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.

Businesses are in Portland unless otherwise noted

Best new restaurant: The Garrison

Chef/owner Christian Hayes had to evict himself and his spouse to bring his Yarmouth restaurant 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.

Best single meal I ate:

Nina June in Rockport “forever changed” Ross’ image of the town. Photo by Hannah Patterson

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.

Best single dish I ate: (TIE)

The envelope please. Best Single Dish honors was a tie, and include Piccolo’s Caramelle pasta filled with ricotta and Swiss chard. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

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: 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.

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.

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.

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;

The Nightingale in Vinalhaven transformed its space, earning a tie for Best Restaurant Renovation. Photo courtesy of The Nightingale

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 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.

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.

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.

Best vegetarian dish: (TIE)

The grilled tofu and kale sandwich at Dizzy Birds in Biddeford tied for Best Vegetarian Dish of 2019 Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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,

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.

The winning Bee Cool pizza. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

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, 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.

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

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