From an epicure’s standpoint, Maine has always been the ultimate destination for all things lobster, as well as chowder, wild blueberries, and fried clams, mainly served at waterfront shacks or family-style restaurants with lobster bibs and ships-ahoy décor. Yes, there have been outliers, like Primo in Rockland and The White Barn Inn in Kennebunk. But when it came to innovative cooking using locally-sourced ingredients in a cozy setting, Maine’s pickings were slim, save for what’s going on in Portland, which became a progressive food mecca several years ago.
Thus, on a recent jaunt to Maine, I was thrilled to discover a slew of fabulous restaurants up and down the coast. Some were dressy, most were casual, and all channeled the flavors of the Pine Tree State, but in a very personal way.
Anju Noodle Bar, 7 Wallingford Square, Unit 102, Kittery
Gary Kim and Julian Armstrong, known for their Son-Mat Foods, a line of hot sauce and kimchi, opened this snug eatery in Kittery in which to serve their inventive Asian fare. On the menu for starters, you’ll find things like green papaya salad with apples and candied almonds; tahini-crusted cauliflower; and grilled eel buns. Then there are belly-filling options, like kimchi pancakes with fried egg, Japanese-style pan-fried noodles seasoned with duck, cabbage and cashews, and spicy braised pork cheeks with rice and lentil congee. Sweet endings veer toward Asian-American mashups, like apple pie with ginger curd and candied citrus. Sake, wine, beer, and cocktails are also available. www.anjunoodlebar.com
Biscuits & Company, 25 Alfred St., Biddeford
Having pitched and won the Heart of Biddeford’s Main Street Challenge in 2014 to develop an innovative business concept to stimulate the town’s economy, Boston transplant Stacy Cooper opened this airy, white, breakfast/brunch eatery to celebrate all things biscuits. She crafts her jumbo, puffy treats with Maine-grown grains and serves them plain, smothered with house-made sausage gravy (or vegan wild mushroom gravy), or stuffed with fillings like cheese, pan-seared salmon, over-easy eggs, roasted tomatoes, pulled pork and bacon. The restaurant offers biscuit-free dishes, too, such as homemade granola with fruit and yogurt, hearty salads, quiche, and omelets. www.biscuitsandcompany.com
Owen’s Farmhouse, 17 Main St., Kennebunk
Inside this cheery, yellow-painted house with black shutters and a red door, you’ll find gourmet pizzas and chunky, seasonal salads. Chef-owner, David Ross, who named the restaurant after his son, Owen, also names each pizza and salad after the farm, farmer, or food artisan responsible for one or more of the dish’s ingredients. Hence, the Alma Salad pays homage of Alma Farm in Porter and last fall contained chopped kale, crisp apples, sweet beets, and Feta cheese.
Of course, it’s the pies blistered in a 700-degree wood-fire oven that draw diners into the white clapboard dining room with hardwood floors, wooden tables, and mismatched wooden chairs. Creative toppings include garlic, mozzarella, caramelized onions, bacon and arugula, for example, as well as winter squash, Gorgonzola, apples, and caramelized onions. The restaurant offers a few desserts, a couple of different wines, and a broader selection of beers, many from Maine. www.owensfarmhouse.com
The Purple House, 378 Walnut Hill Road, North Yarmouth
James Beard-nominated chef Krista Desjarlais, owner of the seasonal Bresca & The Honeybee snack shack in New Gloucester, just opened this teensy, purple-painted cottage-café, whose sky-lit interior centers around a wood-burning fireplace. In the morning, the hearth turns out chewy, fire-cooked Montreal-style bagels, followed by lunch offerings of pizzas, fire-cooked vegetable dishes, crackly loaves turned into smoked fish and meat sandwiches, and pastries. The café has a robust coffee program, and once a month Desjarlais will host a ticketed dinner for 10-12 guests featuring whatever ingredients are in season. www.facebook.com/krista.desjarlais
Tao Yuan, 22 Pleasant St., Brunswick
Brunswick meets Beijing at this Asian enclave that mother Cecile Stadler and her daughter, Cara Stadler, opened to tantalize diners with their locally-sourced, small-plate fare. In addition to a 15-course nightly Chef’s Tasting Menu, the duo offers a la carte options, like local oysters with lemongrass mignonette, Asian slaw made with cabbage, snow peas, carrots, fried shallots, and peanuts, and slow-cooked lamb loin and belly with black garlic and parsnips. To say the pair knows what they’re doing is an understatement. They ran one of Beijing’s only private, fine-dining clubs in 2009, and Cara has worked all over the world for such culinary luminaries as Guy Savoy, Gordon Ramsay, and one of China’s most exalted restaurateurs, David Laris. tao-yuan.me/index.html
Toroso, 149 Port Road, Kennebunk
Sensing that former President George H.W. Bush’s backyard could use a splash of Spain, Chef Shannon Bard opened Toroso, a cheery wood-, tile-, and fabric-filled spot in Kennebunk. It’s the second restaurant, along with the modern Mexican Zapoteca in Portland.
The extensive menu opens with various Spanish cheeses and cured meats, and cold crostini topped with tomatoes, oily anchovies, or almond-crusted seared tuna. It’s the hot tapas that dominate the dish offerings. Don’t miss the golden-fried, eggplant rounds — like oversize potato chips — garnished with flaked salt, rosemary and aged honey. There is smoky braised octopus over potato puree, a dish of charred cauliflower with chickpeas, green beans and Romesco, and a crock of tiny clams with artichokes in a wine-garlic broth. Toroso offers lots of creative cocktails, as well as several unusual Spanish reds and whites by the glass, along with specialty wines in 2-, 4-, or 6-ounce pours. No dessert is offered, but another order of those eggplant rounds with honey would do the trick. www.torosorestaurant.com