Ditalini pasta with lion’s mane mushrooms, Romanesco cauliflower and romesco sauce at The Alna Store. Photo by Jasper Ludwig

Hypno-something: hypnagogic, hypnopompic – I never remember which is which. One describes the hazy, surreal transition that leads you into slumber, the other the groggy stumble that leads you out. I’ve had both words on my mind over the past week, because these in-between phases are the only times when I am able to think productively about my recent meal at The Alna Store. Unlike most meals, where smartphone photos jog my neurons into retelling the narrative of a dinner out, this one flees from the constraints of the specific.

I could go back. I absolutely plan to go back. But because The Alna Store swaps out its menu every two weeks, shifting from a rotating, regionally inspired menu (Korean, Greek, Mexican) to kick the month off to a modern, New American menu during the last fortnight, I’m afraid another visit might soften the edges of my recall further.

Basque cheesecake from The Alna Store. Photo by Jasper Ludwig

I do remember that, in a remote, 120-year-old structure that had been used as a general store and gas station for nearly 50 years, I ate a slice of pastry chef Kristen LaMontagne’s Basque cheesecake ($17), spiced delicately with star anise and nutmeg and topped with a jaunty leaf of fried sage. Appealingly custardy and dense enough to make a pudding look loose, this dish sticks with me because it’s among the best versions of this popular dessert I’ve had. I also wanted the recipe.

Everything else, though, I remember in flavors and images, not words. It’s as if my dinner in Alna bypassed Boardwalk, Chance and Community Chest on its way to its new residence in my lizard brain. Returning to the memory releases sparks of satisfaction, surprise: a blurry pleasure. Dreamy, even. I wonder: Is this is what it’s like to write about cooking with cannabis?

Fortunately, I have (some might say excessively) detailed notes that I made during the meal. They act as a scratch-and-sniff sticker for my brain. I read “herbed dumpling is airy like a powderpuff,” and if I really focus, I remember that there was a chicken and dumplings dish finished with parsley oil ($28). Craggy drop-biscuit-style dumplings bobbed there among shreds of chicken raised just down the road at Echo Farm. I couldn’t get enough.

“It was rainy for the past couple of weeks, and the weather was getting colder, so I figured it was a good time to do chicken and dumplings. I just had a hankering,” chef Devin Dearden (Evo, Scales) explained. “It’s an attempt to recreate the best family meal I’ve eaten, back at Scales, where Travis Olson, who grew up in Virginia, would make it a few times a year.”


The broth for the chicken dish also showcases how much Dearden picked up from his New York-based mentor, Marco Canora, whose restaurant, Hearth, is famed for its brodos and soups, which are both elegant and homey at once.

You could use that same phrase to describe The Alna Store. After a gut renovation to remove drop ceilings, worn floors and an inadequate kitchen, the structure now feels bespoke, with a custom-poured concrete bar and large windows, as well as a small retail zone with thoughtfully chosen, sustainably sourced products like soaps, coffee, pastas and ice creams.

The Alna Store doesn’t feel like the off-brand quick-mart it once was, but it does still feel removed from the rest of the world. Walk a mile in any direction from the restaurant, and you’ll find farms and nature preserves. That’s it. Such remoteness comes with advantages and disadvantages.

“It’s been a little bit of a process getting folks to understand where Alna is, in the middle of nowhere,” co-owner Jasper Ludwig said. “But the other way to look at it is this: We’re central to everywhere: Augusta, Hallowell, Bath, Brunswick, Rockland, all the peninsulas. We might not be in a downtown, but we’re about 30-40 minutes from all the places I mentioned.”

Yet Ludwig and co-owner Brian Haskins do struggle getting local producers to deliver to The Alna Store. “We still spend a lot of time driving to go on pickup runs because no-one really delivers to Alna yet, although we are winning over a few providers,” she said. “Sustainable food systems are what got Brian and me into this line of work, so we just deal with it. We started the restaurant as an experiment to see if things in this industry might work differently, operating the back-of-house and front-of-house in a way that prioritizes sustainability.”

Fried halloumi and bitter-greens salad at The Alna Store. Photo by Jasper Ludwig

Wines, while not local, are natural and follow seasonal inventory trends. I savored a glass of effervescent Blaufränkish rosé from Slovenia ($16), which also turned out to be a prime matchup for the fried halloumi and bitter-greens salad ($19). The best part of this appetizer of radicchio and frilly, kale-like spigarello from Chase’s Daily Farm in Belfast was the crusty squares of pan-fried cheese, glossy with dribbles of Dearden’s dressing, made from balsamic and local Tropea onions.


Salads have a reputation for being unfriendly to most booze, but this one borrowed crushed-fruit sweetness from each sip of my unfiltered wine. The salad also fit in nicely alongside a pale-green gin and tonic ($14) – muddled salad burnet leaching chlorophyll and minty astringency into the booze. Yet thinking back on this course, I remember more from my conversation with Ludwig about growing up a few minutes from the restaurant than what I drank.

“Brian and I opened and ran a restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, and that was good for us to gain experience with local sourcing, especially back in 2014 when we started, and that kind of approach was starting to become trendy, but still wasn’t the norm,” she told me later. “The Tucson restaurant is still there, and we still own it. But I was looking forward to coming home. I grew up seven minutes from here, interacting with this space, and always had a different vision of what it should be.”

Sitting in the dining room, amid rustic, purely functional furniture that wouldn’t be out of place in a nearby farmhouse, eating a plate of pasta extruded by a machine that one staffer snagged at a thrift store, I caught glimpses of something else: a proud, DIY ethos. Filtered through the fuzzy Gestalt of my memory, it reads as Yankee self-reliance unafraid to aspire to excellence.

Take that pasta dish ($23). Here, narrow rings of ditalini (elbow pasta cut to linear, half-inch tubes) meet meaty-textured Wild Fruitings lion’s mane mushrooms, pointy florets of local Romanesco cauliflower, and creamy, hazelnut-and-pepita romesco sauce. “Romanesco and Romesco” sounds like a 1970s buddy-cop show, but it’s certainly fun to say and (apart from slightly overdone noodles) fun to eat.

Yet for the past week, I’ve been dozily, lovingly recollecting another dish entirely, one that feels so in-tune with The Alna Store that I can barely focus on it without also thinking about its context. Sandbagged on the menu as “seared pork belly” is a generous entrée that might as well be billed as “Maine on a plate”: half-moons of Broad Arrow Farm pork with blistered, crackling skin; Koginut squash from Morning Dew Farm in Damariscotta; and shiitake-infused, roasted mantequilla beans made even richer with spoonfuls of miso produced up the road at Go-En Fermented Foods.

If you believe in reincarnation, may I propose that here is where the spirit of the Portland B&M baked bean factory lives now? Remember how you could smell those waterfront smokestacks chuffing out sweet, caramel odors as you drove into or out of Portland, always just on the periphery of your attention? That’s what it’s like to be captivated by this pork-and-beans dish and The Alna Store in general. I have no idea when I’ll be back, nor what the menu will be like when I return, but until then, I’m happy to be haunted.


Gin and tonic at The Alna Store. Photo by Jasper Ludwig

RATING: ****1/2
WHERE: 2 Dock Road, Alna. 207-586-5515. thealnastore.com
SERVING: 4-8 p.m. Wednesday (Pizza Night); 4-8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $17-21. Entrees: $23-38
NOISE LEVEL: Team-building exercise
VEGETARIAN: Many dishes
BAR: Beer, wine, cocktails
BOTTOM LINE: I’ve been reassured by native Mainers that there’s nothing wrong with not knowing where Alna is. To be fair, my phone didn’t know how to navigate from Portland to The Alna Store either, first suggesting I might like to visit “The Alan Store,” and then offering another, much lewder alternative. Eventually, I found my way to Lincoln County and the admittedly remote Alna Store, and I’m delighted I did. Here, owners Jasper Ludwig and Brian Haskins have reimagined a tumbledown convenience store as an eclectic, upscale New American restaurant that centers sustainability and seasonality. Chef Devin Dearden and pastry chef Kristen LaMontagne bring impressive skill and technique to the restaurant’s ever-changing menu concept, without ever losing sight of the humble space’s roots and locale. Custardy Basque cheesecake with apple-butter caramel, house-extruded ditalini pasta with pepitas and Romanesco cauliflower, and a peerless roasted pork belly dish probably won’t be on offer when you go, but don’t let that put you off from a little 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 seven recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: andrewross.maine@gmail.com
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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