“Oyster bar?” I asked, squinting at my screen. Maybe I had misheard. “Yep,” Paper Tiger’s co-owner and general manager Marcus Alcantara replied. “We’re just a bunch of goofballs and nerds making approachable cocktails in a tropical oyster bar with an Asian take on Maine seafood.”

My own inner nerd thought seriously about diagramming that sentence. Instead, I just took a second to parse out what Alcantara was saying and moved on to other questions. Still, something about that description kept bothering me. As funny and evocative as it was, some of it didn’t square with my mostly positive experiences at Paper Tiger.

Over two recent visits, one for a full meal on the 40-seat patio and another for a glass of crisp Cape Bleue Rose ($9) at the stone tablet of a concrete bar indoors, I took in whatever Paper Tiger offered me.

Seated indoors, I could see the remarkable transformation of the space from a caricature of a lobster shack to a seductive room built on contrasts: hundreds of glinting bottles against a matte black ceiling; rustic rattan barstools whose angles guide your eye up to an ornate expanse of tiger-and-peacock-themed wallpaper. The dining room feels personal in its unique sensibilities: a rejection of corporate design styles and, as Alcantara himself described it, “an honest kookiness.”

The Negourney Weaver. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

You’ll find the same ethos at the bar. Here, Alcantara shows off both technical skills like fat-washing Campari in coconut oil to blunt the liqueur’s rougher edges. With it, they build the Negourney Weaver ($14), a velvety, Negroni-like cocktail finished with pineapple rum and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. Or try the Banana Hammock ($14), a warm-spiced quasi-Manhattan that unites funky overproof Jamaican rum, cinnamon syrup and banana-peel-infused Punt e Mes. Drink more than two of these, and you’ll need that hammock.

As for food, co-owner and chef Nace Cohen’s menu of small plates echoes the bar’s practice of delivering twists on classics. Here, the classics are Asian and Asian-American dishes, presumably to fit the nominal Tiki-ness of Paper Tiger. Some are barely tweaked but executed nicely: Tom Kha Gai ($19) is served more as a brothy, coconut-milk rice stew rather than a soup, and Tiger Salad ($11) is a pretty traditional som tum (green papaya salad) with zoodle-length strands of papaya and perhaps less funk from fish sauce than you’d expect at a Thai restaurant.


Paper Tiger’s Tom Kha Gai Rice Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Other dishes take tentative steps toward kookiness. Crisp house-cut French fries ($6.50) come dusted with pulverized shards of fried garlic, red chile powder and a dash of MSG (No, Karen, it doesn’t give you a headache). Or tender, coconut-soaked Tres Leches cake ($10) served with a piping of whipped cream flavored with passionfruit pulp and sea salt (perhaps a tiny bit too much sea salt). In this dish, there’s a pleasing and unexpected inversion of textures: the whipped cream is denser than the cake itself.

I didn’t think the chili-fried monkfish ($15) was particularly odd either, with its gorgeously fried (if undersalted) cubes of fish – offcuts from the kitchen’s house-butchering for the monkfish ssam for two ($37). But I admired the clever (and perhaps unintentional) way the flame-burst pickled Fresno peppers and cherry tomatoes recalled Rhode Island-style fried calamari with marinara.

Meanwhile, some of Cohen’s dishes flourish through mutation. Szechuan-inspired green beans ($11.50) get a flash-blanching in the deep-fryer, then a turn in Paper Tiger’s blast furnace of a wok station (actually it’s just the one lone wok) and a dusting of numbing Szechuan peppercorns. What sets the dish apart is the addition of a surprisingly compatible ingredient: crumbled feta cheese. The acidic tang might bring to mind a more traditional addition like Chinese stinky tofu, but feta adds an agreeable creaminess to the beans. It also helps dim the peppercorns’ spicy buzz.

Something I didn’t see much of on either visit (or on a third pass where I peeked in the plate-glass windows and said hello to the smart, amiable server whom I’d seen a few nights before as I scoped out the shellfish situation) was oysters.

Now, I know for certain that Paper Tiger serves oysters. You can get them roasted with chives and black garlic ($15 for four) or raw ($18 for 6). I saw one diner eating a half-dozen during my second visit to Paper Tiger. I can vouch for their existence.

But “oyster bar” is probably the last description I’d use to describe this tremendously charming, emo graphic novel of an Asian-inspired restaurant. That’s a point in its favor. Competing in Portland as another shellfish bar is tough, especially when much of Paper Tiger’s real allure grows from its embrace of the outré, not the oyster.


A shot of bourbon in a twisty glass found in a thrift store reflects the quirky sensibilities at Paper Tiger restaurant and bar. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

RATING: ***1/2
WHERE: 425 Fore St., (207) 613-9823. papertigerme.com
SERVING: Daily 11 a.m. – 1 a.m. (Starting June 1)
PRICE RANGE: Small format plates: $6-$15, Larger plates: $15-$18
NOISE LEVEL: Shucking loud
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails

BOTTOM LINE: Rattan, neon signs, graphic wallpaper, cozy booths, dark lighting, balanced cocktails and a menu of well-executed, Asian-inspired small plates – what’s not to love? Paper Tiger might have opened just one year ago, but this Fore Street lounge and restaurant already feels like an established hangout for Portland’s cool kids. Co-owner Marcus Alcantara’s cocktails are approachable, yet secretly require some pretty sophisticated techniques like fat-washing Campari to add a soft mouthfeel to the Negourney Weaver (Negroni + Sigourney…), or infusing sweet vermouth with banana peels to amp up the fruity roundness of the Banana Hammock. Co-owner Nace Cohen’s menu keeps pace with Alcantara’s cocktails. Sure, a few seasoning issues (too much or too little salt, specifically) crop up once in a while, but Cohen knows his way around a wok. He also knows how to take calculated risks, adding feta to Szechuan green beans, or pickled peppers to juicy, crisp-fried chunks of monkfish. Paper Tiger is an under-the-radar charmer.

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

A glimpse of the tiger and peacock themed wallpaper behind a cozy booth at Paper Tiger. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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