estate.

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:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.