When I told my drinking companion that we would be driving to Biddeford for drinks and dinner, she looked at me with suspicion. By the time we left Elda, the bar and seafood-focused restaurant known for small plates, open-fire cooking and a hint of Japanese inspiration, she was already planning her return visit.
After relocating to Biddeford from Utah, six-time James Beard semifinalist chef and owner Bowman Brown opened Elda, named after his great grandmother, in December 2017, deliberately keeping prices at a level locals could afford. Spoiler alert: It was a magical experience from start to finish, and if you haven’t been there yet, you’d better get there pronto before word spreads more than it already has.
We sat at the bar on surprisingly comfortable metal barstools with backs. We hung our bags on the purse hooks underneath the bar and took in the gorgeous décor, beginning with a lineup of glass flasks reminiscent of a chemistry lab, each one containing a different cocktail ingredient. Many of the cocktails are served in vintage glasses, and it is evident that Brown has paid a great deal of attention to detail – every element from the lighting to the music perfectly complemented the ambience.
As soon as we perused the cocktail menu, we knew we were in for a special treat; that became even more evident once we started chatting with bar manager Brian Catapang, who clearly has a genuine gift for mixology. Not just because we caught him shaking one cocktail in one hand while stirring a different one with his other hand, but more so because of his profound knowledge and understanding of how to layer flavors in a cocktail in a way that yields magnificent results.
My friend ordered the $14 Spy Fiction; I went for the $11 Ashes and Pears, followed by the $13 Negroni with Love featuring passionfruit liqueur and Biddeford’s own Bimini gin. All three were exceptional, but the first two were so transcendent that I completely forgot to write down the ingredients. (I do remember, however, that there were no actual ashes in my cocktail.) Like the food menu, the cocktail menu changes constantly, and Catapang told us that he already had 10 more cocktails he was almost ready to rotate onto the menu.
Given that Eater magazine named Elda one of the best restaurants in America in 2018 – and the Portland Press Herald’s own restaurant critic gave it 4.5 out of 5 stars – we weren’t going to visit Elda without trying some of the food, so we split a $7 appetizer portion of fried Delicata squash filled with spicy cod. Our favorite follow-up item was the sensational $16 bluefin tuna with artichoke, charred eggplant, and toasted seeds; we also very much enjoyed the $12 Kennebec potatoes with egg yolk, onions and smoked mussels. Even the complimentary sourdough bread was so good that we asked for another piece.
At the end of our meal, we were given a complimentary salted caramel with honey and bee pollen, the perfect finish to a delightful experience. Honestly, had we understood from the outset how incredible the food was, we probably would have shown up in elastic-waisted pants and gone for the $52 prix fixe four-course menu.
WHERE: 140 Main St., Biddeford
PHONE: (207) 494-8365
HOURS: 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
AMENITIES: World-class fare at very reasonable prices and an equally excellent drink selection, thanks to a gifted bar manager.
BOTTOM LINE: One of the best food and beverage experiences I’ve ever had anywhere in the world, and I used to live in the gastronomic capital of France.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes, for the restaurant, but not for the bathroom or the bar area.