People dine at the long communal table at Trudy Bird. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It’s a pretty safe bet that twin brothers Alan and Jonathan Hines, co-owners of Trudy Bird’s Ølbar in North Yarmouth, won’t expect me to call them “old-school.” Bold or ambitious, perhaps — especially when you consider that the concept for their Scandinavian beer-and-small-plates restaurant evolved from a brief trip to the Nordic countries, and their menu from a single meal at a Copenhagen food kiosk.

But I think about the Hines brothers’ brave experiment in the context of the PR notices I used to receive when I was writing about food in New York 20 years ago. They’d announce the opening of a new bar inspired by the owner’s ski trip to Switzerland, or a quick-service Caribbean restaurant borne of an investor’s stopover in Guyana where, while his boat was refueling, he ate a bowl of pepperpot stew.

At some point, loosely informed themes and concepts fell out of fashion, perhaps because they almost never worked for long. Time and again, restaurateurs would learn that novelty sounds great on opening night, but it only works when it’s backed up by depth and breadth. From that perspective, it’s easy to see why two entrepreneurial Americans might see Danish open-faced sandwiches as intriguing.

“We were in Scandinavia in 2017, just shy of two weeks in Norway, Sweden and Denmark,” chef Alan Hines told me. “At the Hallernes Market food hall, there were so many kinds of these sandwiches, and everyone seemed to have a beer or snaps (schnapps) that accompanied the dish like a pairing. We fell in love with the playfulness of that kind of eating.”

Smørrebrød, as they’re called in Denmark, represent an entire category of dish linked by a common foundation: a thin, butter-slathered slice of dense, sourdough-leavened rye “rugbrød.” Danes prepare an almost unfathomable number of varieties of smørrebrød, everything from liver pâté and salad greens to grilled mackerel with sour cream and sturgeon roe.

Since the mid-1800s, they’ve shown up on the Danish table in their literal hundreds. Open legendary chef Ida Davidsen’s cookbook, and you’ll see a photo of her daughter dangling all 6 feet of the restaurant’s menu, a CVS receipt of a document listing “only” that day’s top 200 smørrebrød choices.

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As an inveterate ditherer, I found Trudy Bird’s shorter selection of eight smørrebrød much more manageable. Sandwiches range from classic house-cured gravlax with tomato and capers ($18) to the fusion-fired fantasy of fried chicken and rutabaga slaw ($17), all made with Cabot butter and two types of sturdy rye from Standard Baking Co. Start small, then expand into the nearly infinite universe of smørrebrød seems to be the plan.

Homemade aquavit, herbal on the left and maple on the right, at Trudy Bird. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But let’s not forget aquavit. A stark, high-alcohol botanical spirit infused with caraway, dill seeds and sometimes spices like fennel and anise, aquavit sings harmony alongside the smørrebrød experience, using the jolt and bite of liquor to awaken caraway and caramel flavors on your palate.

“We wanted to do our own aquavit, too. So we went back to Copenhagen and learned more about aquavit and smørrebrød, talked with one of the leading chefs in this style, and he told us you can do whatever you want with it,” Alan Hines said. “Well, as long as the flavors complement the molasses from the Danish rye bread. You can’t let your imagination run away from you, or else you’re going to be in La-La Land real quick.”

I don’t know if it’s imagination or the magnitude of mastering both aquavit and smørrebrød on the back of two brief visits to Denmark, but Trudy Bird’s enthusiasm gets ahead of itself frequently.

Ten homemade aquavits ($9/1.5 oz.) showcase a range of flavors from dill (which because of mustard seeds tastes more like boozy pickle juice than aquavit), to sticky-sweet brown butter, to a horrifying peppermint herbal tea blend. All are really more infused vodkas rather than classic aquavit, and apart from the flaccid rye-bread flavor, none seems particularly well-suited to sipping alongside an open-faced sandwich.

When it comes to those sandwiches, chef Hines is on his weakest footing when he tries to push boundaries. The Southern-inspired fried pimento cheese smørrebrød ($17) is exactly as my quippy, entertaining server described it, “It’s basically just fried cheese. It’s what the 350-pound teenager in me would order.” And while I’m not knocking fried curds, this overly sweet, guanciale-and-tomato-topped sandwich didn’t taste like much apart from melted cheese, let alone rye berries and good butter.

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Mushroom Pate at Trudy Bird. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The fried-sage and edible-flower-garnished vegetarian pâté smørrebrød ($17) also seemed to trample all subtle flavors underneath a hefty layer of mushrooms cooked down with charred radicchio, endive and onions. Sips of aquavit (maple, then rye) didn’t help the situation. I’d happily eat the middle layer of this dish again, as a terrine perhaps, but not as a sandwich.

“Always, bread and butter must make it better” is what Ida Davidsen told me when I interviewed her for a podcast in 2008, in response to a question about how her family selects new smørrebrød combinations for their menu.

Shaved Brussels salad. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

I thought about that alliterative message as I took a break from smørrebrød during my meal, instead shifting to nibbling on Trudy Bird’s excellent hand-cut french fries ($6) and a creamy shaved Brussels salad ($12) that I was convinced must be a well-executed homage to the Brassica salad up the street at The Purple House.

Then I went back for more smørrebrød, this time hewing to sandwiches that seemed more traditional. A Finnan Haddie (cold-smoked haddock) fish cake and pickled red onions ($17) fit the bill and achieved the internal equilibrium of texture and flavor, topping to bread, tart to creamy, that the more outrageous sandwiches did not.

Aebleskivers. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Another Nordic-seeming option, the pommes-puree-and-cured-egg smørrebrød ($17) strewn with capers, candied pumpkin seeds and chives, “a deconstructed potato salad,” according to chef Hines, also fit all the elements into a tasty, cohesive whole. Yes! I thought, sipping that pickly dill aquavit. Keep these two smørrebrød and the maple-sugar aebleskivers (pancake-like doughnuts fried into balls) drizzled with Maine blueberry compote ($14), and maybe start again?

Bartender Matt Glazer pours a beer from the iron bar tap at Trudy Bird. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Or maybe zig instead of zag – expand Trudy Bird’s concept and make a showcase of the best dish on the menu, the Red Snapper hot dog ($13) served in a buttery split-top roll and layered with crispy parsnip chips, curried mayo, and fronds of fresh dill and chervil. Holy cow, is that dog a good match for a wooly Belgian lambic like the Gouden Cuvee Indulgence ($10), one of 20 international beers and ciders on draft.

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If your goal is to fuse New Nordic and New England, it’s right here, not in kooky smørrebrød or medicinal infused vodka. Familiar, yet a tiny bit eccentric — in its simplicity, you could almost call it old-school.


RATING: ***
WHERE: 424 Walnut Hill Road, North Yarmouth. 207-489-9004. trudybird.com
SERVING: Wednesday & Thursday, 4-9 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, noon-9 p.m.; Sunday, noon-8 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Snacks and sandwiches: $6-$15, Smørrebrød: $15-$18
NOISE LEVEL: Caboose
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
RESERVATIONS: No
BAR: Beer, wine and aquavit
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: What says Scandinavia more than blond-wood paneled walls, a few comfy armchairs and 20-ish tap lines for beer? How about smørrebrød, the impossible-to-pronounce, divine-to-eat open-faced sandwich from Denmark? Twin brothers Alan and Jonathan Hines have brought both under the same roof, along with house-made aquavit spirits in their new “Ølbar” (beer bar) restaurant, Trudy Bird’s, which opened this December in North Yarmouth. Conceptually, the restaurant remains a bit ill-defined, never really sure of whether it wants to serve lovely traditional smørrebrød – crunchy smoked haddock fish cakes with pickled onion, or a potato-salad-inspired version with fennel aioli, capers and shavings of salt-cured egg – or madcap fusion sandwiches like too-sweet, too-greasy fried pimento cheese smørrebrød. Homemade aquavits also aren’t quite ready for prime time. I’d love to see what a 10-week stage (kitchen internship) in Copenhagen would do for chef Alan Hines and his team. All the ideas are here, they just need a little restraint, a little technique and more of the big-picture balance that dishes like his outstanding Red Snapper hot dog with homemade pickles, remoulade and fresh herbs showcase.


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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