About a week ago, a friend sent a text that stopped me in my tracks. I was walking around my neighborhood, maintaining plenty of distance from my fellow pedestrians as I worked my way toward my new, gym-less daily goal of a brisk 10,000 steps.

“Got takeout from Boda last night. Ate your fave Brussels sprouts. So good!” she enthused.

Boda? The Longfellow Square Thai restaurant known across Portland for pad thai served street-food-style, swaddled in a lacy, savory omelette? The same one that has, since it opened about a decade ago, stubbornly resisted public pressure to offer takeout dishes? That Boda? It couldn’t be.

“You sure it was Boda?” I texted back, scuttling sideways like a crab to make room for an oncoming family pushing a helmeted child teetering on training wheels.

“Y… Boda. That a surprise?” my friend inquired.

Indeed. But maybe it shouldn’t have been.

“No, you’re absolutely right about us not doing takeout in the past,” Eric Schnare, a Boda employee said when I called the restaurant to confirm this topsy-turvy turn of events. “It’s just not something we were set up to do. When people called, we always used to tell them we don’t do reservations and we don’t do takeout. But things are different now, for obvious reasons.”

Across the state, the story is largely the same: Restaurants are reinventing themselves at supersonic velocity, switching up their modes and models of operation, and especially, their menus.

Skeleton crews

A takeout order, with wine, in the time of coronavirus from Isa Bistro in Portland. Photo by Andrew Ross

At Isa in Portland, a tiny, Latin-inflected Modern American bistro, space in the open kitchen was already tight before the era of social distancing — barely enough room to squeeze in chef/owner Isaul Perez and three other back-of-house staffers. Now, the space accommodates just two people.

“We have had to cut the kitchen in half, basically,” owner/general manager Suzie Perez told me. “We want to keep our staff employed as much as possible, but we had to cut it down to two to give the team enough space. One of our line cooks can do all the cooking, and then there’s another person in the back doing all the salads and desserts. It has made us slim down our menu, too.”

A single soup option remains, as does Isa’s Caesar salad, topped with fiery croutons and tart, heady white Spanish anchovies. The bistro’s tagliatelle Bolognese — handmade strips of pasta fortified with stout-braised ground beef — is also still there, cheek-by-jowl with a couple of surprises.

One is a house-made focaccia sandwich filled with layers of North Star Sheep Farm lamb and eye-wateringly perky horseradish sauce, a dish I’ve eaten many times at Isa, but never at dinner.

“It is one of our original lunch items. But once we decided to slim down the kitchen to make it more safe for staff and customers, we wanted to find a way to keep lamb on the menu. It also gives us a larger plate at a lower price point,” Suzie Perez said. “It’ll come and go off the menu. But that part is actually really nice. We normally don’t change the menu that frequently. Now each day, my husband (chef Isaul Perez) and I get to sit down and decide what to do together.”

In Arundel, at the recently relocated Bandaloop, owner/GM Bridget Lee and her husband, chef/owner W. Scott Lee, find themselves facing a similar set of challenges. After shutting down their popular Kennebunkport business late last year, the couple gutted and renovated an 18th century post-and-beam barn to afford them three stories of dining space and north of 125 seats. Until last month, dozens of staff (both front- and back-of-house) looked after crowds at the globally-inspired restaurant. That number has dwindled dramatically.

“Almost all of our staff opted to quarantine with unemployment instead of risking exposure, something we think of every day as we are interacting with folks. Our staff is pretty much limited to two households,” Bridget Lee said. “There are four of us. Two cooking, two taking calls and running food out to cars, so it’s tricky finding a balance of what we’d like to — and what we can — serve.”

Bandaloop’s new offerings are considerably less international than its typical roster of quirky, frequently delightful dishes. Before you might have found braised beef soft tacos and an impressionistic riff on a Samoan coconut-cream entrée called palusami. Classic American comfort foods now reign: pizzas, lasagnas, calzones and mammoth pot pies (in sizes designed to feed two or four diners).

“We are constantly changing to find that sweet spot of quality and quantity,” Bridget Lee said. “It’s been a challenge, for sure.”

New menu opportunities

Fork & Spoon owner Elisabeth Dean knew her usual menu was out. She switched to large-format, comforting entrees like vegetable lasagna and shepherd’s pie. Photo courtesy of Fork & Spoon

When news about the domestic impact of the coronavirus began to break, Elisabeth Dean, chef/owner of Fork & Spoon in Bangor, was far from home. At a catering-industry conference in Las Vegas, she heard a cascade of stories from fellow attendees about mounting cancellations. In the span of just a few days, many of them witnessed the obliteration of entire calendars of spring and summer events.

“Coming back from Vegas, I knew I couldn’t continue to do catering and my normal menu. I knew it would get to where I wouldn’t have people in the door,” she said. “And Bangor has been way ahead of the state. It happened fast. When they said you couldn’t have anybody in the store, it was basically like coming up with a whole new restaurant in a matter of hours.”

So she adapted and used the crisis as an opportunity to flex culinary muscles she hadn’t used in a very long time. Any mention of grain bowls, pastries and mix-and-match salads was temporarily deleted from her point-of-sale system, removed from her website, even scrubbed from GrubHub — all replaced by an unabashedly named “COVID-19 menu” of four salads and a half-dozen large-format entrees like vegetable lasagna, shepherd’s pie and mac-and-cheese.

“It’s still sort of winter, so I wanted to do wintery fare, comfort foods that I knew people would want,” she said. “Before, we weren’t doing entrees at all, but I’ve wanted to do them for a long time. Now finally, I could. Oh, and of course unbaked cookies. I’m known for making cookies the size of your face, so now I have a dozen cookies for sale that you can bake at home. Everybody loves the smell of cookies in their home.”

To help its community during the pandemic, Primo opened two months early and is serving takeout, including fried chicken. Photo courtesy of Primo restaurant

One person who would almost certainly agree is Primo chef/owner Melissa Kelly, whose takeout-only offerings include dessert items that she has never offered on her legendarily wide-ranging menu. There’s a salty-sweet peanut butter mousse pie in a gluten-free chocolate crumb crust, for example. Topped with toasted peanuts, it is brazenly engineered to remind you of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Or a carrot cupcake iced with sour cream cheese frosting and finished with carrot curls and a wedge of caramelized pineapple: “For us it wouldn’t really be a restaurant dessert, but I wanted to walk the line of the kinds of things people love from Primo and the fun things that people want to jump on if they’re at home watching a movie or doing a game night. Hence the cupcakes and things like spicy Bang Bang popcorn that our staff goes crazy for,” Kelly said.

If you’re a fan of Kelly’s celebrated Rockland restaurant, you may be surprised to read that Primo is serving anything at all right now. Normally, the farm-to-table stalwart opens in May.

“I typically travel during the months between January and May,” Kelly explained. “But when this whole thing hit, I knew I had 200 laying hens that produce 120-180 eggs a day, freezers full of goodies from the pigs I raise, and staff members who wanted to do something to keep themselves occupied and to provide service to the community. Everyone is on lockdown here, and I thought why not make some comfort food for people to enjoy? So I opened two months early.”

Her first week open this year coincided with St. Patrick’s Day, so in addition to snacks and desserts, Kelly built a menu around beef stew and Irish soda bread. Since then, she has chosen a theme for each night and created a concise menu designed to make customers feel transported, even if they never leave the sofa. Dishes like shrimp & grits and beignets provide a taste of New Orleans, while pork saltimbocca and rigatoni with broccoli and hot, fennel-spiced sausage “give you a chance to say, ‘OK, tonight we’re going to Italy,” Kelly laughed.

Sommeliers to-go?

Any culinary journey would feel incomplete without wine, so Primo has begun offering one white and one red wine from the restaurant’s inventory every night, both priced at a drastically lower-than-normal $20 a bottle. And on this particular road trip of the imagination, the restaurant’s staff is invited along.

“Every night, we take that bottle and split it up and do an educational tasting,” Kelly told me. “Everyone gets just a couple of ounces, and we talk. What’s the grape? What’s the history? The region? Because we’re not doing it like a normal wine service, we can take a minute and relax and enjoy each other, learn something and be together.”

Fork & Spoon’s crew is tinier, so while chats about viticulture haven’t become part of the daily routine, selling bottles of both wine and beer has. New state regulations around serving (sealed) bottles of alcoholic beverages have allowed Elisabeth Dean to include seven, $15 bottles of wine as well as several $16 four-packs of beers from local breweries like Allagash and Geaghan’s.

“It’s really nice for us to be able to do for people, because it means that they don’t have to make another stop somewhere out there. If you’re going to take to heart physical distancing, the less stopping, the better,” Dean said. “It’s all new… a new challenge, especially things like figuring out packaging and pricing.”

Ask Suzie Perez at Isa, not only the restaurant’s wine buyer but also a certified sommelier, and she’ll tell you that she views the alcoholic beverage rule-changes as a preview of things to come.

“I think this is all going to lead to a big awakening,” Suzie Perez told me. “Whether it’s how people are paid or what we can and can’t offer to go. Things are going to change, and it’ll have a big impact on the restaurant business — hopefully all for the better.”

In the meantime, she (and I) think that being able to sell wine with takeout orders at a lower markup represents a win-win for restaurants and their loyal customers. Especially when they are as appealing as selections like Isa’s flinty, peppery Monograph Greek Agiorgitiko, sold for the near-retail price of $18.

“How great to be able to offer the whole package: appetizer, entrée, dessert and a bottle of wine, all in one, even though you’re going to take it all home,” she said. “In this awful time, it’s just such a lovely, lovely perk.”

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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