Co-owners Adam Croteau and Jenna Croteau work the kitchen at Owl & Elm in Yarmouth. Michele McDonald/Staff Editor

The pitch: Four old friends team up to buy a restaurant in Maine. Two are chefs who have cooked together in Portland kitchens for years, and two are front-of-house experts. There’s a married couple in the mix, along with a chef obsessed with eggs. At the waning tail of a pandemic, they purchase Owl & Elm, a lively Yarmouth pub that never quite found its equilibrium.

The opening scene: Front-of-house manager Alli Bibaud is on vacation at a Disney resort when she receives a call from her former colleague: “Adam (Croteau) was my head chef at a hotel in downtown Portland, and he just calls and asks, ‘Want to buy a restaurant with me?’ and I said, ‘Hell, yeah!’ It was a weird mishmash with all four of us involved, but we woke up one day and realized we did something real.”

I’d watch that show, especially since I’ve got some history with the place.

In a three-star write-up, I reviewed the restaurant in 2017 under its original ownership and chef. Back then, I enjoyed both the convivial energy of the rough-and-ready dining room and perfectly respectable, if not especially well-executed, menu. Long before the current foursome of owners (collectively known as Scorched Earth Hospitality) arrived, there was plenty of unrealized potential in Owl & Elm.

Co-chef Topher Doughty saw the same when he and co-chef Adam Croteau took a temporary gig there, sent by restaurant staffing agency 86 & Co. “We were there together in the kitchen toward the end, and we knew we wanted to keep the general concept of the place,” he said. “But we also thought the area was underserved at a notch above that middle tier of comfort food. We wanted to lean into that idea of an upscale, food-forward restaurant.”

To take advantage of more local, inconsistently available ingredients, Croteau and Doughty trimmed the regular menu by half, freeing up space for improvisation, specials and tweaks. Moreover, to help with the June debut of the new Owl & Elm, the foursome brought in beverage expert Kelly Stanton to create a cocktail menu to complement the kitchen’s updated offerings.


Stanton is no longer at Owl & Elm, but fortunately, her drinks remain. Indeed, one of the pub’s biggest upgrades is its cocktails – drinks like fruity, floral A Little Lovin’, effervescent with a house-made blueberry-lemon syrup ($12), and Take a Walk, a modern riff on a whiskey sour that adds well-balanced layers of complexity through passionfruit purée and fiery gochujang ($14).

Co-owner Alli Bibaud leads customers to the last open table on a Thursday in September at Owl & Elm. Michele McDonald/Staff Editor

From what I saw last week during a midweek visit, the revised beverage menu is going over famously among Owl & Elm’s clientele, a cohort of customers who skew heavily local. I heard more than a few tables having cross-connecting conversations as they sipped. A few even chatted across the aisle between the blocky bar and the new, much-needed server station that the Scorched Earth gang installed. Fuzzy boundaries are both infectious and a critical part of the charm of the new Owl & Elm.

A Little Lovin’ cocktail at Owl & Elm. Michele McDonald/Staff Editor

“Any successful restaurant I’ve worked at was like that because the people working there were having fun, and having fun with everyone,” Bibaud said. “Some of our restaurant staff have other day jobs, and they come here to work at night because that’s their fun job. And the guests, too, you can see into the kitchen and see the boys in there laughing. Like when people hear something is 86’d (sold out for the night), they love to listen and feel like they’re a part of it all. I had a woman pop her head in the window to the kitchen to ask, ‘Where’s the cauliflower on the menu? You changed it!’ ”

If you’re binge-watching the Owl & Elm show, you’ve arrived at the midseason episode that introduces a major conflict. Spoiler: It’s the menu. Still the menu. For different reasons than under previous owners, but still – food remains the restaurant’s weak link, even as attentive service and drinks have been upgraded, amped up and buffed to a brilliant gleam.

And I’m not sure what’s going wrong in a kitchen with two good friends who clearly like dreaming up new dishes together, as they have since their time at Portland’s RiRa. “It’s fun to watch you guys volley back and forth, asking, ‘What if we did this?’ or, ‘What if we added that?’ You guys really collaborate well,” general manager Jenna Croteau said during a group phone call.

The duo’s exuberance comes through in their cooking: Big flavors are always on the menu, even when they’re out of whack with the dish. Asian-inspired Brussels sprouts ($12) are a good example. Deep fried and tossed in a sauce of balsamic vinegar, sriracha and honey, this dish is served drenched in the sweet-spicy sauce that probably has a third too much honey. Or in the blueberry cobbler ($9), where crunchy gluten-free oat, brown sugar and butter topping gets annihilated by the overspiced lowbush blueberry compote. The dish tastes so strongly of cloves, each bite is like French-kissing a goth.


Doughty and Croteau aren’t just enthusiastic about seasoning; they also enjoy taking recipes and tweaking them to work with whatever is on hand. To be clear, I applaud this. Restaurants waste too much food, and developing recipes that allow a component to be used in two, three, maybe more places across the menu is smart business.

But sometimes it leads the menu down a dead-end road. Blueberry panzanella ($16) is a good example. Traditionally this Tuscan tomato-and-bread salad tastes like what you’d get if you cross-bred gazpacho with Thanksgiving stuffing: lots of tart tomato and onion along with juice-and-dressing-softened cubes of slightly chewy bread. Here, though, the salad is essentially an arugula salad with a few cherry tomatoes, blueberries, creamy burrata and hard croutons of French bread repurposed from other dishes. The flavors were pretty good, but that’s not a panzanella.

Marinated flat iron steak with chorizo mashed potato croquette and charred broccolini. Michele McDonald/Staff Editor

The kitchen also sometimes misses the mark on fundamentals. I ordered a medium-rare flatiron steak ($38) that was served so raw it could have qualified as sashimi, and whose central sinew had not been removed. Croteau’s veal-bone demiglace, on the other hand, was excellent, and enhanced both the tender-crisp broccolini and chorizo mashed potato croquette served with the steak.

My favorite dish was also a mixed bag but, as with many of the back-of-house misfires at Owl & Elm, ought to be pretty straightforward to correct. Doughty’s duck burger ($21), a fennel-spiced patty made with ground duck breast and maple syrup, is lovely. Croteau’s addition of bacon jam to the brioche bun, tomato and arugula is also inspired, as it imparts smoke and salt to the burger where it needs it most.

Despite Doughty’s conviction that “I don’t understand the point of eating things without an egg on them,” it’s the barely cooked, sunny-side-up duck egg that reduces this burger to a sopping-wet mess so sloppy it can only be eaten with a fork. I’m OK with digging in with utensils, but in a dish with so much natural funk already, an undercooked egg is not the right choice.

Owl & Elm’s Duck Burger, with maple syrup, smoked cheddar, bacon jam, sunny duck egg, arugula, tomato, hand-cut fries. Michele McDonald/Staff Editor

For me, the best item on this plate was the freshly cut Green Thumb Farm french fries ($9). Crisp, steaming hot and salted well, they are among my favorites in the area. I learned during my chat with the Scorched Earth crew that the fries are also the truest evidence of collaboration among the owners (and staff).


“We all get involved with punching the fries,” Bibaud said. “It’s a fun job, and Adam is particular about fries. He says all the time how easy it is to punch your own fries, how you should do it because you get better texture and flavor. So we all get to punch fries whenever we’re back there. It’s a fun job.”

My hat is off to any restaurant that can turn vegetable prep into entertainment. And so much of what the Scorched Earth team has done at Owl & Elm reflects this same ethos of introducing enjoyment into your workplace. It’s there in the laid-back attitude of your servers as well as in the mirthful chatter of customers. I’m rooting for this foursome to make the adjustments they need to get picked up for another season. I want to see more.

WHERE: 365 Main St., Yarmouth; (207) 847-0580,
SERVING: 4-9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and shared plates: $9-$18, entrees: $19-$38
NOISE LEVEL: Pile driver
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
BAR: Beer, wine, cocktails
BOTTOM LINE: Locals flock to Yarmouth’s Owl & Elm for good reason. The rustic décor and prime Main Street location have been part of its charm since 2016. But when new owners Scorched Earth Hospitality – a foursome of Maine restaurant veterans – took over the restaurant this year, they turned the volume way up on affable service and introduced a thoughtfully composed cocktail menu that allows the bar to share ingredients with the kitchen. The gochujang-and-passionfruit double whammy in the Take a Walk makes it a wonderful cocktail to pair with food. Try it with the blueberry-and-arugula panzanella (which is really just a satisfying, creamy salad with some crunch) or the brioche-topped duck burger (but ask for the duck egg on the side). While you’re at it, order a basket of house-cut french fries to satisfy all the people at your table who’ll fight you for them. While the food isn’t yet up to snuff, enjoy the atmosphere, which is pure, medical-grade fun and laughter. The menu, I hope, will catch up soon.

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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