Find one person with a bad thing to say about David Turin. Go on, I challenge you. It’s harder than you think.

A transplant to Maine in 1992, Turin quickly established himself as one of Portland’s most important and most beloved restaurateurs. If we had a culinary version of Mount Rushmore carved into the hillsides of the Western Promenade, David’s bespectacled face would be there, grinning at visitors crossing the Fore River.

As Portland’s food scene has grown since his first eponymous restaurant opened on Monument Square 27 years ago, Turin has been there every step of the way, sometimes adapting to keep pace with its rapid evolution, and sometimes spurring it along by adding new businesses to his roster, including David’s 388 in South Portland in 2005, and seven years later, Opus Ten, a seasonal, fine-dining restaurant snuggled into the back rooms of David’s.

Along the way, Turin has also developed a reputation for being a terrific boss, mentoring highly regarded local chefs – everyone from Brett Cary (Big Tree Catering) to Bo Byrne (TIQA and The Broad Arrow Tavern) and Mike Smith (Scales and Tipo) – and standing up for his employees when things go awry, as they did when all of his Kennebunkport restaurants were shuttered by his former business partners in 2017.

Remarkably, in an environment where nearly every chef I speak to tells me what a struggle it is to retain staff, Turin’s employees stick around. “I don’t really get a lot of turnover,” he said. “I’ve worked with a few chefs, like Kelsey O’Connor (chef de cuisine at David’s 388) who came to me when they were in culinary school. I’ve just had really good fortune keeping people like him around for a long time.”

And behind-the-scenes consistency matters, giving Turin, O’Connor and Ian Yencha, the chef de cuisine at his 105-seat Portland restaurant, time to sync up their cooking styles and creative processes. “I really see a certain similarity between the way we all do things.” Turin said. “It happens all the time with Kelsey, and it’s happening more with Ian now. It’s fun for me when I see them cooking or put something new on the menu, and I say, ‘That’s exactly how I would have done it.’ ”

Such harmony of perspective plays out especially well at David’s 388, a 44-seat neighborhood restaurant that offers a concise and well-focused menu of New American brasserie-style dishes. Five years ago, our then-critic raved about the kitchen staff’s attention to detail and precise coordination with servers in his 4 1/2-star review.

From that perspective, little seems to have changed. Servers remain knowledgeable about the menu, offering cautions about portion sizes (“Proteins are about the size of a deck of cards here — not like a Flintstone’s steak,” one said to a neighboring table) and even an impromptu poem about the appetizer list (“I like the Brussels and the mussels, not just because they rhyme, but because they’re both so great,” another told me with a laugh).

I was charmed, so I put in an order for the Brussels sprouts ($11). Deep-fried golden and topped with pulverized Marcona almonds, bleu cheese and a sweet soy glaze, these are the sort of vegetables whose salinity strong-arms the diner into ordering something tart to drink to help balance things out. A glass of flinty Caposaldo Pinot Grigio ($9) does the trick and pairs equally well with an order of the salmon, hake and sweet-potato cakes that the kitchen cozies up to a nest of bright, tangy cabbage slaw.

While David’s 388 doesn’t serve tapas-style plates, portions are indeed on the small side. That’s a feature, not a bug when dishes are executed flawlessly, like Turin’s miniature riff on a classic Southern pie, the pecan-bourbon tartlette ($8), aromatic from amaretto liqueur in a chocolate cookie crust and dripping with caramelized brown sugar.

Seafood-and-sweet-potato cakes with sweet-and-spicy aioli and shaved-Brussels-sprouts-and-cabbage slaw, at David’s 388 in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When something is off, like the weirdly aerated texture of overcooked buttermilk risotto that cradles slices of fantastic crispy duck breast ($22), there is so little else on the plate, it leaves you wishing you had ordered something else.

One safe bet will always be the bacon-and-cheddar-draped “Classic” burger ($15.50), served on a broad slice of homemade rosemary focaccia. When my rhyming server told me that she had a table the previous week where all six people ordered the burger, and every one of them finished it, I wasn’t surprised.

“For me, the biggest challenge in the business is execution,” Turin later told me. “On my menu, there is not one ingredient that makes you say, ‘What’s that?’ I’m much more concerned with doing it well, the exact same every time.”

Santo Sanchez and Shelley Oakes depart David’s Restaurant in Monument Square. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

That credo seems to fit well with David’s 388 and its terse list of dishes. On Monument Square, where David’s offers a menu that, including pizzas and nightly specials, is twice as large, it sometimes feels more like theory than practice.

Everything at David’s is larger than it is across the bridge: the bar, backed by an open wine rack holding more than 100 bottles; vaulted ceilings hung with efficient sound-dampening baffles that look like school gym mats; even the open kitchen, recently livened up with cheery wrought-iron fish that double as pot racks.

But most especially, the portions — something our then-reviewer noted in her three-star write-up of David’s nearly 13 years ago, describing one dish as “designed to feed four.”

“Oh my god!” squealed a little boy at the next table when his server brought out a chocolate-chip ice cream sandwich as big as his face ($9). I had nearly the same reaction when I caught sight of my dinner guest’s entree, a mammoth slab of juicy, brown-sugar-and-bacon-crusted meatloaf ($22) topped with cumin-spiced fried onions. Underneath: a serving of gorgeous buttermilk-garlic mashed potatoes so large that it could have been portioned with a shovel.

My calamari ($15) wasn’t much smaller, though it technically counts as an appetizer. But whereas my guest happily took home the leftovers from his meatloaf, I left most of the fried squid behind, never fully warming to the salty imbalance of savory breading, briny black olives and feta cheese.

Sadly, I also left behind most of my (not-so) “small” Cajun Reggae pizza ($14), a bizarre cultural mashup of blackened chicken strips, caramelized onions, cilantro and fistfuls of arugula. The crust was fantastic and the pizza blistered and beautifully cooked, but it bore no connection to its name. Neither Cajun nor Caribbean, the dish was more like a bistro-style, goat cheese salad on a flatbread.

And I didn’t really need another salad, having earlier ordered a grilled romaine and lardon “wedge,” served in the style of a buttermilk-ranch-drizzled steakhouse standby ($13.50). It was another decent-enough dish, marred only by the questionable inclusion of tomato wedges that tasted like nothing — exactly what you’d expect from a dinner in late April, but a baffling choice from the same restaurant that plays host to the ultra-seasonal Opus Ten during the summer months.

I had come close to ordering an item that sounded suitable for springtime: a prosciutto and pea-shoot salad special ($14.50), but was dissuaded by my server. “Hmmm …” she murmured, “I’d go for something else. That’s a little salty. It’s not quite there yet.” As grateful as I was for her help, it made me wonder about the alignment between the restaurant’s front-of-house staff and kitchen. It is never a good sign when a server warns you away from a dish.

Similarly, I couldn’t figure out what the back-of-house staff must have thought when they were plating up my my butternut squash arancini ($13), two cheesy, deep-fried risotto balls that were so wet inside, they arrived at my table slumped and spreading lazily into crumb-crusted puddles.

An order of the springy carrot cake roulade ($9) was all it took to right the ship, however. Tender and fragrant with warm spice, the caramel-drizzled, cream-cheese-icing-filled spiral was both baked perfectly and an appropriate size for one person.

Say what you will about his Portland restaurant’s rambling, often random-seeming culinary viewpoint and hit-or-miss execution, when it comes to dessert, David Turin has calculated the experience out to several decimal places.

“I have always really loved carrot cake,” he said. “But it’s not light, and my complaint was that if you don’t get a bite of frosting, it’s disappointing. So that’s how we came up with the roulade. It’s not heavy, and every bite comes with frosting.”

To quote the man himself: That’s exactly how I would have done it.

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]

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