A few days after southern Maine’s first snowstorm of the season, Tao Yuan’s front walk was covered with a thin layer of salt. Gray snow bookended Pleasant Street, and the parking lot for the restaurant hosted a fleet of patrons’ cars dusted with white and winter soot. It was a cold night, but Tao’s (pronounced with a “T”, not “D”) interior – subtly elegant, dimly lit – served as a much-needed oasis.
Now in their fourth year, award-winning executive chef Cara Stadler and her mother Cecile Stadler (the same team who owns BaoBao in Portland) have established a following of diners who know to expect the very best cuisine at a reasonable price. The chef’s tasting menu includes 15 dishes for a mere $68, and a separate menu offers dishes à la carte. Stadler’s contemporary Asian fusion menu boasts the freshest meats, produce, and fine wines and spirits – all inspired by family tradition, world travels and a deep love for good food.
The only bad news is that Tao will be closed for their annual winter break through Feb. 2. But when they open, you can expect to find a completely new wine list written by Chris Peterman, Tao’s manager of operations and the Maine chapter director of the American Sommelier Association. Peterman says to expect a drastically different wine menu that intends to pair better with spice, offer more wines by the glass, and the ability to choose wines based on what you are eating.
Tao’s cocktail list is the brainchild of Sammi Smart, bar manager for both Tao and BaoBao since day one. Like the forthcoming wine list, Smart’s cocktails were created to match the tastes of the dinner menu – she’s known for walking into the kitchen to see what flavors are being used – herbs, spices, citrus – and building a drink from there. The nine signature cocktails ($10-$13) feature seasonal fruit and traditional Asian flavors (Vietnamese coriander, Thai chili, kaffir lime) to concoct refreshing accompaniments to Stadler’s tasty food.
Starting next month at Tao, the 4th Thursday of every month will feature a “reverse wine pairing” dinner. Peterman will select the wines by region and give the list to Stadler and her chef de cuisine, and the pair will create a menu based on the wine. This will be a tasting menu-style dinner but with one or two wines with each course ($68 tasting plus $28 for wine pairing).
While the bar at Tao is small (six seats), regulars are known to come in for a cocktail and a few dishes without needing to reserve a table (highly recommended) for dinner. The drink menu is a great match for the food, but also stands on its own as a culinary treasure. Tao is not to be missed this winter.
WHERE: 22 Pleasant St., Brunswick
HOURS: 5-9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4-8 p.m. Sunday
AMENITIES: Tranquil dining room, soft lighting, excellent service
PARKING: Parking lot
BOTTOM LINE: Tao Yuan is one of the best dining experiences in Brunswick, offering unique Asian fare, terrific signature cocktails and a wine list created by a certified sommelier. There’s limited room at the bar, and they don’t reserve bar seats, but there likely won’t be much of a wait – if there is, the drinks will be well worth it. The staff is accommodating, friendly, and the overall atmosphere is a calm oasis.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes