My first drink at Anoche came with its own superhero origin story.

Legend has it that an apple tree on the Teltane Farm in Monroe was cleaved down its center by a bolt of lightning. When the tree recovered from the fiery assault, its fruit was never the same. The “Lightning Apple” tree no longer bore the semisweet, gingery Baldwins it had produced for years. In their place sprouted new apples that were firm and sharp, with a tartness that produces cider dry enough to rival the flintiest Champagne.

“Definitely go for that Teltane Whaleback Lightning ($6.75/12 ounces),” my server enthused. “It’s fun and funky. I think it’s the best cider we have on draft, and that’s saying a lot.”

As I sipped, I saw instantly what she meant. Coursing alongside a layer of lanolin dankness ran millions of microscopic bubbles that seemed to jolt the drink with acidity. Had I not known better, I might have guessed I was drinking a cloudy Loire Valley pet nat (pétillant naturel).

Like the cider, Anoche itself has undergone its own radical mutation — fortunately one not sparked by lightning. The hip, moody, Basque-inspired tapas/pintxos restaurant and cider bar has defibrillated a boxy space that, when it housed the Washington Avenue branch of Coffee By Design, always felt underlit and a little gloomy.

Owner/general manager Erika Colby, formerly the longtime manager of Novare Res Bier Café, sees the space’s retro-Iberian décor as a dual expression of her passion for homey comforts and the mountainous region around San Sebastian, Spain. “I’ve always loved everything about Spain, and I wanted to bring that here, to create a place that’s relaxing, where you can hang out with your friends,” she said. “So the plants over the door are part of making the place feel like it’s a home, like when I was at Novare and it felt like that every day for 11 years. But this is a new era in my life, and warm lighting and living things are what I’m digging, I guess.”

Also being dug: an ornate wooden door that sat in Colby’s uncle’s basement for 35 years before being repurposed here; quirky, maximalist tiles painted cream and light blue, not to mention a perfect square of a kitchen so open (thanks to the lack of ovens and an exhaust fan), you might not even notice it’s there when the chefs aren’t working.

“The kitchen’s openness and not having a hood can be challenging,” executive chef Joel Frahm (Novare Res, Solo Italiano) said. “But it’s also good because it forces us to keep things clean…and when people are seated around the bar, they can ask questions, which they seem to like to do.”

I had a few of my own. Particularly, how does Frahm execute a menu of small plates in a space with no oven, no burners and no fryer? “Rice cookers and sous vide,” he said with a rueful laugh. “I know, I know. It’s really hard.”

Those restrictions pose absolutely no handicap to dishes like Anoche’s deviled eggs ($3.50 each). Frahm and his line cook (singular) pull off a high-concept version of the dish, balancing a fruity red pepper gel cupped inside with a yolk mixture seasoned with the restaurant’s terrific, house-pickled vegetables — components it needs no direct heat to prepare. When it’s time for service, the kitchen spears the reassembled eggs, mounts them on wooden blocks and presents them like smoked-paprika-dusted sports trophies.

Deviled egg with smoked paprika, guindilla pepper and chorizo. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Some of the same pickled vegetables brighten up the “Ham Hour” plate ($5), a half-ounce of dry-cured Serrano ham plated with pickled red onion and a mostarda-like apple-and-pear chutney. In place of traditional crunchy Spanish olive oil tortas or a slice of toasted baguette, Anoche serves its ham (and nearly all its other plates) with bespoke gluten-free crackers it has made by Southside Bakery in South Portland.

Problems crop up in Anoche’s kitchen when some recipes are reworked to compensate for its limited equipment. Seafood paella is a great example. Mussels and jumbo shrimp are bagged in a saffron-infused red pepper stock and prepared sous-vide as Bomba rice is toasted with shallots in the bottom of a commercial rice cooker. But forming a crunchy soccarat base-layer is messy business; allowing the rice to dry into a crust would also remove one of the precious cookers from circulation until it can be scrubbed and scraped clean. So instead, the rice is portioned when it is still soft, leaving the dish more of a very good paprika-oil-drizzled risotto than a paella.

In the Ensaladilla Rusa, a Spanish interpretation of a creamy Russian potato salad ($10), the lack of direct heat results in sous-vide new potatoes and carrots that are tough (occasionally even hard). The texture makes the dish tricky to eat, since the mayonnaisey mixture is spooned onto those delicate Southside Bakery crackers, which detonate into tiny shards when the bite you take offers the slightest unexpected resistance.

The salt cod rillettes ($8) suffer from the opposite problem. They are so wet that, unless you eat them within seconds, they soak through and dissolve the papery crackers beneath. I couldn’t decipher what made the espelette-pepper-flavored brandade-like mixture so soggy until I learned that it is bulked up not with starchy potato, but with puréed picked cauliflower, then adjusted with a slug of pickled red onion juice that makes it even wetter.

And while I’m a big fan of chefs using every scrap and droplet of the ingredients they prep, Anoche’s penchant for repurposing brines results in unintended seasoning and balance issues. It’s especially true of the red pepper bisque ($9), another dish prepared in the rice cooker. Here, all the brambly fruitiness in the purée of sautéed piquillo peppers is strangled by acid — twice — first by leftover juice from pickled Fresno peppers, then again by viciously tart sherry vinegar.

After my dinner guest’s first cough-inducing spoonful, he gasped, “Good grief!” then reached across the table for a swig of my Baston River gin and tonic ($14). A smart move, considering the cocktail’s soothing aromatics (lemon verbena, thyme, Meyer lemon) and sheer volume of melting ice in the aquarium-sized goblet. It would be easy to tease Anoche about its oversized cocktail glassware if bar manager Louis Pantano’s gin and (house-made) tonics weren’t so terrifically appealing.

Bartender Jessica Goodwin pours a glass of the Eden Imperial Rose cider. The ciders, many of them local, are the star of the show. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Despite their appearance, Anoche’s Catalan-inspired G&Ts are portioned like normal-sized cocktails. I went searching for another that might make a good match for something sweet to end the meal, but was instead shepherded by the expert server to a glass of ruddy, currant-enriched 11 percent ABV Imperial Rose cider from Eden Specialty Ciders in Newport, Vermont ($8.25/ 8 oz.). She nailed it.

As a foil for the “burnt cheese cake” ($9) (the dish’s actual name), baked in single-serving portions in the ovens at Southside, the Imperial Rose was perfect. Its dried fruit aromas brought out a lingering, caramelized nuttiness in the dessert. This denser, savory-sweet riff on a classic Basque dessert was, by some distance, the best thing I tried at Anoche. Chalk that up in part to the dish’s sticky, citrusy compote of rehydrated Mission figs, cranberries and mandarin zest.

Spooning bites of cake out of the heat-singed parchment bundle, I thought to myself that this is the sort of quality of dish that Anoche could produce if it had the kitchen it requires. Indeed, a hood and a little fire might be exactly the bolt of lightning necessary to transform Anoche from promising up-and-comer into the East End’s newest superhero.

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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