I’ve always been fascinated by the extremes in life. Extreme sports, people who live in extreme circumstances, and virtually any superlative creation, concept, or being has always been of interest to me. As a kid I cherished that moment when I got my new Guiness Book of World Records every year, focused on finding out just how extreme life could be. So when I first heard about the new all-organic, all-local restaurant, I was fascinated. That was an extreme concept. So extreme, in fact, that it put the brand new Portland eatery in a class of it own within the entire United States.
Chef David Levi’s restaurant creation takes local to it’s very peak, simply ignoring non-Maine harvested ingredients for those which can be found inside this agriculturally diverse state. The only exception is the selection alcoholic beverages which come from throughout New England. Not on the menu at all? Lemons, sugar, black pepper, olive oil, and three-toed sloth. That last one is true, but I can’t confirm if it was considered or not. Combined with the organic component, the all-local eatery is a unique and bold idea and it’s been getting a lot of press including a significant spot in The Huffington Post. But like any good idea, it’s gotten a modicum of criticism too – in my opinion, baseless and without merit, considering that much of it was prior to the restaurant even opening.
The restaurant’s website is extensive, containing a sample menu, details on reservations, the restaurant mission with a set of many guiding principles, and additional resources to learn more about good, wholesome food. I was impressed with the thorough nature of the web site and read it all before going. The chef takes his food seriously and wants to work with only the highest quality ingredients. That much was evident and after reading I was ready to experience his food first-hand. We got to the restaurant right at our reservation time and within a minute or two we were approached and offered a seat at the bar which was perfectly acceptable. The restaurant was very nice with unique ceilings, great hand-made art created from local white birch, and generally aesthetically pleasing features.
We sat down, and without a moment lost, a server/bartender approached us with food, wine, and cocktail menus. My wife spied a white wine with a name nearly as long as the previous paragraph. I laid my eyes on a cocktail which appeared to me to be one of a kind – the Red Rabbit with BMD bourbon, house made bitter-sweet vermouth, raw cranberry, Vinland cranberry bitters, and brandied cranberries. I was definitely curious about the combination of bourbon and cranberry. I’m a big fan of both, but would they succeed in combination? That was the question.
I watched as the bartender made my drink, waiting in anticipation for a new beverage creation to sample. When it was slid in front of me, served with a spoon for the crans, I could practically feel it pulling itself toward me in a one-sided tug-of-war. I pulled back, and like a New Year’s Eve love connection, we were companions on that night without a care for what would be in the future. I sipped my newly discovered red sweetheart and paused to decide it’s fate. I was first hit with a blast of beautiful, boisterous bourbon followed by a bounce of cranberry bitterness and then the most relaxed and smooth finish imaginable. This was perfection. In fact, I can’t realistically believe that the chef knew how good this was going to be when it was created. Could he be that good on purpose? I truly considered it a masterpiece of mixology. It turns out that the drink was actually named after the location where the cranberries were harvested since the owner of that location was a large donor to the crowdfunding campaign to help open the restaurant.
With the next order of business to procure some food, I debated whether or not to get an appetizer. I finally decided against an app in favor of ordering the scallops with potato risotto, shitake-dulce broth, golden beet, roasted carrot, fried wakame, and radish. My wife doubled that order and the wait was on. I continued to sip my drink, fawning in it’s greatness and watched as other customers received their food. The meals actually looked much better in person than in the pictures I had seen.
I was intrigued by the kitchen and overall atmosphere. There was no stove, but rather four cooktops. There were a lot of glass jars with ingredients – herbs, spices, etc. Everyone seemed to know their role and the food appeared to be produced seamlessly with impeccable presentation. I was pleasantly surprised by the laid-back feel I got from the place. The restaurant is unique and upscale but not at all stuffy or pretentious. In fact, I was shocked that the menu didn’t note anything about the local and organic offerings. I think those are noteworthy enough that if it were my restaurant, I would plaster it everywhere with unabashed pretensiosity – I’m pretty sure that’s a word.
Before our meal came out, we were given a small snack of beet chips topped with yogurt and radish. They came out on a beautiful stone which was I suspect was found in Maine. We plopped them into our mouths and they were delicious – crunchy, light and very flavorful. If our meal matched, it would be a great dinner. Shortly after the beet chips slid down our digestive tracts, the meals did indeed arrive in all their glory.
The plates looked beautiful with four scallops separated by carrots alongside the risotto and topped with the other parts of the dish. My first bite focused on a scallop. Perfectly cooked, it was tender and flavorful. I tried the risotto by itself. It could have used a bit more seasoning, but it wasn’t bad. I mixed in the other flavors with the risotto and it was much better. It should be noted that the golden beet on top was outstanding. It was shredded and crispy, similar to a curly, thin potato stick, and gave a killer crunch that was even louder than the beet chip we had had earlier.
Finishing our delicious meals was no problem. We skipped dessert and passed on an after-dinner drink too. Next time, I will partake in both as their selection was limited, but very interesting. I have a tiny bit of regret that I didn’t indulge on my first time there but hindsight is 20/20, of course. Our tab was placed in a book – as in literature – and the meal came to $110 after tip. It was pricey, but the food was excellent, the service was exceptional, and the atmosphere relaxed. The wait staff was also super-knowledgeable and I really enjoyed the experience.
Do I recommend going to Vinland? Absolutely. It’s much closer than Finland which is what spell check tells me to call it, and it’s certainly more delicious. For what it’s worth, it might have also been the healthiest meal I’ve ever had at a restaurant. Now that’s extreme! While it isn’t inexpensive, I might still put it in “slightly more often than special occasion” status. Next time though, I’m definitely asking about the tasting menu. We saw people partaking in that monstrosity of awesomeness and the dessert looked like a mushroom forest. It was a work of art on a plate. More on that after I try it.
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