The two-level dining room at Thistle & Grouse. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Forgive me for name-checking another restaurant in the opening paragraph of my review of modern gastropub Thistle & Grouse. But it’s in the interest of saying something nice about both places, so perhaps it’s OK if I bring up the interior mezzanine dining room at 555, a catwalk-like space whose vertiginous charm I’ve missed since the restaurant closed four years ago.

A few weeks ago, Thistle & Grouse caught me in a wave of dining déjà vu. It hit me when I looked up, beyond the dusky neutrals and dark wood, bookshelves and Scottish library-themed décor. On the level above: a mezzanine dining room. When the space housed a sports bar, this upper level felt mostly disconnected from downstairs, except when tipsy patrons (and a few staff) used the ceiling cut-out to host impromptu napkin-basketball tournaments.

Now, thanks to a suspended light fixture that resembles an upside-down dandelion puff cast in brass, both spaces, up and down, feel like part of the same, snazzy 100-seat environment. Squint as you sip a tart, house-made cantaloupe soda ($8), and you might even picture yourself at 555. Cut into your aromatic, vadouvan-spiced duck pot pie ($36), and your fellow patrons above will catch a whiff about 30 seconds later, just as your first bite is cool enough to taste.

“Our landlord wanted us to close off that opening when we took over the building about a year ago. But we loved it and what it did for the vibe of the building. This place used to be a hay barn, so it makes sense there,” explained co-owner/head chef Bobby Will, an alumnus of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton, New York, and Saltaire Oyster Bar in Port Chester, New York.

“When we started thinking about décor, we found this 1950s Sputnik chandelier at 1A Relics (in Ellsworth). It spoke to me. I knew this was the centerpiece, floating between the two floors so you experience the light differently if you’re downstairs, or upstairs where you can see the top of it. It gives the room a little mystery,” he added.

Chicken-fried mushrooms and waffles at Thistle & Grouse. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

I’d go further: It creates a sorely needed, practically unmissable focal point, as I witnessed firsthand. “Get a load of this big boy!” an awed 20-something customer remarked to his group of friends, pulling out his smartphone for a quick Sputnik-selfie. Or closer to home: “Is that chandelier supposed to represent an inverted thistle?” my dinner guest asked as we tucked into a plate of Maine Grains cornmeal waffles and chicken-fried, buttermilk-marinated mushrooms ($15) – a satisfying appetizer that would have been a complete knockout with a little extra acid (hot sauce, squeeze of lemon, pickled onions…).


As for the “thistle-ness” of the chandelier, I never got a clear answer from Will, but it certainly would fit the design theme of the business. “Kim (Kraus, co-owner and director of operations for this and the couple’s other restaurant, Salt & Steel in Bar Harbor) and her twin sister go to Scotland every year. First Edinburgh, then Glasgow, so Scotland is important to both of us. Me, also because my father’s side is Scottish. That’s the thistle,” Will told me.

If you’re concerned about accidental consumption of haggis at a Scots-themed gastropub, don’t worry. Thistle & Grouse’s menu is, for the most part, built around Maine ingredients and a more Modern/New American palate. Take the kale Caesar ($15), for example. Will and his team go to great lengths to tenderize the often-tough crucifer – first chopping it into a chiffonade the width of angel hair pasta, then macerating the greens in dressing before giving it a thorough massage before plating. Texturewise, it’s clever. As for flavor, I enjoyed the swap of nuttier Grana Padano for the traditional parmesan but couldn’t get past the scene-stealing intensity of black truffle peelings and truffle oil.

The same finely shredded kale also made a cameo on the duck breast entrée ($38). Here though, the kale was deep-fried into a wiry tangle that offered crunch and not much flavor. I could have lived without this particular guest appearance, especially as the kale hid one of the plate’s two saucy elements. The first, a thick, velvety puree of celeriac and vegetable stock anchored the crisp-skinned, medium-rare duck to the plate. The second, obscured by the frizzy kale, was a mustardy, gel-like sauce of green peppercorn, orange peel, champagne vinegar and sugar that ought to have been the dish’s co-star. An easy fix.

Ube cheesecake at Thistle & Grouse. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Better balanced and better presented was a cheesecake dome inspired by pastry chef Kelly Cavender’s love of the subtly nutty, Filipino purple yam, the ube ($16). Offset by dainty dollops of puckery lime curd and capped with a black-and-white sesame tuile, this dessert was an unqualified success.

All told, my favorite dish at Thistle & Grouse was a left-field choice recommended to me by my server. “Lobster carb, no question. End of statement,” he joked when I inquired about entrees that were underrated. “Everyone on staff loves the lobster carbonara. Everyone I’ve served it to loves it. You’re going to love it if you order it.”

I did, and I did.


Chef Will explained: “I created that dish years ago when I was working at Saltaire, as a special birthday mid-course item for (co-owner) Kim’s dad. We had Maine lobster on the menu, so I saved the shells, made a stock and used it as a base for the sauce along with fennel and parsnips and cream.” To that sauce, Will adds homemade gnocchetti sardi, thumbnail-sized bass clefs of ridged pasta cooked al dente and sprinkled with crumbles of rendered pancetta.

“What did I tell you?” inquired my server when he returned to collect my empty dish. “That couple ordered the same thing when they saw yours come out,” he added, pointing up, past the chandelier’s long brass stem, to a table where a woman paused, mid-forkful and waved at us. I raised my glass of punchy Piattelli Malbec-Tannat ($12) to her and smiled.

Here’s to downstairs, upstairs and the space between.

The lobster carbonara at Thistle & Grouse. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

RATING: ***1/2

WHERE: 10 Cotton St., Portland. 207-536-0966.

SERVING: Wednesday & Thursday, 4-9 p.m., Friday & Saturday, 4-10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; 4-9 p.m.


PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $14-24, Mains: $18-38

NOISE LEVEL: Susan Boyle, dreaming a dream

VEGETARIAN: Some dishes


BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails



BOTTOM LINE: New American cooking in a former sports bar might sound like an iffy prospect, but Thistle & Grouse head chef/co-owner Bobby Will makes it work. It starts with a swanky, library-inspired renovation of the formerly disjointed Rivalries space organized around a gigantic brass chandelier that Will and co-owner/operations director Kimberly Kraus found at a roadside antiques shop. The duo’s menu is not Scottish pub food, as the name might imply, but New American, with a farm-to-table bent. Highlights include chicken-fried mushrooms on a golden brown Maine Grains cornmeal waffle, nutty ube cheesecake with lime curd, and a terrific lobster carbonara featuring homemade gnocchetti sardi pasta.

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:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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