Swing open a stall door in the great cosmic restroom, and you’ll be guaranteed to spot one caustic new addition to the graffiti there. Inked in whatever the powers that be use for permanent marker, you’ll find a succinct encapsulation of this year:

“2021 is a tease.”

I’m writing this to you from its tapering final days, so I can’t yet use the past tense. But if 2021 holds true to both of its Janus faces – tantalizing us with hope, only to pummel us again – I’m pretty confident that we’ll remember this as an exasperating year of stops and starts.

Yet despite the bullying of the past 12 months, Maine restaurants, bars and food businesses have persisted, thumbing their noses at the emotional roller coaster and delivering guests joy in (often literal) bite-sized portions.

When I look back on the past 52-ish weeks, I’m surprised to realize that, despite its torments, 2021 yielded some of my fondest Maine food-and-drink memories. I rediscovered my taste for spicy collard greens and sausages, ate my favorite king cake ever, sipped bracingly cold Loire Valley white wine in a North Haven barn and reminisced about the local dining scene with four of my Dine Out predecessors. Not bad at all.

Whatever else I think about this inconstant, mercurial year, I can’t deny that it delivered more than its share of culinary bright spots. Here’s hoping 2022 brings us plenty more.

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About the author: 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 five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: andr[email protected]; Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Best new restaurant: Judy Gibson in South Portland

Owner/chef Chris Wilcox plates roasted pork loin at Judy Gibson restaurant in South Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When I mentioned to a friend that I was seriously considering selecting Chris Wilcox’s compact Knightville bistro for this category, I also expressed a little concern that Judy Gibson might not be quite new enough to qualify. After all, it did open in March of 2020, two short weeks before … well, you know.

“Honestly, I think time has lost all meaning,” my friend said. “Especially when you’re talking about a place that has had to close and reopen several times.” I couldn’t agree more.

Against all odds, 2021 has allowed Wilcox’s moderately priced, New American restaurant to experience its first (mostly) complete year in business. That’s enough runway for the menu to evolve from tasty-yet-temporary stopgaps like fried chicken and wedge salads into the more imaginative, technically demanding dishes that Wilcox has been serving since May.

And with this recent blossoming of Judy Gibson’s menu, diners have been rewarded for their patience. Indoor-and-outdoor parties alike have been treated to plates like hearty tuna crudo with barely-cooked chickpeas and meaty, palm-shaped fronds of maitake mushroom; or a blushing, sweet-savory duck breast, seared chicory and a nutty, risotto-style farro pilaf. And don’t get me started on the delicate potato-and-semolina gnocchi, a menu staple. Wilcox might not be a strictly Italian chef, but his gnocchi are world-class.

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But more than the consistently excellent cooking, it’s Wilcox’s vision that impresses most. It would have been easy for him to retread the greatest hits from his four-star turn at the helm of The Velveteen Habit, a short-lived, farm-to-table successor to Arrows in Ogunquit. Instead, Judy Gibson’s menu vibrates on overlapping frequencies of intelligent cooking and heartfelt, reflexive homeyness – right down to the cocktail list, where a sly, spicy cocktail called “Bless Your Heart” promises a Southern-inspired double-dose of admonishment and appeasement.

171 Ocean St., South Portland (207) 808-8649; Website

Best single meal: Isa Bistro

Isa Bistro’s green burrito with rabbit Photo by Suzie Perez

Anyone who hates Mondays hasn’t eaten at (or ordered from) Portland’s Isa Bistro recently. At the start of every week, the husband and wife team of chef Isaul Perez and sommelier/general manager Suzie Perez cobble together a new menu of wines, cocktails, appetizers and mains that all taste just as good served at home as they do inside their still-swanky tiled dining room. This category might technically be about a single meal, but I’ve eaten a half-dozen such meals this year from Isa, and they’d all make my year-end top 10.

I begin by ordering a few standby items: tart, minty fennel-and-apple salad; boqueriño-topped Caesar salad with peppery croutons and their signature side: crisp, aromatic French fries served with smoky, fruity guajillo-pepper aioli. Then I move on to their rotating selection of mains. If the green burrito – slow-braised, thyme-infused local rabbit swaddled in a spinach flour tortilla – is on the list, that’s my automatic first choice.

A neighbor told me recently that she and her book club moved their group’s meeting to Monday night, solely so they’d be able to dine on rabbit burritos and drink a bottle of Isa’s inky Monastrell as they chat. I’ve already submitted a request for membership.

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79 Portland St., Portland (207) 808-8533; Website

Best dish: Hand-stamped corzetti pasta from Fusillo

Late last year, when self-styled “pasta nerd” Siddharta Rumma hung out a shingle (or sheet of lasagna, as the case may be) with his home-delivery pasta business Fusillo, I watched carefully to see how his cooking would mature. Don’t mistake that for a backhanded compliment – I enjoyed his work at Trattoria Fanny and Ada’s Portland, but I always wondered if creative compromise held Rumma back.

This March, I got my first taste of the potential I’d always suspected was there. It came in the form of half-dollar-sized, semolina-sprinkled “corzetti,” boiled quickly, then finished with verdant asparagus crema, crisped cubes of guanciale and lemon zest. On the palate, every bite runs in a looping, animated gif of tulips, snowdrops and daffodils breaking through the winter frost. It’s a crime that this isn’t the official pasta of springtime, rather than the desultory boiled vegetables over linguini that we call “pasta primavera.”

Fusillo, where Rumma remains a co-owner, prepares corzetti exclusively as a seasonal special, so set a calendar alert now to remind you to submit your order.

10 Danforth St., Portland; Website

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Best sandwich: Sourdough toast with white beans, greens and tuna confit from Maple’s in Yarmouth

Sourdough toast with white beans, greens and tuna confit from Maples bakery – Photo courtesy of Maples

At this point, we all know chef/owner Robin Ray is a skilled baker, capable of making some of New England’s best bagels, scones and creatively flavored bundt cakes. But when she began testing sandwiches this year, starting with crusty loaves of sourdough, carving them into slices thicker than that copy of “Crime and Punishment” you carried around all freshman year, then toasting and loading them up with olive-oil-marinated white beans, peppery greens and chunks of confit tuna, the breadth of her skills started to come into focus for me. Long live Maple’s, but if there’s a café or casual dinner restaurant in Ray’s future, I want a standing reservation.

Honorable mention: Banh Appetit’s lemongrass-spiced Bo Xao. Order it spicy, with extra jalapeño.

881 U.S. Route 1, Yarmouth
171 Cumberland Ave., Portland; (207) 613-9399; Website

Best duo of seasonal cocktails: The Holiday Spirits and The Mistle-Noe from the Knotted Apron 

One pair of matching bookends, yet different as night and day, The Knotted Apron’s fizzy, cranberry-flavored cocktails both deserve permanent slots on their concise drinks menu. One of these identical cousins, The Holiday Spirits, is a Cointreau-enhanced vodka spritzer with piney rosemary high-notes, while The Mistle-Noe is a maple-sweetened, booze-free take that gets its prickly aromatics from Maine Root Ginger Brew and lemon.

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496 Woodford St., Portland (207) 805-1523; Website

Best baked good: Cardamom roll from Jackrabbit Café in Biddeford

The cardamom bun at Jackrabbit. Photo by Anna Brown

I almost never mention a dish twice, let alone one I’ve already flagged as one of my favorite things. But baker Kristina Alving’s toasty, floral take on the Swedish kardamummabull (cardamom roll) at Biddeford’s Jackrabbit Café merits at least one further shout-out here. I’ve told more of the story of how this stupidly tasty yeasted treat came to be in another column, but suffice it to say that it’s one of the only snacks I’ll wake up early for and drive 20 minutes to buy.

14 Main St., First Floor, Biddeford; Website

Best-kept-secret farm stand for affordable tomatoes sold well into October: Ocean House Farm in Cape Elizabeth

No, that’s not a misprint. This sprawling, roadside farm shop is well known for its pick-your-own flowers. Better still is its seemingly random range of often obscure heirloom tomatoes – everything from variegated green cocktail-sized varieties to mammoth peach-fleshed beefsteaks to mild, pale ochre cherry tomatoes that never grow bigger than a hazelnut. “No idea what kind they are,” Greg Jordan, whose branch of the family has operated the farm for four generations, told me as he flipped teensy yellow tomatoes into his mouth. “We just grow whatever looks interesting. Sometimes we’ll even grow seeds people give us, and if they’re good, we sell them.”

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359 Ocean House Road, Cape Elizabeth; Website

Best excuse to deploy the overused word “curated”: The Cumberland & Falmouth Summer Farmers Market

On any given Saturday in the warmer months, you’d be forgiven if you headed to the Deering Oaks park farmers market in Portland by default. As much as I love to shop there and listen to the street performers (even the cringingly awkward woman who sings “Greensleeves” a cappella), I do occasionally find the array of sounds, sights and options overwhelming.

Those are the Saturdays when I head a few miles north instead, to the small-yet-perfectly-formed market at Cumberland’s Town Hall. Some of my favorite vendors are here, from Maggie’s Farm at Mulberry Creek in Bowdoinham (try her goat yogurt) to coffee and pastry slingers Bread & Friends, San Francisco transplants who, right now, are transforming the former Pizzarino space on Portland’s Fore Street into a kitchen and brick-and-mortar retail shop.

290 Tuttle Road, Cumberland; 22 Hat Trick Drive, Falmouth; Website

Best blink-and-you-missed-it pastry sale: Belleville pop-ups

Are you missing Belleville’s incredible croissants? For now, you can get them at their occasional pop-ups. But order early! Photo by Nicole Wolf

Speaking of pastries, many of us have had a croissant-shaped hole in our hearts since Munjoy Hill’s Belleville temporarily closed this summer. Thanks to legions of vocal fans, owners Amy Fuller and Chris Deutsch now fully comprehend how much locals miss their laminated pastries and pizzas as they pause to expand their business into a commissary kitchen on Forest Avenue.

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Hence the pop-ups. They began in the autumn and just kept gathering momentum. Then, the big event: On Dec. 13 at 1 p.m., online preorders for that Saturday’s sale opened.Within 15 minutes, more than 100 online orders came through, depleting their stock right down to the last buttery shard. Watch their website for a repeat event this month. Just be quick: It’s harder to snag a palmier than a PS5.

1 North St., Portland (temporarily closed); Website

Best new ingredient: Cold-applewood smoked butter from Big Tree Grocery

I’d have laughed at you if you told me last year that a $6, pint-sized tub of cold-applewood smoked butter from Big Tree Grocery would upgrade nearly every savory dish in my repertoire: Maine crab cakes, cat’s head biscuits, ribeye steaks, pans of honey-braised turnips, even scrambled eggs. But how could I have known about the extraordinary layers of woodsy, spicy flavor this butter imparts? A revelation.

10 West Point Lane, Biddeford; Website

Best online ordering experience: SoPo Seafood

In 2020, I mentioned SoPo Seafood in passing, as part of an article I wrote about Biddeford’s burgeoning food scene. Since then, SoPo has moved from its Pepperell Mill digs to a more nominatively appropriate location, on Ocean Street in, you guessed it: South Portland.

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Inside the charming, minimalist storefront, you’ll find a raw bar as well as a retail shop, both of which are worth a visit. But if you can’t make it over to Knightville to collect your sushi-grade ama-ebi shrimp, jumbo Gulf of Maine scallops and Chaval-branded kelp mafaldine pasta, you can order everything online for local, next-day delivery by a crew of genial and conscientious drivers. Tip well and try the lobster.

171 Ocean St., South Portland (207) 282-7676; Website

Best dish with fringe benefits: Honey Paw’s lobster toast appetizer

The lobster toast at Honey Paw Photo by Ryan David Brown

Place an order for Honey Paw’s lobster toast appetizer, and in addition to setting in motion the assembly of rectangles of buttery toasted brioche filled with a sweet mousse of scallop and lobster, subtly spicy Fresno peppers and tarragon aioli, you’ll also trigger a donation that might help to make the country a safer place.

For each lobster toast Honey Paw sells, $1 is donated to the not-for-profit Stop AAPI Hate organization, a coalition that raises awareness about and tracks the occurrence of racist incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Doing good has rarely tasted so good.

Honorable mention: Each bag of coffee you purchase from Bangor’s Good Tour Coffee prompts a donation to clean-water initiatives in Ghana.

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78 Middle St., Portland (207) 774-8538; Website
172 Garland St., Bangor

Best architectural modification: Pickup windows

The takeout windows at the original Bard Coffee were added during the pandemic. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Perhaps it’s a pandemic-era preference for staying outdoors, or perhaps it’s the romance of quick-service commerce meeting sidewalk commute, but I’ve fallen hard for the trendlet of exterior peek-a-boo passthrough windows – exactly the sort you’ll find outside Rose Foods, Rover Bagel (Biddeford), Coveside Coffee, Otto (South Portland), Bard Coffee and, coming soon, Norimoto Bakery’s new retail space on Stevens Avenue. They make these spaces at once more accessible and intimate, and offer options for customers not yet comfortable venturing inside.

Best forward-thinking risk-reduction strategy: Proof of vaccination

With new coronavirus variants drawing out this global nightmare, it’s time we finally started doubling down on science-backed strategies that we know will help keep vulnerable friends and family safe. All of this is to say, I’m not ashamed to admit that I wholeheartedly support restaurants, bars and businesses that institute a policy of showing proof of full vaccination for indoor dining and drinking.

In Portland, Hunt + Alpine Club was among the first to test-drive such requirements, and to the great credit of owners Andrew and Briana Volk, they remained resolute, even in the face of blowback. Slowly, other businesses have followed suit. Among them: Friends & Family, Nina June in Rockport, Magnus on Water in Biddeford, Maine & Loire’s wine bar, The Jewel Box and, most recently, Arabica Coffee.

Let’s turn joining this list into a way to keep our favorite businesses off of the final one.

Best excuse to sing Auld Lang Syne for missing friends:
Yeto’s (Biddeford), 158 Pickett Street (South Portland), Figgy’s, Coco Cones, Big Sky Baking Sandwich Shop, Pigeons, MJ’s Wine Bar, Cheevitdee, Wonderbar (Biddeford), Bill’s Pizza, Maine Squeeze, RJ’s Pub (South Portland), Other Side Delicatessen (West End).


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