A historic Portland Co. building was taken down and rebuilt as the Thames Street home of restaurant Twelve. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Twelve is imperfect. Twelve is a very good restaurant. Twelve is expensive. Twelve is the darling of influencers and (some) national food media for good reason. Twelve is still settling into its identity.

Since Twelve opened last July on the rapidly evolving Portland Foreside waterfront, I’ve heard all those statements at least twice. Mostly from friends and acquaintances who – with a turgid enthusiasm they have never shown about any other Maine restaurant over the past seven years – seemed ready to burst as they relayed the details of their dinner experiences with me.

Twelve is also nearly impossible to review, because it has created such a sense of anticipation that anything short of a full-throated rave will sound more negative than it actually is.

Now that I’ve eaten at Twelve myself, snacked on the deservedly legendary sweet potato milk-bread rolls ($8); polished off a wonderful grilled Maine scallop appetizer adorned with crunchy dehydrated celeriac “chips,” mussel beurre blanc and a sweet-tart green apple slaw; and sipped a glass of plummy RouteStock cabernet ($16), I can tell you: It’s all true.

Sweet potato milk bread, served with caramelized-onion brown butter and savory granola, at Twelve. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A Prentice Hospitality Group-funded collaboration that brought together general manager Daniel Gorlas (Per Se in New York), pastry chef Georgia Macon (Tartine in San Francisco), executive chef Colin Wyatt (Eleven Madison Park in New York) as well as consulting chef Matt Ginn (Evo), Twelve seems inspired by musical supergroups like Cream or boygenius. On this staff, nearly everyone is a heavy-hitter.

You could count the 140(ish)-year-old Portland Co. building as another notable member of the high-wattage crew. Indeed, its number (12) gives the restaurant its name. And as you’ve undoubtedly heard, the historic structure was disassembled down to the bricks and trundled to its current location across the flat dirt lot from where it once sat.


“When they originally took the structure down, they put the bricks on a pallet with clear instructions on how to place them back in the right place,” Wyatt said. “But what we didn’t yet understand is that the space on the outside didn’t have as much connection with the inside, so we worked to make the interior feel like not such a foreign space.”

To achieve that harmony, designers re-introduced uneven lines and surfaces into the space. They added ceramic art and a tonge-and-groove ceiling, mounted salvaged wooden beams in the dining room, even converted leftover timber into the loping, seven-seat chef’s counter. These touches also shrink the room dramatically. Indeed, Twelve is a 75-seat restaurant that appears to be half its size. The layout of the dining room forces a diner’s eye toward the center of the room. It is a brilliant way to create intimacy in a boxy space.

But lighting confounds the situation. That’s not a knock on the fixtures, which are gorgeous, especially brass pendant lights that dangle like spiraling maple samara – recently installed after supply-chain shortages delayed delivery of their dimmer switch. But on my recent visit, the tardy dimmer didn’t appear to be plugged in. Every bulb in the place seemed to be disgorging its maximum lumens.

Grilled Scallops with celery root and green apple slaw served with dried celery root chips at Twelve. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

One upside: “It’s great for Instagram,” a man at the next table announced to his date as they both tucked into their buttery, croissant-enveloped lobster rolls (an upgraded appetizer dish that added an extra $72 to their bill after tax and tip). Glancing down at my tangy, roasted-beet pre-appetizer, I couldn’t argue; the lurid purple juices and dehydrated beet leather certainly did pop in the light. But if coziness is the goal, the room needs to be 10-15% darker.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to skip past the lobster roll, even though I did not try the lobster roll. Partly, because I felt it was important to concentrate on the core elements of my $82 prix fixe meal, and partly because I believe Maine is one place where a tapas-sized lobster roll should never cost that much.

Why does it? Clearly, brick-schlepping and high-end interior design require money. So does employing people. I counted eight back-of-house and eight front-of-house staff and am certain there were more, all for a dining room that was, from the time we arrived and until we left at closing time two hours later, about a quarter full.


Behind the stoves, that number makes some sense. Finicky prep work, assembling dishes made from dozens of components, complex sauces: all labor-intensive. Yet with a server-to-customer ratio that would make a liberal-arts college jealous, Twelve sets up the expectation of terrific, attentive service. Sometimes, that’s precisely what I got.

The Chasing Yesterday, a tequila-based cocktail with blueberry, lime, egg, lavender and sage, at Twelve restaurant. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Our primary server (Twelve seems to use a common-table service model where any server available assists diners, but one point-person is ultimately responsible) was quick to to talk diners through complicated dishes. She was also a master at stealthily swiping empty glassware from tables and offering guidance on cocktails, steering me to the Lady in Red ($16), essentially a cranberry and warm-spice-infused Boulevardier, and my sweet-toothed dinner guest to the blueberry-foam-topped Chasing Yesterday ($16).

Her front-of-house colleagues were somewhat less polished. One listed the components of the lovely, semi-savory floating island dessert as he pumped and clenched his fist behind his back, as if he were inflating a blood pressure cuff. It was distracting, but he mentioned all the unorthodox dessert’s unique elements – from pear-saffron sorbet, to honey meringue, to goat-cheese creme anglaise.

The floating island dessert at Twelve. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

To be frank, I couldn’t tell what level of service Twelve was trying to provide, either. Some elements felt structured and rigid, as they do at ultra-posh Daniel, another New York restaurant where chef Wyatt cooked recently. Others felt casual, like staff wearing jeans, or the host drinking from a water bottle throughout the night.

When I spoke with Wyatt, he seemed to indicate that, at least in part, the experience is not intended to be old-school upscale, at least not entirely. “We get this a lot, when people first come, they hear we come from Daniel, Per Se, I come from Eleven Madison Park, and they think we’re going to be a fancy, fine-dining restaurant,” he said. “But we try very hard to be accessible to everyone that comes in. We offer a prix fixe menu, to control logistics and costs, but we also offer an a la carte menu. We weren’t trying to be labeled as ‘fine dining,’ even though a lot of people consider us that, and I think we’ve come to accept that.”

Is there a middle-ground between expectations of fine-dining and this somewhat more casual service model? I’m not sure. I just know that, while it hasn’t quite reached it yet, Twelve seems to be working towards its own comfortable equilibrium.


The same could be said for some of the dishes on the menu.

Macon’s gingerbread, a tender, buttery spice cake split down the center, topped with a scoop of rich, crème fraiche ice cream and doused with a roux-thickened apple cider “gravy” might be the best restaurant dessert I’ve tasted since the pandemic. Precision-calibrated to balance fiery ginger and rich dairy, it is a superb achievement.

The New York strip served with hasselback potato, pomme puree, black garlic and rosemary jus, at Twelve. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Other dishes mystify with little hiccups that wouldn’t matter as much if the bar weren’t set quite so high (partly by price, partly by reputation). My main course of New York strip was a revelation in its construction. Wyatt removes gristle, fat and silverskin from Pineland Farms beef strip loin and wraps it into a torchon-like log, which then gets seared, portioned into fantastically juicy medallions and plated with a puree of potatoes and black garlic alongside a single Hasselback-roasted fingerling. Everything was fantastic about this dish except that miserly, domino-sized potato, which hadn’t even fanned out in the oven to allow fat to ooze between its slices.

Also nearly perfect was the chicken dish, a main course of skin-on, sous-vided breast meat with tawny roasted skin, all set onto a fricassee made from chicken thighs, leeks and onions. The meat: astounding – like something out of an instructional video on how to keep a chicken breast moist. The Thanksgiving-inspired sauce, however, knocked my palate for a loop. Made from leftover sourdough bread toasted in chicken fat, the jus and its unremitting umami kept hijacking every bite I took. Eating the dish was like listening to a chord progression that never resolves, or like someone expertly setting up an entertaining joke, then stopping short of shouting, “The Aristocrats!” I needed something, anything to break through the glutamic haze of it all. Lemon? Togarashi? Crunch?

I don’t expect perfection, even when I leave a restaurant more than $300 lighter for a two-person meal. But I do believe that the quality of an experience should be, if not dictated by price, then at least informed by it. And I’m not certain that Twelve knows how to read its own mixed signals yet. It seems ambivalent about its own mission, status and day-to-day practices. Twelve is a work-in-progress, and already a strong performer, but it will be fascinating to watch how it establishes its own, independent reputation for excellence in the years to come.

Dana Peters, right, and Tracy Peters of Gorham dine out at Twelve restaurant for their 31st wedding anniversary. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING: ****
WHERE: 115 Thames St., Portland. 910-7400. twelvemaine.com
SERVING: 5-9:30 p.m. daily (summer until 10 p.m.)
PRICE RANGE: Prix fixe: $82/per person. A la carte: $16-$20 (appetizers) and $30-$46 (main courses)
NOISE LEVEL: Introverts Anonymous meeting
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
RESERVATIONS: Nearly mandatory
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails
BOTTOM LINE: Twelve debuted in 2022 to attention from media near and far, in part thanks to its pedigree of well-known and highly respected restaurant professionals like executive chef Colin Wyatt, pastry chef Georgia Macon and general manager Daniel Gorlas. The restaurant’s very bright mid-century dining room sparkles like a geode inside the renovated Portland Co. building, while its “Modern New England” menu is, as you’d expect from a restaurant at this rarefied price point, seasonal and locally sourced. Wyatt is a true expert at preparing proteins like New York strip steak, grilled scallops and skin-on chicken breast to their optimal juiciness and flavor. Some of the sauces and marinades, on the other hand, are off-kilter: either too sweet or unremittingly savory. Macon’s breads and desserts, especially her gingerbread, are standouts and deserve much more attention. Service, despite the presence of what feels like four or five staff for every diner, can be clumsy and even a bit unpolished, but it’s also clear that these are still early days for a restaurant that promises a long and very prominent future in Maine.


Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, 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 and never accepts free food or drink.

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: andrewross.maine@gmail.com
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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