Nobody agrees on the best way to describe CBG.

Before new co-owners Jason Loring (Nosh, Slab) and Mike Fraser (Bramhall) renovated the space late last year, the stalwart Portland pub was known for its rustic, no-frills design sensibility. Seventeen years of grit and spilled beer left behind craggy accretions of wear and tear. “Lovably rough,” is what a good friend used to say about it.

Today, the décor – apart from the pitted, red-and-cream checkerboard linoleum flooring – looks much more inviting. Loring and Fraser demolished a wall that ran down the restaurant’s equator, replacing it with a 15-seat communal table set with blue-vinyl-upholstered Atomic-age barstools that crouch underneath. To open up the space further, the pair covered the dark, constricting scarlet walls with ’60s-era wood paneling.

Then came the quirky touches: a Zima sign, an oversized Big Lebowski print, a promotional Coors diorama with an inset clock that teasingly blinks only the last two digits of the time, and — menacing passersby through the plate-glass front window — a taxidermied bear cub.

“I call it a place to grab a beer and shake the cold off while we wait to get some seeds in the ground for the spring,” chef Theodore Moffitt ventured. “You know, it’s comfortable and pseudo-funky.”

Bar manager/GM Mike Barbuto went even further, stressing CBG’s working-class eclecticism: “It’s so hard to describe, but I think of it like a Legion Hall, or a lodge, or a post. It’s created like a time warp, with a retro-vibe and feel to it, but it’s a relaxing spot.”

On my second visit last week, my dinner guest and I tried our hand at summing up the visual language of the place. “Honestly,” she laughed, “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

We eventually settled on a cross between the diner in “Twin Peaks” and the basement playroom from “Stranger Things.”

There’s method to this visual madness. CBG wields its quirks strategically, defying customers to predict what’s around the corner or on the next page of the menu. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine finding yourself bored nursing one of Barbuto’s well-mixed modern or vintage cocktails, tucking into a plate of hand-cut Maine French fries ($5) or nuclear chicken wings ($12/$22) showered in smoked paprika and a mixture of three kinds of hot sauce that Moffitt refers to as his “NAFTA house blend.”

The Hangtown-Fry Cheeseburger at CBG Bar & Grill. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Even menu items that appear to be standard bar food are goosed to life by original culinary twists. Take the omelette-topped Hangtown Fry Cheeseburger ($16), a riff on a debauched breakfast platter made famous during the California Gold Rush. Here, a seeded potato bun barely holds back the umami tsunami inside: a ground chuck patty, thick-cut slab bacon, smoky chipotle mayonnaise and a juicy, deep-fried oyster. Or crisp-tender croquettes flush with fine shreds of braised pork and chunks of fluffy Maine potato ($9). Served magma-hot and aromatic, they will tempt you before they are cool enough to eat. If you just can’t wait (you cannot), give them a dip in extra-thick aioli buzzed together with A1 steak sauce. You’ll still burn yourself, but you’ll go back for another.

Still, my favorite of CBG’s fried finger foods is exclusively available during weekend brunch times, when a fiery, vodka-powered Bloody Mary ($10) or tart-and-floral Mezcal-based Maximillion Affair ($11) seems like the most efficient way to reboot after a night out. Then, and only then, can you get stuck into a portion of crunchy ham-and-cheese fritters ($9), doused with an optional dash of Cholula hot sauce and drooling with extra-sharp Cabot cheddar. It’s like eating a croque monsieur on the beach in Puerto Vallarta.

The quirky decor at CBG Bar & Grill is “a cross between the diner in ‘Twin Peaks’ and the basement playroom from ‘Stranger Things.'” Here, Taylor Stevens, left, and Karla Medina, both of Portland, have a drink at the restaurant. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Elsewhere on the menu, there are a few stumbles. The toasted tuna reimagines what a classic Nicoise salad might look like as a European-style, barely dressed sandwich. But between the savory, white anchovy aioli and chopped black olives, the dish is too salty. Worse, with no vinaigrette, no lettuce and barely a fleck of tomato on the plate, there is none of the traditional salad’s acid and natural sweetness to create balance.

The charred cabbage and tempeh larb salad ($12) is just as off-kilter, but here, it is an almost total lack of herbs and an overwhelming dose of acid from pickled radish slices and lime juice that undo the dish. It’s a pity, because I admire the creative flourishes that suffuse this vegan version of a Thai standard, from tempeh blitzed finely to resemble the ground meat that forms the backbone of a larb, to the house-prepared toasted rice powder that paints a papery layer of bitterness and glutamic zing across the salad. Knock back the acid by 25 percent and triple the herbs, and this has the potential to become a CBG signature.

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“I was going to order that,” one of the black-hoodied party next to me said, gesturing toward my mostly uneaten larb and pausing his animated disagreement over whether a friend’s band counts as “metal.” Glancing down at his own plate, he continued, “I always just play it safe and get a burger, but sometimes I just want to try the weird stuff.” he said. “What was that like?”

I opened my mouth to answer, but honestly, I didn’t even know where to start.

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.


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