Editor’s note: All restaurants are in Portland unless otherwise noted.

When I’m on the road and start chatting with strangers, they often have the same reaction when they learn I live in Maine: “I’m so jealous,” they say, with a dreamy look in their eyes.

They mention the lobster, the pine forests, the hiking trails, the ski slopes, the rocky coastline thrashed so cinematically by crashing waves. No doubt, they’re right about it all.

But this year, when Bon Appetit magazine declared Portland its Restaurant City of the Year, it gave the rest of the world a further reason (as if it needed another) to be envious. Truthfully, it’s not as if anything changed dramatically in the state’s food scene over the past 365 days, but one morning in August, we woke up to discover that all eyes were on Maine.

In an instant, it was no longer just Georgia on people’s minds.

What followed that weekend, and for a solid three months thereafter, was an influx of tourists so enormous, I considered building an ark. Forget going out for dinner at any restaurant that got a mention in the article. It was nearly impossible to snag a table.

And the halo effect extended beyond Portland. I got e-mails from readers in Atlanta and Las Vegas, even an old friend from high school who now lives in New Brunswick, asking where to go for a meal in towns from Kittery to Calais.

So reflecting on my favorites this year has been a different exercise than it was in the past. I’ve spent the back half of 2018 thinking and talking with people about places I adore and why I love them, recently departed restaurants I’ll miss dearly and dishes I can’t wait to try again.

Now that our secret is officially out, I can’t wait to see how a little additional attention and an extra helping of tourist dollars reshapes Maine’s already spectacular dining scene in 2019.

I suspect the coming year will make the world just a bit more jealous.

BEST NEW RESTAURANT: Elda. After my first visit to Biddeford’s Elda in March, I spent much of the rest of 2018 reminiscing about Utah transplant chef Bowman Brown’s deft hand at pulling new textures and flavors from the simplest ingredients.

There’s a clear allegiance to precision and modernist techniques in his cooking. But even while he’s busy using a siphon and dehydrator, he demonstrates through his unambiguous understanding of flavors that he doesn’t actually need them.

Brown is especially gifted at taking seafood scraps – fish bones, leftover razor clam meat, crab shells – and marshalling the transformative power of smoke and open flame to create unexpected backdrops for his dishes. There they are, murmuring beneath crunchy rice and tart dairy in his chicharron-esque clam dip with seaweed crackers. And again, behind luridly peppery watercress soup and black bass with oyster cream. But in his sublime, slow-scrambled egg with delicately pickled yellow carrot, Thai red chili and crab meat, those subtle, singular flavors crackle softly like the sound of a vinyl record spiraling into its final rotations around a turntable.

In Salt Lake City, Brown was a co-recipient of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef award and a six-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Southwest award. It’s easy to see why; his cooking is remarkable.

BEST SINGLE MEAL I ATE: While my first dinner at Elda is a close second for this category, the newly relocated and rebooted Drifters Wife takes the prize. Chef Ben Jackson’s skill at putting out stellar meals on two induction burners and a half-sized oven in Drifters Wife’s former location next-door has become the stuff of local legend. But with new tools like a plancha, a six-burner stove and convection oven, not to mention walk-in cold storage, he’s able to explore new techniques through his concise, ultra-seasonal menu.

What’s not to love about chicken prepared “al mattone”-style (weighed down in the pan with a brick), served with parsnips and green garlic, a massaged Napa cabbage salad dressed with honey vinegar and strewn with toasted pistachios and parsley, and local hake served over an intensely savory combination of snappy fresh agretti (a shore-grown succulent) and littleneck broth?

Add in glasses of funky-fruity Redentore Refosco and Naomi Grenache Gris from Ruth Lewandowski Wines, sipped in the restaurant’s duskily stylish new space, and you’ve got a meal worth celebrating.

BEST SINGLE DISH I ATE: (TIE) Torchio pasta with peas and fiery ‘njuja from Lolita.

Frisée salad with pork belly croutons and a garlicky mustard vinaigrette and poached egg at Woodford Food & Beverage.

BEST COCKTAIL: (TIE) Old Fashioneds might be trendy these days, but when they’re done well, they showcase how well a bartender comprehends balance. Two of these whiskey-and-sugar cocktails deserve special mention here: The house-infused cherry Old Fashioned at Calderwood Hall on North Haven and the black walnut Old Fashioned at Independent Ice Co. So too, the milk-clarified gin, lemon verbena and Sambuca-based Strange Dream at Lio.

BEST DESSERT: (TIE) Buxton Common’s triple coconut pie.

Craquelin-topped éclair served with cranberry compote at the recently shutteredBolster Snow & Co.

Flattop-grilled pandan cake at Cong Tu Bot.

Chestnut-and-adzuki-bean babka topped with salted sakura petals from Ten Ten Pié.

BEST USE OF SPACE: Tuscan Table in South Portland gave southern Maine a master class in how to turn an immense and charmless building into a chic, inviting space. All credit to Nicola Manganello’s design skills – through warm colors and comfy textile touches, white marble and gold-inlaid tile, as well as giant laser-cut wood cages that sheathe open-bulb pendant lighting, her vision of this big-box by the mall is a sheer stunner.

Honorable mentions: Drifter’s Wife for smartly carving up the cavernous former Roustabout space into two distinct zones that operate independently but feel aesthetically cohesive. Bonus points for Christopher David Ryan’s custom wallpaper, whose organic, blobby forms soften the hard angles and edges of the dining room.

BEST RESTAURANT NOT REACHABLE BY CAR: Crown Jewel in Diamond Cove on Great Diamond Island, which is another enchantingly designed space, this one a tropical re-imagining of a former blacksmith’s shop. A meal at chef Rocky Hunter’s seasonal restaurant feels like a two- or three-hour vacation set to the soundtrack of a vegan-friendly menu and creative cocktails.

BEST VEGETARIAN DISH: (TIE) Indonesian Gado gado at Honey Paw, a nutty salad of tender boiled potato, tofu, green beans and egg. It’s Salade Nicoise after a semester abroad.

A long-standing favorite, the fried cauliflower with ras el hanout, chickpeas, matchstick apples, mint and feta from Central Provisions is a dish I have been copying at home for nearly four years. Chef Chris Gould’s is always better.

BEST VALUE/BARGAIN: Springy pupusas (a Salvadoran version of extra-thick and chewy corn tortillas) with melted cheese and pickled loroco flowers from Flores Restaurant on Congress St. $2 gets you one – a perfect snack. $4 gets you full, and for $20, you’re ready to host the kind of party to which I’d love an invitation, please.

Honorable mention: If dinner at Miyake is beyond your current budget, check out its lunchtime bento. For $21, you get six small courses that change daily. You’ll often find katsu, sushi and freshly dressed vegetables in the partitioned wooden box, all executed to Masa Miyake’s exactingly high standards.

BEST SANDWICH: The unexpectedly appealing Surf and Turf sandwich at Highroller Lobster Co. – a brisket blend cheeseburger topped with lobster meat and a thick impasto of jalapeño mayo. I can’t imagine anything less kosher, except the same sandwich with a slice of bacon. (Which, by the way, is also an option.)

Honorable mention: Grilled shrimp BLT with homemade mayonnaise at OhNo Cafe (even better on a bialy).

BEST RIGHT-PLACE, RIGHT-TIME SPECIALS: (TIE) The special importation sushi that arrives at Benkay every Thursday and usually sells out by the end of the weekend.

The superb pâté en croûte at Scales. Chef Frederic Eliot prepares it every other week for service on Friday. By Saturday, it’s usually gone.

BEST DEEP-FRIED DISH: (TIE) Deep-fried, Fresno-chili-brined chicken with cane-syrup-drizzled waffles at Eaux.

Fried green tomatoes at The Nightingale on Vinalhaven.

Belly clams, prepared Lilian’s style at the new Portland outpost of Bob’s Clam Hut.

BEST SPECIALTY WINE LIST: (TIE) No Coward Soul in Bath offers an all-Portuguese list, and Taverna Khione in Brunswick’s an all-Greek list. Both also feature serious bargain bottles (some as low as $20).

BEST POTATOES: (TIE) Joël Robuchon-style mashed potatoes at Dunstan Tap & Table in Scarborough.

Crisp potato pancakes with lox cured on site, sour cream and applesauce from Schulte & Herr.

Honorable mention: Latkes at Rose Foods

BEST ICE CREAM: Newly budded peach leaf ice cream at Walkers Maine in Cape Neddick.

Fragrant spruce tip ice cream from the Little Bee Honey Ice Cream cart.

House-made mastic ice cream at Taverna Khione.

BEST RAW DISH: (TIE) Belon oysters from Harpswell, grown from a cultivar imported from Brittany, served shucked for $1.50 apiece at The Shop.

Goi Cai Bap, a cabbage salad with red onion, peanuts, fish sauce and torn mint at Cong Tu Bot.

Raw scallop and spicy Maine crab temaki hand roll at Mr. Tuna (both from the mobile sushi bar and the new brick-and-mortar space in the Portland Public Market).

BEST BOWL OF SOUP: (TIE) Ground chicken, ginger and broken rice form the basis of Thai Esaan‘s khao tom, a winter soup that makes an ideal antidote to a cold, flu or mid-week blahs.

Matzoh ball soup at Sammy’s Deluxe in Rockland – it’s good enough to make Bubbe envious.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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