“Regards” is a nifty name for a restaurant, and names matter. Layered and multivalent with positive connotations and overlapping meanings, “Regards” is an especially splendid choice for a business that opens onto one of Portland’s busiest streets, where the regards you exchange from a window-adjacent seat (or a sidewalk two-top) might be with companions, staff or a spectrum of meandering pedestrians.

From a different angle, the name makes reference to well-wishes sent along to Broadway, or, more likely, an absent friend. This is the perspective that chef/owner Neil Zabriskie and his wife, fellow co-owner and service-and-wine-manager Kimberly Lund Zabriskie, adopted when conceptualizing their Los-Angeles-inspired, small-plates restaurant prior to its opening this January.

“It’s how we deliver our hospitality,” Kimberly Lund Zabriskie said. “I think of it like sharing a journal entry of what we bring from life, and offering it with our regards, with love.”

“We think about Regards like a letter to Portland, to Maine, where it’s a collection of  techniques I’ve picked up, and of our experiences abroad and domestic, and we’re just bringing those to Portland,” California-raised Neil Zabriskie added.

Both Zabriskies worked at Little Giant in recent years: Kimberly in the front-of-house and Neil acting as the West End neighborhood bistro’s final executive chef (before it shuttered for good late last year). So, too, did their general manager, “cocktail guy,” and fellow co-owner Cameron Lewin.

Yet if you visit Regards expecting the old gang to produce a retread of the experience from Danforth Street, you’ll be in for a surprise. Compared to their alma mater, Regards is at once more conceptually adventurous and, unfortunately, somewhat less confident.

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The dinner rush on a Thursday evening in July at Regards. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Take the two cocktails I sampled on a recent visit. Both incorporated L.A.-inspired twists on classics: The fizzy French 75 ($16) subbed mezcal and guava juice for the traditional gin and lemon juice, yielding a smoky, near-savory, yet imbalanced cocktail that no longer worked on its own. Pair it with something bright and herby, like burrata dressed with anise hyssop, pickled Thai chiles and a drizzle of chive oil ($16), or perhaps something tart, like the orange mignonette served alongside Brinestone oysters ($8 for two), and you might hit the mark.

More internally consistent, yet still puzzling, was the agave-sweetened margarita ($12) that tasted like a strict, International Bar Association formulation of the classic drink. I tried but could not smell or taste any of the house-made eucalyptus bitters. I wasn’t looking for a cocktail with a Vicks VapoRub rim, but a hint of mentholated sparkle would have been nice.

Similarly, most dishes I tasted crackled with creative energy but fell a bit short when they arrived at the table. From what I have seen at other new restaurants in the area, this seems normal, especially considering the challenges around staffing and supply that food businesses around the country are experiencing.

Still, it’s tough when the growing pains hamper your staple menu items.

In this case, the generously filled, yakitori-grilled SoPo Seafood shrimp tacos ($16) served with husk cherry salsa and butter lettuce ($16). Everything inside the wrapper worked well, but the powder-dry homemade corn-and-flour tortilla let the dish down hard. The Zabriskies mentioned tinkering with their tortilla recipe when I spoke to them over the phone, and I hope they continue to work at finding the right recipe. The fish sauce caramel and bright pops of cilantro in the filling certainly deserve better.

The hamachi collar at Regards. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Elsewhere, composition and plating created the minor problems. Regards’ izakaya-style grilled Hamachi collar, a larger-format dish ($42), arrived charmingly wreathed by Boston lettuce leaves, toasted nori sheets and a few condiments. “What do we need to do here?” I asked our server, not too long after he was goosed by a pedestrian walking past. “Scrape a little off and make a bite,” he said.

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So scrape we did – dislodging thumb-sized morsels of gorgeously cooked miso-glazed fish from the bone. What the dish really required was two-fold. First, the charred lemon absolutely, positively, without any doubt, needed to be squeezed liberally over the fish before bundling it into a lettuce “wrap.” Either the kitchen should do this beforehand or explicit instruction needs to happen tableside. Second, the sheets of toasted nori ought to have been subdivided so that only a quarter of each portion made it into each wrap. My first few bites, constructed as directed, tasted mostly of salt and seaweed, and not of the superb hamachi.

Easy to fix, as is a similar plating issue with the grilled cabbage ($16), a dish that, along with the hamachi collar, is one of Regards’ signature plates. Here, I didn’t spot the issue right away. My dinner guest and I happily made our way through the first few large triangular leaves of charred, white-kimchi-dressed caraflex (conical) cabbage, commenting that the dish seemed a lot more monochromatic and rustic than we’d seen a few months back, through a friend’s texted photo of her salmon-roe sprinkled version. Only halfway through did we discover the large dollop of Caesar-esque dressing hiding at the bottom of the dish and pulsating with umami and bitter-tart lime juice. Hidden components are bad enough in a large dish that you spend 20 minutes eating, but when you cover up the best part of a small-format plate, you’re catalyzing diners’ disappointment.

Even my two favorite dishes of the evening offered examples of how close Regards’ team comes to getting everything perfect…with small, yet impossible-to-ignore missteps.

Neil Zabriskie’s imagination was in full flow on the dessert menu, compelling him to repurpose an excess order of pears and ferment them like Mexican tepache, a kombucha-style beverage. With these slightly boozy pears, he whipped up a funky, warm-spice-infused custard, churned it into ice cream and topped it ($9) with a tequila granita made from the fermented pear liquid. I really can’t think of too many other things I’d rather eat, seated on the patio in July. But the accompanying honeycomb, included for textural contrast and a hit of sweetness, was more like incisor-cracking brittle than foamy, light honeycomb.

A kakiage (tempura made from several ingredients cooked together) of shishito pepper, squid tentacles and squash blossoms ($16) had all the right elements for success, including a bespoke togarashi spice blend mounded alongside a vivid green dipping sauce of tomatillos, egg yolks and chive oil. But the seasoned batter – a blend of masarepa, potato starch and corn starch – turned hard when fried, not delicate and shattering, as kakiage ought to be. There’s no way to tell if the toughness comes from the recipe or impatience in execution – kakiage (all tempura, really) requires finesse and constant willingness to babysit bubbling batter, coaxing it into shape as it disperses across the oil.

I almost wish the dish had been listed on the menu as “vegetable fritters.” Admittedly, with such a prosaic description, I probably would have skipped ordering them. But free of memories of kakiages-past, I also might have enjoyed eating them as-is. Names create expectations, and names matter.

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Regards chef Neil Zabriskie, left, and the kitchen staff prepare food during the dinner rush on a Thursday in July. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING:  ***

WHERE:  547 Congress St., Portland. 747-5940. regardsmaine.com

SERVING:  Tuesday to Thursday, 5 – 9 p.m., Friday & Saturday 5 – 10 p.m.

PRICE RANGE: Small plates: $8-20. Larger plates: $27-42

NOISE LEVEL: Party bus

VEGETARIAN: Some dishes

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GLUTEN-FREE: Most dishes

RESERVATIONS: Recommended, but walk-ins welcomed

BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: A little more than six months ago, Los Angeles-inspired small-plates restaurant Regards opened in Portland’s Arts District. And while the paper’s policy is to give a grace period of three months for new restaurants to find their footing before reviewing them, I think Regards might still need a little more time. All the elements are there: from a hip, lime-bleached brick interior set off in dynamic washes of orange and pink, to unflappable service and an imaginative menu that seeks to intertwine mostly Mexican and Japanese influences. What’s missing is consistent, confident execution of dishes. Some are nearly at their best, like a tepache-inspired ice cream made with fermented pears, and a large-format shareable platter of grilled, miso-basted hamachi collar that needs the hit of acid from the charred lemon and less nori than is provided. Regards runs on an ebullient creativity that informs chef Neil Zabriskie’s menu as well as wine director Kimberly Lund Zabriskie’s unusual beverage selections, like a Dalmatian pet-nat ($14/glass) and even a Mexican red from Tecate that sings with redcurrant and balanced acidity ($18/glass). Give Regards some time…and in the meanwhile, enjoy its warm-hearted hospitality and sidewalk view.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such): Poor ** Fair *** Good **** Excellent ***** Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously.


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: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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