In 2019, it felt like Maine restaurants were holding their breath. The tsunami of visitors from last year’s Bon Appetit Restaurant City of the Year hubbub has finally receded, but tourists keep coming, arriving ever later into the autumn – our off-season now abbreviated to more of a chilly fortnight. What, everyone seems to be wondering, comes next?

This year, our food businesses powered through the anticipation, interpreting new trends through the idiom of local ingredients, yet never failing to keep standards high.

So high, that choosing my year-end favorites was at once more difficult and more enjoyable than it has ever been before. I spent the last few weeks scrolling through photos of hundreds of dishes and rereading tableside notes taken surreptitiously on my smartphone. (“Somebody really needs to carve this bagel into Mount Rushmore” brought me back to a spectacular early summer breakfast …)

Some people drink wine and cry as they page through their old yearbooks. Me? I zoom in on shots of soft serve and kick myself for not visiting Red’s and Dairy Joy more often this summer.

But the reality is that we’re all spoiled for choice in Maine these days. It’s a welcome counterbalance to news cycles that seem to get more preposterous by the hour. So as the decade ends, it’s high time we exhale that collective held breath and celebrate something good: the opportunity to taste what 2020 will bring.

ABOUT THE WRITER:
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 four recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]. Twitter: @AndrewRossME


Best new restaurant: The Garrison
Chef/owner Christian Hayes had to evict himself and his spouse to bring The Garrison to life.
Dandelion Catering, the prosperous business he and owner/general manager Christine Hayes have run for several years, occupied a few thousand feet of choice real estate. Airy and open, its location in the renovated Sparhawk Mill was bounded on two sides by riverfront views that made it feel dreamy and remote. It’s easy to see how, when the couple began scouting sites for the modern, mostly Mediterranean-inspired restaurant they had in the works, nowhere else even compared. So they collected their buffet trays and banquet tables and packed them off to equally spacious, if less romantic digs elsewhere in the mill. Today, where industrial stand-mixers once churned, you’ll find a sophisticated dining room with polished concrete floors and stitched leather bar stools.
Christian Hayes’s menu matches the funky-yet-upscale vibe of the interior note-for-note, puncturing expectations with delightful surprises – crunchy tahini cookie and citrusy black pepper curd that add a playful, Levantine twinkle to a chevre cheesecake; sumac and pink peppercorn that shoot sparks across forkfuls of impossibly tender stock-braised pork shoulder; or an out-of-left-field Thai twist on butter-poached lobster with lemongrass and lime leaf that offers a rare, unique perspective on our state’s favorite crustacean.

81 Bridge St., Yarmouth (207) 847-0566
Website

Photo: Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Best single meal I ate:
My late springtime trip to dine at chef/owner Sara Jenkins’ Nina June has forever changed the way I think of Rockport. I’ll never be able to go anywhere near the sleepy midcoast town without a plate of her extraordinary pasta al limone, a verdant, chive-infused tangle of homemade egg-enriched spaghetti that she tops with generous scoops of delicate, freshly picked Maine crab meat. And while I’m there, I wouldn’t be able to forgo the restaurant’s open-flame-grilled proteins, dishes like plum-and-honey-glazed lamb ribs plated with carrots and golden turnips. Nor could I imagine passing up a slice of Jenkins’ signature dessert: tender-crumbed olive oil cake daubed with bright, buttery lemon curd. I’ll keep revisiting Nina June in my mind until I can find an excuse – any excuse – to return.

24 Central St., Rockport (207) 236-8880
Website

Photo: Hannah Patterson

Best single dish I ate (tie)
Gorgeously balanced farro salad with roasted asparagus spears, torn baby lettuces, unsmoked scamorza cheese and long, ribbonlike shavings of raw asparagus at Kittery’s Festina Lente;
Brown-butter-and-smoked-walnut-topped Caramelle at Piccolo (pictured): pasta parcels shaped to resemble wrapped hard candies, but filled instead with house-made ricotta and bitter greens.
Honorable mention: Brown-butter-poached carrots whose color camouflages mineral uni tongues dribbled with an emulsion of bonito, fish sauce and house-pickled ginger at Hugo’s.

Festina Lente
1 Government St., Kittery (207) 703-2287
Website
Piccolo
111 Middle St., Portland (207) 747-5307
Website
Hugo’s
88 Middle St., Portland (207) 774-8538
Website

Photo: Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Best cocktail (tie):
The Boris & Natasha at East Ender: Powered by ancho chili syrup and a hefty slug of rye whisky, this cocktail is eye-watering in all the right ways;
Mother of Dragons at The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box: Aromatic components like lavender syrup, celery juice and gin are offset by potent tang and bitter flavors from Suze gentian liqueur and lime juice;
Mai Pie at Three of Strong Spirits: Two of their house-distilled rums – one barrel-aged and the other spiced – are given a seasonal, fruit-and-nut veneer thanks to apple-scented, house-made falernum.
Honorable mention: The smoky, bracing Mezcal negroni at Isa, a perennial contender in this category.

East Ender
47 Middle St., Portland (207) 879-7669
Website
The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box
644 Congress St., Portland (207) 747-5384
Website
Three of Strong Spirits
35B Diamond St., Portland (207) 899-4930
Website

Best dessert:
Spongy grapefruit-Campari cake rent into jagged shreds and scattered with foamy clusters of honeycomb candy, candied citrus zest and broken pieces of Earl Grey shortbread at Gross Confection Bar.
Honorable mention: Mind-bogglingly rich, almost savory miso-chocolate bundt cake at Maple’s in Yarmouth.

Gross Confection Bar
172 Middle St., Portland (207) 956-7208
Website
Maple’s
881 U.S. Route 1, Yarmouth (207) 846-1000
Website

Best renovation (tie):
With an exterior that looks like an interrupted Wassily Kandinsky canvas and an op-art-inspired interior that doubles as a bar and bottle shop, Lorne Wine Bar in Biddeford is loud and proud in its exuberance for organic, (mostly) natural wines;
Part Scandinavian blonde woods and hygge, part ceramics and local art, More & Co. in Yarmouth also makes one of the area’s best cappuccinos;
Once the Harbor Gawker, a ramshackle, disintegrating restaurant on Carver’s Harbor in Vinalhaven, The Nightingale (pictured) has transformed a down-at-the-heels (and dangerous) fry-shack into a sleek, inviting space.
Honorable mention: “The Rear End” at Bitter End in Wells for converting a sprawling, empty lot into an outdoor bar crossed with a Dada-ist art installation.

Lorne Wine Bar
61 Main St., Biddeford (207) 494-8038
Website
The Nightingale
26 West Main St., Vinalhaven (207) 863-5021
Website
Bitter End
2118 Post Road, Wells (207) 360-0904
Website

Photo: courtesy of The Nightingale

Best cheeseburger:
Never trust anyone who doesn’t like Flood’s preposterously juicy “Celebrated” cheeseburger – a plump, grass-fed, Maine-beef patty draped with an oozing slice of yellow cheddar and topped with charred onion relish and house-made pickles. What elevates this burger beyond the ranks of the simply great is its springy potato bun, baked across the street in the kitchens of Tandem Coffee + Bakery.
Honorable mention: The bacon-and-cheddar-topped Classic burger, bookended not by a bun, but by two savory slices of thin focaccia at David’s 388 in South Portland.

David’s 388
388 Cottage Road, South Portland (207) 347-7388
Website

Best use of game:
Confit rabbit with jalapeño demiglace served atop a logjam of soy-slicked ddeok (a chewy cross between a noodle and a dumpling) at N to Tail.
Honorable mention: Rabbit pappardelle with crisp pancetta, olives and caraway breadcrumbs at Yarmouth’s The Garrison.

N to Tail
29 Exchange St., Portland (207) 773-2900
Website
The Garrison
81 Bridge St., Yarmouth (207) 847-0566
Website

Best vegetarian dish (tie):
Buffalo tempeh pizza from Monte’s Fine Foods, topped with vegan cheese (that actually melts!), hot sauce and shavings of celery and carrot that recall classic hot wing accompaniments;
Grilled Southwestern tofu sandwich at Dizzy Birds Rotisserie in Biddeford – a crusty, grilled patty of extra-firm tofu and kale slathered with spicy black bean relish and rosy slivers of pickled onion (pictured).

Monte’s Fine Foods
788 Washington Ave., Portland (207) 613-9873
Website
Dizzy Birds Rotisserie
65 Main St., Biddeford (207) 494-7089
Website

Photo: Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Best value/bargain:
Save yourself the cost (and environmental impact) of an airplane flight to the French Riviera and head to The Purple House in North Yarmouth instead. For about $5, you can purchase one of Krista Kern Desjarlais’s phenomenal tartes tropéziennes: an airy, chocolate-topped brioche split down its equator and filled to overflowing with orange flower pastry cream.
Honorable mentions: Savory nibbles at The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box: warm olives, hummus with dill crackers, and “Crack Pop,” popcorn with honeyed peanuts and Aleppo pepper – all for around the cost of a single cocktail; sweet, cheesy cornmeal choclo at Maiz Colombian Street Food.

The Purple House
378 Walnut Hill Road, North Yarmouth (207) 808-3148
Website
Dizzy Birds Rotisserie
65 Main St., Biddeford (207) 494-7089
Website

Best sandwich (tie):
Quiero Café’s snappy, ultra-garlicky, all-beef Hot Dog Colombiano garnished with squirts of ketchup-and-mayo “pink sauce,” pineapple salsa and salty shards of crushed potato chips;
Laughing Bird shrimp salad BLT with tarragon, parsley and lashings of lemon-garlic mayonnaise at Other Side Diner.
Honorable mention: A one-off special I hope returns: The Cheese Shop of Portland’s grill-pressed mortadella, provolone and Dijon mayonnaise sandwich.

Quiero Café
8 Pepperell Square, Saco (207) 494-7267
Website
Other Side Diner
Washington Ave., Portland (207) 772-0002
Website
The Cheese Shop of Portland
107 Washington Ave., Portland (207) 400-5344
Website

Best use of sausage:
Enio’s of South Portland’s fresh radiatore pasta with two varieties of homemade sausage, one crumbled and seasoned with rosemary and sage, the other cased and wood-grilled, perfumed by allspice and nutmeg.

Enio’s Eatery
347 Cottage Road, South Portland (207) 799-0207
Website

Best omelette:
The pale and custardy French-style omelette at Other Side Diner: a spinach, tarragon and cheddar-filled masterpiece.
Honorable mention: Banh xeo, a folded egg pancake absolutely jammed with mint, basil, onion, pork and shrimp, at Banh Appetit.

Other Side Diner
Washington Ave., Portland (207) 772-0002
Website
Banh Appetit
171 Cumberland Ave., Portland (207) 613-9399
Website

Best wine list for obscure, affordable gems:
The Well at Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, whose first season of selling wine introduced me to the Sebastopol, California Post-Flirtation blend, a quaffable red with a structure that is at once light and unwaveringly solid, like the titanium frame of an expensive racing bicycle. I enjoyed it so much that I drove to Boston the next weekend to buy half a case at the only New England wine shop that stocks it.
Honorable mentions: Lorne Wine Bar in Biddeford, and the ever-reliable Drifters Wife.

The Well at Jordan’s Farm
21 Wells Road, Cape Elizabeth (207) 831-9350
Website
Lorne Wine Bar
61 Main St., Biddeford (207) 494-8038
Website

Best bowl of pho (tie):
Star-anise-scented beef-bone broth with rice vermicelli, translucent shavings of sirloin and bouncy tendon meatballs (pho tai bo vien) at Sun Vietnamese (pictured).
Pho Huong’s version of the same dish inside Portland’s Public Market, the closest thing Portland still has to the pho that Huong Le once prepared at her St. John Street restaurant.

Sun Vietnamese
699 Forest Ave., Portland (207) 613-9036
Pho Huong
28 Monument Square, Portland (207) 405-9018
Facebook

Photo: Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Best pepperoni-and-hot-honey pizza
Yes, unbelievably, there are two extraordinary contenders for this title, and the result is a draw.
Coals Bayside’s Bee Cool (pictured), with its contrast of credit-card-thin crust juxtaposed with zaftig disks of New Hampshire pepperoni;
The flame-blistered, puffy-crusted Roman-style version at Belleville (BLVL) (available by the slice at lunchtime only), here endowed with an extra axis of flavor through tart pickled jalapeño peppers.

Coals Bayside
118 Preble St., Portland (207) 747-5747
Website
Belleville (BLVL)
1 North St., Portland (207) 536-7463
Website

Photo: Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

MORE BEST OF WINNERS: Read Andrew’s 2018 list; read the 2017 list; read the 2016 list.

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