Server Shannon Ireland chats with patrons Sue Stasiowski and Dan Cheever of Cumberland in the dining room at Dara Bistro. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Like it or not, it’s my professional obligation to spill the beans when I come across a hidden gem of a restaurant. I do it even though I know the added attention might alter the fragile experience of dining there, so I apologize in advance if I reveal too much about a restaurant you want to keep to yourself. But I tattle with love, with an overt agenda to evangelize for restaurants that deserve attention.

Today, I’m here to give up the goods on Dara Bistro in Cumberland, a cozy 30-seater located in a former doctor’s office. Open for dinner since May 2022, you may recognize the space by its former name, Cumberland Food Company, a legacy of its days as a bakery and breakfast/lunch joint that stayed afloat during the early pandemic by converting its dining room into a local grocery store.

Veggie Paella at Dara Bistro.

But as diners returned to eating indoors, owner/chef Bryan Dame carried out his long-delayed plans to reopen as a full-service bistro serving a short, New England and Southern-inspired menu.

“I grew up here and in New Hampshire, went to college at St. Joe’s, then I transferred to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga,” he said. “So I’ve been influenced by both places and worked in both. The Southern-inspired New American food also came through working at The Inn at Little Washington,” a legendary, luxe inn in the countryside in Virginia.

Dame cooks with excellent mastery of technique like an alum of one of the nation’s best-known farm-to-table restaurants, and he sources hyper-local ingredients like a former chef and culinary educator for Rosemont Market, a job he held before taking over the rustic, understated Cumberland space in 2017.

You don’t have to search for examples of these dual strengths in action. Just pick an item from the menu. Start with the first appetizer, deviled eggs ($7): four smooth, Raye’s mustard-infused, precision-piped yolks and a  magenta, house-pickled onion on top. “I do all the pickling in-house, including the onions and the baby carrot garnish for that,” Dame said. “Oh, and the eggs are from my chickens at home.”


Sweet corn at Dara Bistro, sourced from teen farmer Braden Nadeau, Jr. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

And it’s not just eggs. Sweet corn and tomatoes come from precocious farming phenom Braden Nadeau, Jr., supplemented by more tomatoes and kale from a medical student named Victoria Lattanzi, who gardens in her family’s nearby plot. Dame often scaffolds dishes on these micro-harvests and serves them as long as the precious supplies hold out.

Take the puffy, custardy brioche doughnut he fries, rolls in sugar and nestles into a pool of bourbon-and-rosemary compote of hand-picked local fruit. “I started doing that dish when Victoria showed up one day with this huge shoebox full of blueberries from her uncle’s garden,” Dame said. “It was amazing, and I used some for brunch and then decided they were too good for just that, so I made the doughnut, paired it with some orange zest and whipped cream and made dessert.” I can’t vouch for what will be in the shoebox if you visit this autumn, but if there’s a doughnut on the menu, order it.

Focaccia bread with oil and balsamic at Dara Bistro. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The same advice goes for bread service. At $6 for a medium-sized loaf of herby, house-made focaccia served with olive oil and high-quality balsamic vinegar for dipping, it’s a bargain. Dame and his skeleton crew of one, maybe two cooks, have refined their breads and pastries over the past several years such that these items are always going to be better options than cheffier choices like wasabi crème brulee ($8) — a solid if too-subtle riff on the French classic.

Elsewhere, Dame gets away with almost everything he attempts. Blanched, homegrown green beans tossed in a bleu-cheese-and-bacon vinaigrette meet their perfect match in canoes of bitter endive leaves ($12). A risotto of sturdy, extra-creamy Carnaroli rice, garden peas and oyster mushrooms ($26) radiates a musky elegance that’s amplified by a thin drizzle of superior-quality truffle oil.

Butter roasted bistro steak with pork belly, foraged chanterelle mushrooms and corn. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Buttery cod served with sumac and a thin-and-tangy, Memphis-style barbecue sauce arrived steaming and ready to flake apart the instant you think about touching it. Aleppo pepper-spiced broccolini spears underneath, on the other hand, were roasted a few minutes past tender. A rare miscue.

Never mind that. The real story is Dame’s Southern-inspired chicken and dumplings, a dish so popular that my even-keeled server — the only staffer in the dining room that evening — warned my table about its scarcity as we were seated.


Wine selection at Dara Bistro. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I’m going to take your drink orders, don’t worry,” she said. “But if any of you wants the chicken tonight, we have one left. If you’d like to order it, I’ll do that for you now, before anyone at another table takes it. But I’m not getting involved in deciding which of you three gets it. You’ll have to do Rock Paper Scissors to decide the winner.”

I won. My victory was both literal and figurative, and my reward was a roasted half-chicken luxuriating on a bed of marble-sized gnocchi. These are no normal Parisienne gnocchi. Dame doctors his recipe with fine cornmeal to create pan-seared choux-pastry dumplings that taste like tender cornbread.

Running a shred of focaccia around the rim of the plate to sop up the Marsala, thyme and crème fraiche sauce and leftover chicken juices, one of my guests confessed that she was already planning a return trip to Dara Bistro. “I really like this place,” she said. “It feels like a secret.”

Not for long, my friend.

RATING: ****
WHERE: 371 Tuttle Road, Cumberland. 207-829-4250.
SERVING: Breakfast and Lunch: Tuesday to Saturday, 7 – 11 a.m.; Dinner: Thursday to Saturday, 5 – 8 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $6-$13, Entrees and pastas: $29-$40
NOISE LEVEL: Plotting a cover-up
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
BAR: Beer, wine, cocktails

BOTTOM LINE: Named for the dusky varietal of Queen Anne’s Lace that grows wild nearby, Dara Bistro is a cozy, under-the-radar treasure in Cumberland. Chef/owner Bryan Dame has been preparing buzzworthy breakfasts, brunches and lunches in the space since 2017, but it wasn’t until last summer that he began serving a dinner menu inspired by New England, European bistro cooking and Southern food. The combo works delightfully. Chicken and Parisienne gnocchi cornbread “dumplings” is a hearty, comforting winner, as is the doughnut with blueberry compote and a green-bean and endive salad. Much of the restaurant’s produce is local at the neighborhood-level, and Dame’s enthusiasm and skill at cooking whatever comes into his kitchen (even blueberries in a shoebox) is admirable. Absolutely worth a drive.


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:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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