The smoked half chicken, center; mustard house ribs, left; spaghetti puttanesca, bottom right; roasted carrots, top center; and burger, top right corner, at Oak & Ember. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

About a week after the ice storm and a few days before the eclipse, I went back to Oak & Ember. I say “back” because I’d already visited earlier in the month, and as much as I wish it weren’t the case, that first dinner was a letdown.

My hopes were higher this time around, though. Partly because I kept reminding myself of the strong work executive chef Kirby Sholl displayed during his time at Portland’s Piccolo, and then at Chaval, where he was ultimately promoted to the second-in-command chef-de-cuisine spot. I honestly cannot think of a meal he made at either restaurant that I didn’t enjoy.

At owner Shannon Keefe’s “rustic elegant,” wine-centric Buxton newcomer Oak & Ember, the situation was more complicated, so upon my return, I ordered a maple-infused old fashioned ($14) and said a silent prayer that tonight would be better.

Things didn’t start out well. I was angling for another shot at the house burger ($19), an arugula-topped affair prepared with beef from Caldwell Family Farm in Turner. The first time I tried the burger, it was unbalanced, with too many savory ingredients (Cabot cheddar, sliced pickles) and not enough acid or sweetness, not even from Sholl’s silky tomato aioli. But I had loved the crisp, golden fries and wondered if the imbalance hadn’t been a fluke.

Eve Moore sets down the burger and fries on the counter at Oak & Ember. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

I chatted with my server about the burger, ending by asking her how she’d recommend I order it cooked – a feature of the refreshing, non-smashburger approach at Oak & Ember that Sholl put in place because “I wanted something of a throwback where I can cater to different interests and desires and treat the beef right. I miss being able to pick a temp,” as he explained.

What happened next made me look around for hidden cameras. “Well-done. Get it well-done,” my server enthused. “Everyone I tell to do it like that loves it.” Hold on, what? I know some people like their patties murdered twice, but surely, she was joking. Or is this what entrapment looks like?


I ordered the smoked half-chicken ($32) instead. The overnight-brined, slow-smoked bird was a delight, not only because it was cooked to a still-juicy doneness, but also because of its multilayered showcasing of smoke: first from the chicken meat itself, then from blistered, house-roasted poblanos whizzed up with blond miso and sunflower seeds.

When my server returned to ask if I were happy with my choice, I smiled, nodded and said aloud what I was thinking: “Absolutely. And thank goodness…” She raised an eyebrow, but I just said thanks again and ordered a glass of peach-and-honey-scented La Mancha white, a lively 100% macabeo wine from Spain ($9).

That price is not a misprint. Oak & Ember offers a half-dozen glasses at just south of the $10 mark, and perhaps more exciting, literally dozens of bottles that clock in under $40. As if that weren’t enough, Keefe has constructed a self-contained retail wine shop (with a separate entrance, if it’s needed at some point) at the rear of the restaurant. Here, the wide-ranging selection of natural and conventional wines hovers around a median price of about $18 – the exact cost of the bottle of bright-and-bracing Austrian Winzerin Wiederstein rosé I bought to bring home with me after my first visit.

“Lots of people enjoy wine out here. We try to stock a little bit of everything, including a lot of things you can’t really find anywhere else near here, since the nearest wine store is in Gorham. We do wine tastings every other Saturday and hold four-course wine dinners, too,” Keefe said. “I love the concept of an all-in-one-stop shop, a place with small provisions, and this space fits that idea.”

The wine shop inside Oak & Ember. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Indeed, the rabbit-warren layout of the rambling Mustard House, a local 18th-century landmark restored by previous owner Max Brody in 2017, seems like it ought to have hosted a wine shop all along. But apart from that reconfiguration of space, much of the design and vibe of Oak & Ember echoes that of its previous tenant, Brody’s restaurant, The Buxton Common.

From my conversation with Keefe, it seems that retaining much of the unhewn character and feel of the previous business is intentional, but expressed in a “more approachable” version of “rustic elegance.” I suspect, in lay terms, this is supposed to translate to lower menu prices and less formal service.


On the first front, affordable wine shoulders much of the burden of lowering expense, because menu prices for food aren’t especially low. For example, an excellent, well-composed side of buttermilk-dunked roasted carrots along with rounds of mild Lucanica sausage runs $11, while an appetizer of punchy, tangy and not-quite-sweet-enough slow-smoked pork ribs with a must-love-Dijon-strength glaze will set you back $18.

Devil’s food cake at Oak & Ember. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

None of this is a complaint. When dishes are conceived and executed well, they’re worth every penny. But that’s not always the case. I learned this on my first visit, when I ordered a $17 half-portion of homemade spaghetti with Sicilian-inspired puttanesca sauce of capers, tomatoes and broccoli de cicco (an heirloom broccolini). I love a good puttanesca for its pops of brine and acid, but this version offered little in the way of sparks of tartness, instead doubling down on umami from overwhelmingly funky shrimp paste. My dessert of crumbly devil’s food chocolate cake ($12) was just as strange. Where sweetness and bitter chocolate notes ought to have lunged and parried with one another, there was only lip-puckering reconstituted sour cherries and a vegetal, super-funky goat-cheese mousse.

As for creating an unstuffy environment through casual service, Oak & Ember has this down, although probably not in the way Keefe, a longtime industry veteran who recently worked at Taco Escobarr and Via Vecchia, would prefer.

Indeed, every dish I ordered across both visits to the restaurant appeared with the same question: “Who’s this (insert dish) for?” Yes, including at a solo visit where I was the only person eating.

In restaurants, this practice is usually called “auctioning” plates, and it happens when a server doesn’t specify which customer ordered which dish. To some, auctioning is a sin worthy of carving into a stone tablet. The idea being: Diners appreciate little more than careful attention from a server, and it’s a trivial job for servers to note on a ticket who gets what plate.

To others (me, included), auctioning isn’t as much a crime as an indicator of inexperience or a lack of engagement on the server’s part. Still, nothing made me laugh harder that first night than my server arriving with a single slice of cake, two spoons and the inevitable, “OK, now, who gets the cake?” One week later, I realized I ought to have been grateful she hadn’t suggested I order it well-done.


Shannon Keefe, who owns Oak & Ember, sets down a martini at Nick and Haley Norton’s table on an evening earlier in April. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe


WHERE: 1420 Long Plains Rd., Buxton, 207-298-9082.

SERVING: Wednesday to Saturday, 4 – 9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., & 4 p.m. – 8 p.m.

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $14-22, Pastas and entrees: $14-38

NOISE LEVEL: Rec center game room

VEGETARIAN: Many dishes



BAR: Wine, beer, cocktails


BOTTOM LINE: Buxton’s Oak & Ember, an understated, moderately priced New American bistro, holds a tremendous amount of promise. Occupying the historic Mustard House, owner Shannon Keefe’s “rustic elegant” restaurant shows off a fantastic range of affordable wines by the glass and the bottle, as well as retail. For this alone, I’m a fan of Oak & Ember. And for the moment, that’ll have to tide me over, as careless service and inconsistent food hold the restaurant back from becoming an area dining destination. If you visit, order the house-smoked half-chicken with roasted Spanish onions and a spicy, creamy poblano purée. The burger is also a wise choice, just ask for extra ketchup to give it a much-needed sweet-and-tart boost. And while you’re at it, the smoked carrots with dense, salami-esque Lucanica sausage provide a glimpse into chef Kirby Sholl’s true talents.

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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