Normally when I talk about seasonality, it’s in the context of ingredients. But I’ve also come to think of December as the season of the list. I embrace it now, even though I did not always – especially Buzzfeed-style, “10 Celebrities Low-key Allergic to Ragweed Pollen” rundowns.

But now that I’ve been compiling my own inventories of yearly favorites for the better part of two decades, I’ve started to look forward to paging through my photos and re-reading my notes. The process evokes some of my happiest memories of the previous 12 months. I am lucky to be able to share them with you, and judging by the messages that appear in my inbox after this column comes out every year, I know you appreciate them, too.

Say what you will about the state of humanity; I know one thing for sure: Readers love lists of good things, and what follows are some very good things.

Editor’s Note: All restaurants are in Portland unless stated otherwise.

Cafe Louis in South Portland is this year’s Best New Restaurant, says our Dine Out critic Andrew Ross. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

BEST NEW RESTAURANT: Café Louis in South Portland

What counts as “new” in this post-2020 phase of restaurant dining remains up for debate, especially since for some chefs, this was the first full year they were able to demonstrate their range of skills. That’s why, in the case of Evan Richardson’s buzzy, Caribbean-Creole-inspired Café Louis, I believe 2022 represents its true debut.

Advertisement

It’s no coincidence that my pick for this category sits directly next-door to last year’s winner. In part, that’s because as Judy Gibson cranked out pandemic-pivot chicken sandwiches and (Richardson’s now-shuttered) Eaux slowly molted into Café Louis, the two restaurants also evolved together. Casual observers might have noticed their conjoined outdoor dining spaces, all tight white tarps and concrete highway barriers. Others might pick up on the way front-of-house staff members would chat as their orbits bumped, or how, especially with fellow neighbor SoPo Seafood and Raw Bar in the mix, this little section of Ocean Street seemed to declare itself to be an exciting culinary destination.

For his part, Richardson’s seasonal menu is formatted around flavor-driven updates of his family’s Costa Rican recipes (and more). His cooking at Café Louis is smarter, more creative and consistent than anything we saw from him at Eaux (which was pretty darned great itself).

What’s more, in his 770-square-foot digs across the bridge, Richardson’s team is able to prepare nearly everything (except ketchup, he tells me) in-house: first-class sourdough bread, tortillas, challah buns for tallow-fried smash burgers, stocks, even ice cream.

Don’t ask me how they do it, especially with a five-person team. But what I can tell you is that tart cabbage salad topped with charred puffed rice and a pineapple vinaigrette; granita-like Pura Vida rum punch; and aromatic, elegant desserts like rhubarb-and-rosewater flan are at the top of my list of things I want to eat again in 2023.

Talented chef Bijan Eslami at work in the kitchen of Jing Yan. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

BEST SINGLE MEAL: Jing Yan

I don’t envy chef Bijan “Biz” Eslami, who in taking over at Munjoy Hill’s Jing Yan, was tasked with interpreting the impossibly vast range of cuisines that we refer to collectively as “Asian.” I’ve seen plenty of people try, but when pan-Asian menus devolve into a flaccid list of food-court greatest hits, it’s clear why these restaurants struggle.

Advertisement

Not Eslami, whose talents have been honed through more than a dozen years in restaurant kitchens across southern Maine. His perspective rejects mimicry, rejects stereotype and approximation, instead exploring the essential flavors, textures, and aromas that make up any given dish. It’s all about “What if?” for Eslami.

When he rebuilds Pai Men Miyake’s brothless abura ramen using new ingredients like gochujang and lacto-fermented bamboo, he gets funky, fiery Korean “spaghetti.” Or daydreaming about Italian ingredients like basil, cheese and garlic yields a (mostly) Japanese fantasy where a schmear of pickled green hijiki seaweed offsets creamy burrata and grill-scored sourdough bread.

Eslami’s biggest accomplishment might well be his insistent, yet gentle, suggestion to diners that they rethink the very meaning of the word “Asian,” allowing it to encompass dishes that also reflect the chef’s Persian heritage. Peking duck becomes a stupendously good, Iranian fesenjoon, where walnuts and hoisin, mint and Thai basil all cozy up to one another in a dish that redefines “pan-Asian” on a single plate.

BEST SINGLE DISH: [TIE]

Confit rabbit with farro at Magnus on Water in Biddeford

Sweet corn risotto with tomatoes at Broken Arrow

Advertisement

Perhaps these selections say more about me than they do about the restaurants: Specifically, that I’m a sucker for brothy grains. When you think about it, Ben Jackson’s stock-plumped farro at Magnus on Water aren’t a million miles away from Tom Bicksei and Josh Worrey’s creamy grains of arborio at Broken Arrow. Had these chefs stopped with starch, I’d have been satisfied at both restaurants, but these two dishes ultimately make my year-end list because of the other components on the plate.

Jackson’s overnight salt-brined rabbit leg is seasoned with cumin, paprika and coriander, submerged in bubbling duck fat, then freshened up with lovage yogurt and preserved Meyer lemons. It’s substantial enough to stand up to farro’s bulk, but bright enough to eat in the summer heat. Remarkable.

So too, the puckery, sweet “salsa” of Spanish sherry vinegar and ripe tomatoes from Windham’s Bumbleroot Farm that Worrey and Bicksei spoon over risotto. When I reviewed Broken Arrow, I confessed to borrowing this technique, and I’ve now reached a point where I may never prepare a “regular” risotto again.

Helm Oyster Bar & Bistro’s Blueberries for Sal cocktail. Michele McDonald

BEST COCKTAIL: [TIE]

Blueberries for Sal at Helm

Skin in the Game at Crispy Gai

Advertisement

Take note, bar managers: If you put a strong, yet nuanced cocktail on your menu, I’ll order it (unless I’m the designated driver). The equilibrium between high-octane base spirit and spice, herbs or fruit is one of the hardest for a mixologist to get right. If you’re looking for inspiration for how to pull off this feat, stop by swanky seafood-focused bistro Helm, where the tequila, mezcal, muddled blueberries and chocolately mole bitters in their Blueberries for Sal create a versatile, off-dry sipper that doesn’t murder your palate.

Over at Thai-inspired Crispy Gai, where robust flavors rule, pineapple skin, carrot juice and mellow, herbal amaro soften the rum-adjacent punch of Thai Mekhong spirit in the Skin in the Game cocktail. Add lime juice to the mix, and you’ve got a drink that tastes like a cross between a Cuba Libre and a post-yoga smoothie. No stretching required.

BEST SANDWICH: Tam and Cam from Indy’s in South Portland

I was skeptical about a banh mi made with Italian ciabatta, not the classic wheat-and-rice-flour baguette – let alone a pressed version. But Indy’s made me a convert. When pickled daikon and carrot, pork pâté and translucent slices of ham convene on the grill with ciabatta, a brioche-like sweetness is coaxed out of the bread. Expert tip: Ask for extra jalapeños.

Honorable mention: Any of the hyper-seasonal “fancy toasts” at Maple’s Bakery in Yarmouth, all prepared on a thick-cut plank of their off-the-menu homemade sourdough.

Il Leone’s L’estate pizza with local heirloom tomatoes, local organic basil, mozzarella, Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil, Pecorino cheese and black pepper. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

BEST PIZZA: [TIE]

Advertisement

Il Leone (seasonal) on Peaks Island

Friends & Family’s grandma slice

Here’s one to save: Pencil in a ferry ride to Lion’s Park on Peaks Island next summer, where blistered, naturally leavened Neapolitan-style pizzas prepared al fresco await. If you can’t wait that long, I understand. Really. In that case, check out Friends & Family, which operates as a festive, eclectic wine-bar crossed with a Sicilian pizzeria. Whichever thick-crust grandma pizza is available, order it. You won’t be sorry.

Rosanna’s Ice Cream and Norimoto Bakery collaboration: Matcha meringue cookies filled with local strawberry ice cream. Photo courtesy of Norimoto

BEST COLLABORATION: Dionysus coffee from Elements Coffee Roasters in Biddeford & Barreled Souls Brewing Company in Saco

Coffee beans are like tiny magnets for odors. Leave a bag in your freezer alongside garlicky leftovers, and you’ll be sniffing out hints of aioli in your morning brew. But Elements and Barreled Souls have taken advantage of coffee’s sponge-like capacity in aging green, pre-roasted Honduran Guama Danta beans inside whiskey barrels. Once they do their absorptive best for a few weeks, the beans get a medium-light roast, extracting nutty, molasses aromas that make this blend irresistible, especially on chilly winter mornings.

Honorable mention: A one-day pop-up partnership between not-quite-extinct Rosanna’s Ice Cream and Norimoto Bakery where the combination of rich, local strawberry ice cream and pavlova-esque matcha meringue cookies created one of my fondest summer memories.

Advertisement

BEST BAKED GOOD: Light rye bread with walnuts at Zu Bakery

If it’s been a while since you walked past the perennially vacant retail space near the corner of Danforth and Clark streets in the West End, check out the cozy “micro-boulangerie” that baker Barak Olins has built. The interior will remind you of tiny European (or Quebecois) bakeries, and so will the artisan loaves, scones and laminated pastries. My favorite is the light rye boule with walnuts, a fantastic companion for a slice of smoked salmon, a little mustard and a few dill fronds.

BEST BEVERAGE NEWS: Noughty sparkling non-alcoholic wine is available in Maine

I got an angry email from the proprietors of one local bottle shop when I raved about Thomson & Scott’s zero-alcohol sparkling Chardonnay last year. I got another when I mentioned their Tempranillo-based rosé sparkler. In my articles, I made it clear that these terrific dealcoholized wines were both available online (heck, you can buy them on Amazon), but I secretly hoped that readers would bug local retailers to start stocking them.

It took a few years, but the long game seems to have worked. I found bottles of Noughty at Island Spirits on Vinalhaven a few months ago. You don’t have to take a ferry to find it, though. You can grab a bottle at Grippy Tannins, Old Port Wine & Cigars, Joe’s Super Variety, all in Portland, and at Bootleggers in Topsham.

BEST LAST-MINUTE HOLIDAY FOOD GIFT: [TIE]

Advertisement

Rooted Fare’s black sesame “crunchy butter” at Onggi Ferments & Foods

Peppermint-bark doughnuts from Ruckus Donuts in Rockland

If you’re on the Midcoast over the next few weeks, grab a dozen dark-chocolate-coated, candy-cane-sprinkled, buttermilk brioche doughnuts from Ruckus, which opened a brick-and-mortar shop in 2021. Better still, call ahead before they sell out (because they do).

For a stocking stuffer or dinner party gift, Onggi Ferments has the perfect solution. Think of Rooted Fare’s black sesame paste as peanut butter’s goth sibling. Black as squid-ink, with crispy panko and (just a few) crushed peanuts for texture, it is terrific in sandwiches, savory Southeast Asian sauces, and my favorite: a dip for dunking pretzels. One jar lasts about a day in this household.

The Buxton Common was among several dearly departed restaurants this year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

BEST MEMORIES OF DEPARTED FAVORITES: Back Bay Grill, Baharat, The Buxton Common, Hilltop CoffeeHugo’s, Yobo

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


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: