Had I not brought my cousin’s 5-year-old to dinner at Bitter End in Wells, I might never have recognized the magic of its outdoor space. Sometimes it takes a kid to refocus your perspective.

What I initially saw as an expanse of grassy lawn interrupted by a few quirky assemblages — crippled outboard motors roosting like crows along a purposeless fence, gnawed lobster buoys suspended above a row of overturned wooden skiffs — turned out to be the stuff that ignites a child’s imagination.

Instead of finishing his order of undersalted marinara-simmered meatballs ($10) and terrifically crisp, toasty onion strings with house-made smoked tomato ketchup ($9), my young guest spent nearly the entire night away from the table.

“Daddy! Come take a selfie of me,” he squealed to his father, first while propping up an orange steel anchor, then from an oversized throne crafted from driftwood and salvaged lumber. He calls all photos, including the ones I took of our lazily plated dishes, “selfies.”

That night I snapped a lot of “selfies” in Bitter End’s evocative half-playground, half-sculpture garden.

“Well, there’s a rusty metal wheel back there,” head chef Richard Ellis said, “so I wouldn’t want to think about it as a playground. But I see why you would say that. We just like to keep it funky, you know. There are things everywhere to look at — antiques and sports memorabilia from Pete’s collection, inside and outside.”

Pete is Peter Morency, who with his wife Kate Morency, own and manage Bitter End, as well as Pedro’s, a Mexican restaurant in Kennebunk. The couple has become known across southern Maine for the whimsical and nostalgic design sense that personalizes both spaces, as it once did at Pier 77 and The Ramp Bar and Grill, a property they sold in 2016.

The patio area behind the Bitter End in Wells includes a fire pit, picnic tables on the lawn and an open-air bar. The decor at Bitter End, indoors and out, is quirky and personal. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

On weekends when the weather allows, live music on Bitter End’s wood-slatted patio stage adds another layer to the diverting atmosphere. And with a free-standing outdoor bar the Morencys cheekily refer to as “The Rear End” supplying cocktails to more than 50 customers, it’s easy to see why our server told a table of visitors from Virginia, “We’re open all year, but summer is when this place actually comes alive.”

In the winter, Bitter End retracts into a 30-seat, New American bistro, serving hearty, mostly from-scratch dishes like plump, deep-fried belly clams ($25) that are ideal for dunking into a runny, caper-juice-thinned version of tartar sauce the kitchen refers to simply as “remoulade.” I used nearly an entire ramekin, first on the clams, then on the mound of crisp hand-cut fries interred underneath.

My tablemates also stole some to dip our shared order of truffle fries ($8). They needed it because although tossed with minced garlic, oregano, thyme and barely-there truffle oil, the fries remained underseasoned.

Other dishes went too far in the other direction, smothering any nuance with acid. This was certainly the case with puckery veal-bone demiglace ladled over a tenderloin petite filet ($28). I winced when I tasted the watery, intensely sour red-wine sauce and couldn’t figure out if the culprit was an acerbic wine or the kitchen failing to finish the sauce with butter. Regardless, the sharp demi saturated the plate’s three, lonely-looking shiitake mushrooms and then leached into the under-dressed pappardelle.

And on the pan-fried haddock entree ($25), alongside an enormous pile of excellent mashed potatoes sat another harshly acidic (and again, too wet) accompaniment: a scruffy heirloom tomato salad that had been allowed to macerate for an entire day in red wine vinegar, truffle oil and garlic. A pungent waste of the summer’s best produce.

Fortunately, not all of this season’s bounty is quite so mistreated. Ellis’ caramel-drizzled blueberry crumble ($8) – its sweet-crust shell and sugary top layer sparkling in the glow from the string lights suspended overhead — reads as more of a sticky single-serving pie. Break the buttery case apart and a tiny cataract of Maine lowbush blueberries tumbles out, trailing behind cinnamon-and-nutmeg scented juices.

Scallops with forbidden rice, bok choi and broken Thai vinaigrette at the Bitter End. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

I was also pleased to discover that Bitter End’s judiciously limited forays into other cuisines are, on the whole, pretty good. The best of these dishes might be a skewer of four gigantic scallops, pan-seared until just past custardy and balanced atop a black berm of soy-and-sesame infused forbidden rice ($26). Pools of an unemulsified, “broken” Thai-inspired vinaigrette of ginger, chili paste, tamarind paste and pineapple balance out the plate splendidly.

Even the Levantine fatoosh, essentially just a green salad tossed with Kalamata olives in a seductive cumin, citrus and yogurt dressing ($8), turned out to be a winner, despite the scarceness of crisp-toasted pita shards that normally make a fatoosh a fatoosh.

“Fat tush?” our 5-year-old guest exclaimed when our server set down the plate. Through uncontrollable giggles, he insisted someone take a “selfie” of him with the fat tush.

Luckily for our neighbors, who must have grown weary of hearing him gleefully repeat the name of the salad a dozen times or more, he got distracted when he spotted a snarl of knotted nautical ropes dangling over the pink bathroom door. We compromised on a “selfie” there, and quickly polished off the rest of the fatoosh before he scurried back.

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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