There’s a lot of freedom in the word “mostly,” especially the way Bowman Brown uses it. As chef/owner of Elda, a bijou small plates restaurant in Biddeford, he and his team serve a menu that artfully stitches together European and Japanese flavors. But that’s not the whole story. Ask him to describe the concept behind Elda, and his response is precise: “It’s a modern seafood restaurant that showcases ingredients prepared with relatively simple cooking, mostly.” That last word is an important escape hatch, one that lets him set a course for Elda, but gives him the flexibility to make detours.

His unwillingness to be restricted also comes through when he tells you about his personal culinary perspective. “I don’t necessarily have a particular style. I think of it more as being a purist about ingredients,” he says. “I’ve always done my own thing. I’m non-denominational.”

Coming from another, less experienced or talented chef, that might sound glib, but it is Brown’s way of indicating that he not only understands the rules he sets for himself, he also knows when he can get away with breaking them.

He knows because he’s done this before. Brown earned his stripes at Forage, the Salt Lake City restaurant where he not only shared the 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chefs accolade with co-chef Viet Pham, but was also a six-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest award.

At Forage, which closed in 2016, Brown drew inspiration from the climate and biologically diverse ecology of the Rocky Mountains, but in Biddeford, he’s got different plans – slightly. “A restaurant experience should always speak about where you are and what time of year it is,” he said. “But this time around, I’m trying to steer a little bit away from strict locavorism. I want to be free and open to grow organically, use modernist techniques and some old-fashioned things that people used to make food delicious.”

In particular, open-fire cooking, which forms a cornerstone of several of Elda’s best dishes. Among them, cubes of raw black bass and oyster-liquor-infused whipped cream served in a watercress, dill, green onion and parsley soup ($10). The lizard-green broth is where fire comes into play: Brown uses it to smoke leftover fish bones, concentrating their flavor before brewing them into a Japanese dashi. But perhaps the most exciting element is invisible until you stick your spoon in: a layer of sprouted wheat berries dressed in olive oil that burst open as you chew. Totally unexpected, the grain also feels in harmony with the dish, indirectly echoing sushi and chirashizushi’s grain-and-protein rhythms. “Raw fish on rice makes total sense to everybody, so I wanted to play with that,” Brown said.

Intensifying flavors over fire also plays an important role in his lush clam dip with seaweed crackers ($4). Here, scraps and trimmings from razor clams are dried out over smoky coals, then simmered with cream and blended smooth. When an order comes in, Brown and his team invoke a modern technique, using a pressurized siphon to aerate the dip into a straw-colored mousse, which they squirt into a small bowl and serve with irregular shards of bubble-studded, chicharrón-like seaweed crackers made from puréed sticky brown rice and sea lettuce.

Sea bass with chilled watercress soup at Elda, one of Biddeford’s newest restaurants. Elda was opened by chef Bowman Brown in December. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

In what may be Elda’s signature dish, warm crab with egg yolk and carrots ($14), the kitchen unites fire with another historical tool that has become fashionable in recent years: fermentation. Many chefs these days make preserved and pickled items a focal point for their dishes, but Brown deploys fermentation in a nuanced, sophisticated fashion. If you’re not paying attention, you might even miss the angel’s kiss of acid in the rice-wine-vinegar-preserved discs of yellow carrot. But it’s there, chiming in tune with tiny sparkles of heat from Thai red chili and softening the dark, flinty brininess of fire-roasted crab bodies and sweet, picked crab meat.

Elda’s delicate touch with aggressive ingredients plays out as a theme across the menu. As an accompaniment to roasted shallots and gorgeously seared, still-wobbly diver scallops ($18), the kitchen serves gently pickled pearl onions, whose muted acid and sulfur flavors animate every bite. As a woman at the next table handed her spotless plate back to the server, she quipped, “Tell the chef that these are the best scallops I have ever eaten. And I’m old!”

Even the drinks demonstrate a calculated restraint. One, the Negroni with Love ($13), is a stirred concoction that blends Bimini gin distilled just down the street in Biddeford, Dolin Blanc vermouth, and Suze – an archly bitter French gentian aperitif that normally annihilates all other flavors within its considerable blast radius. But Elda’s bar managers, Brittany Saliwanchik and Brian Catapang, somehow defang the Suze with a double-dose of liqueurs, one passion fruit and the other grapefruit. It’s a revelatory version of a drink that has been riffed on more times than “Brown Eyed Girl.”

Roasted duck with celery root and a miniature crème-fraîche-topped apple pie. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

It might come as a bit of a shock to former patrons of Elda’s predecessor, Custom Deluxe, that there are cocktails here at all, but when Brown took over the building, he expanded into the rear of the next storefront (formerly a record store), giving him room to add a concrete bar with seven shiny bar stools made from woven brass mesh. Today, the space seats just shy of 50 people and – thanks to its hairpin-legged wooden tables, leather-backed dining chairs and unadorned exposed brick – feels at once cosmopolitan and a little sparse, almost hinting that you ought to pay attention to what’s on your plate, not the décor.

That’s easy enough to do, even when there are very minor lapses in presentation. I was captivated by the geometric duo of a single, crisp-skinned teardrop slice of duck breast plated next to a miniature, crème-fraîche-topped pie ($22). Bubbling inside the laminated, rough-puff crust was a confit of duck leg and tender celery root. Still, one component struck me as confusingly disconnected from the others: a tiny, tasty blob of roasted Macintosh apple purée that wound up stranded across the plate, as if placed there as a rebuke.

In all honesty, I didn’t expect to like the warm parsnip cake ($8) when I first saw it – a slice of brown butter génoise sponge under a loose, roasted banana purée. Another rustic dessert, I thought. But then I took a bite and was transfixed, as if someone had grabbed me by the tongue. The crumbs burying the tangy yogurt sorbet that I thought were crushed cookies, turned out to be crunchy, caramelized milk powder, with a flavor like a cross between shortbread and the interior of a malted milk ball. And with each bite of the cake, I could taste a suggestion of something a little earthy, almost like sweet horseradish, in the background. I couldn’t stop taking little bites. “You have to be really careful about using too much parsnip in the cake,” Brown warned me. “If you use too much, it’s too ‘parsnippy,’ so I really made that dessert about other things … mostly.”

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