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Susan Axelrod

Susan Axelrod's food writing career began in the kitchen; she owned a restaurant and catering business for 15 years before turning to journalism. By day, she is the social media editor for Portland Press Herald. To relax, she bakes, gardens and hikes with her husband and their two dogs, preferably followed by a cocktail or a Maine beer. Susan can be contacted at 791-6310 or On Twitter: @susansaxelrod

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Posted: December 30, 2014

Maine food & drink 2014: A look back at the sweet and the bitter

Written by: Susan Axelrod
Clockwise from top: Chef Chris Gould and his team in the kitchen at Central Provisions (Ted Axelrod); a hand pie at Maine Pie Line (Press Herald file); Cara Stadler in the kitchen at Tao Yuan (Press Herald file); bitters at Vena's Fizz House (Ted Axelrod)

Clockwise from top: Chef Chris Gould and his team in the kitchen at Central Provisions (Ted Axelrod); a hand pie at Maine Pie Line (Press Herald file); Cara Stadler in the kitchen at Tao Yuan (Press Herald file); bitters at Vena’s Fizz House (Ted Axelrod)

Thinking back on Maine’s food and drink scene in 2014, three topics come to mind: beverages, baked goods and rebirth.

Not just beer, but distilled spirits, hard (and soft) cider, kombucha, coffee, and bottled tea are Maine-made contributions to the national boom in beverage production. This year saw a rise in the number of tasting rooms in the state: Oxbow Brewing opened one in Portland; so did Geary’s (their first in 30 years of brewing) and Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery.

We Mainers love our healthy local produce, but we also crave cakes, scones, pies and donuts. In 2014, Little Bigs’ faux Cronut made national news; The Holy Donut expanded, Tandem Coffee joined forces with a pastry chef and Two Fat Cats bought Maine Pie Line, saving Briana Warner’s distinctive pies from extinction.

There was rebirth and reinvention. Bramhall Pub was reincarnated as Bramhall, Bar Lola morphed into Lolita, Stephen Lanzalotta’s Sicilian slab rose again at its own restaurant and Erin French took her Lost Kitchen back home to Freedom.

Two relative newcomers garnered serious accolades. Chef Cara Stadler of Tao Yuan in Brunswick and BaoBao in Portland was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs — a title last held by chef Steve Corry of Five Fifty-Five in 2007. Portland’s Central Provisions, which opened in February, was one of Bon Appetit’s 10 “Best New Restaurants,” the first time a Maine restaurant has made that list.

In what may have been a surprise to anyone who doesn’t know her, Chef Shannon Bard of Portland’s Zapoteca won $25,000 — the top prize — on Food Network’s Kitchen Inferno. And iconoclast chef Kerry Altiero of Cafe Miranda in Rockland published a cookbook, “Adventures in Comfort Food.”

Those are just a few of the big moments. With the end of another memorable food year looming, here’s a look back at more highlights of 2014.

Notable newcomers

Clockwise from top left: Lolita (Ted Axelrod); the main event at Slab (Press Herald file); Timber (Press Herald file); Bramhall (Press Herald file); Chef William D'Auvray and General Manager Melissa Santos at Ebb & Flow (Ted Axelrod); comfort food at Mill 67 (Press Herald file)

Clockwise from top left: Lolita (Ted Axelrod); the main event at Slab (Press Herald file); Timber (Press Herald file); Bramhall (Press Herald file); Chef William D’Auvray and General Manager Melissa Santos at Ebb & Flow (Ted Axelrod); comfort food at Mill 67 (Press Herald file)

Some of the restaurants and bars that debuted in 2014:

Central Provisions — After months of renovation to one of Portland’s oldest buildings, chef Chris Gould, a veteran of Uni in Boston, and his wife Paige opened their instantly popular, small plates restaurant in February.
Sur-Lie — Portland’s Emil Rivera transformed two storefronts on Free Street into a fashionable hangout for interesting cocktails, wine and tapas-style dining.
Ebb & Flow — The revolving door reputation of 100 Commercial St. in Portland doesn’t faze William D’Auvray and Melissa Santos, whose stunning Mediterranean restaurant appears to be here to stay.
The Bearded Lady’s Jewelbox — Peripatetic mixologist Nathaniel Meiklejohn, a.k.a. The Bearded Lady, launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to establish a permanent home for his cocktail wizardry.
Bramhall — A trio of industry veterans, including former Gingko Blue bartender Guy Streitburger, reincarnated the old Bramhall Pub, a subterranean haunt in the West End.
Dutch’s — Lucy and Ian Dutch have some impressive credentials: Jean-Georges in NYC (him); Tartine Bakery in San Francisco (her). Their first solo venture, on Preble Street in Portland, features superlative sandwiches, salads and baked goods, made with great care (and their own butter).
Slab — After being fired by Micucci Grocery, Sicilian slab maestro Stephen Lanzalotta partnered with chef Jason Loring of Nosh Kitchen Bar (and others) to open Portland’s most unusual pizza restaurant in the former Portland Public Market building.
Timber Steakhouse & Rotisserie — A little more than a year after they opened their first Portland venture, The North Point wine bar, brothers Noah and Dan Talmatch kicked it up well past a notch with a serious — and well-received — steakhouse.
BaoBao — Following the success of their Brunswick restaurant, Tao Yuan, chef Cara Stadler and her mother Cecile opened a dumpling house in Portland’s West End, with lines around the block from the get-go.
Bonfire Country Bar — A self-serve beer wall, drinks served in red Solo cups and seats that are tire swings or saddles bring a little bit of yee-haw to Portland’s Old Port.
Lolita — Guy and Stella Hernandez flip-flopped their two Munjoy Hill businesses, moving Hilltop Coffee to the former Bar Lola space and opening Lolita — a vinoteca and asador (Spanish for wine bar and wood grill) — in the old coffee shop.
The Lost Kitchen — A divorce prompted chef Erin French to close her popular Belfast restaurant, do some soul searching, and start over with an Airstream trailer. In July, she relaunched The Lost Kitchen in a restored mill in her hometown of Freedom.
Thistle Pig — Chef Ben Hasty left Kittery-based When Pigs Fly to open his own “New England comfort food” restaurant with girlfriend Jen Fecteau in South Berwick.
The Gothic — In the iconic Belfast building that had housed The Lost Kitchen, celebrity chef turned raw/vegan food guru Matthew Kenney opened a temple to his health-food mission.
Mill 67 — Proving that Portland doesn’t get all the restaurant love, this spacious, modern pub in an old mill on the Mousam River was named Eater Maine’s “Stone Cold Stunner.”

Local brands that grew

The Holy Donut opened a second location at 7 Exchange St., giving Old Port shoppers another spot to stop for a sweet treat.
Coffee by Design created what its owners told the Press Herald is a “playground for coffee geeks” at a former warehouse in East Bayside. The expansive space has the company’s 5th coffeehouse, a roastery, barista training center, tasting room and offices.
El Rayo greatly improved Scarborough’s dining landscape by opening a 4,500-square foot restaurant on  Route 1, instantly drawing a crowd of taco-happy families.
Otto Pizza opened an outpost (the company’s 8th) at 125 John Roberts Rd. in SoPo — near the Maine Mall — with a commissary kitchen, 30 seats and a bocce court.
Tandem Coffee Roasters branched out from East Bayside to the West End in Portland, opening a second location in a former laundromat. Owners Kathleen and Will Pratt partnered with baker Briana Holt to offer both sweet and savory baked goods.

Short Stories

Places that just didn’t catch on:
Liquid M2: Opened in April, closed in August
Miyake Diner: Opened in January, closed in June

Kitchen closed

The Salt Exchange, Portland
Oscar’s New American, Yarmouth
Portland & Rochester, Portland
Cantina El Rayo, Portland
Mesa Verde, Portland
Roost House of Juice, Portland
Gingko Blue, Portland
Pepperclub/Good Egg Cafe, Portland
Slainte, Portland

New brewers and distillers

Barreled Souls Brewing Company, Saco
Lively Brewing Company/Ebenezer’s Brewpub, Brunswick
Tumbledown Brewing, Farmington
Tributary Brewing Company, Kittery
Hidden Cove Brewing Company, Wells
Bigelow Brewing Company, Skowhegan
Austin Street Brewery, Portland
Foundation Brewing Company, Portland
Liberty Craft Brewing, Liberty

Food + drink trends

Little Bigs' CND (Press Herald file photo)

Little Bigs’ CND (Press Herald file photo)

The Cronut – In January, Little Bigs Bakery rolled out its own version of NYC pastry chef Dominique Ansel’s donut-croissant mashup, calling it the Crauxnut and creating a Sunday morning frenzy at the South Portland shop. Two months later, Ansel’s legal team brought the trademark hammer down and Little Bigs renamed its pastry The CND (for cease and desist).
Crudo – It’s what chefs who aren’t Japanese call beautifully sliced and presented raw fish, and it helped Chris Gould of Central Provisions land one of 10 coveted spots on Bon Appetit’s 10 Best New Restaurants 2014. “Nowhere did I see a more inspired embodiment of this trend than at Central Provisions,” wrote BA’s Andrew Knowlton.
Bitters – The enthusiasm for craft cocktails continues unabated and drinks with bitter flavors are huge. Vena’s Fizz House in Portland sells an impressive variety of bottled bitters, including those from local company Coastal Root, and at the bar, owner Steve Corman mixes them into his tasty mocktails. At places like Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, Central Provisions and The Bearded Lady’s Jewelbox, bitters and bitter spirits such as Fernet Branca and Cynar show up regularly in precisely mixed cocktails.
Local beer — Identified by Wine Enthusiast Magazine as one of the “Top Beer Trends of 2014,” drinking local is easy to do in Maine. Thanks to our low population and the booming beer industry here, we have more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the country.

In the news

Chef Cara Stadler of Tao Yuan in Brunswick and BaoBao in Portland was on the cover of the July issue of Food & Wine; the July issue of Saveur focused on Maine.

Chef Cara Stadler of Tao Yuan in Brunswick and BaoBao in Portland (in red shoes) was on the cover of the July issue of Food & Wine; the July issue of Saveur focused on Maine.

The national press loves Maine food, beer and chefs. The following are some especially noteworthy mentions.

Chef Shannon Bard of Portland’s Zapoteca shares her recipe for chipotle chile lobster tacos with Bon Appetit.
The “Seven Napkin Burger” from Owls Head General Store is Food Network Magazine’s pick for the best burger in Maine in “50 States, 50 Burgers.”
Epicurious spotlights The Palace Diner in Biddeford and shares its recipe for the Lemon-Buttermilk Flapjacks.
Ebenezer’s Pub, The Great Lost Bear and Novare Res Bier Cafe make Draft Magazine’s list of America’s 100 Best Beer Bars 2014.

Eventide Oyster Bar in Portland is #1 on Bon Appetit Restaurant and Drinks Editor Andrew Knowlton’s list of his “10 Favorite Oyster Bars Across America.”

David Levi and his then two-month-old Portland restaurant Vinland is the subject of a profile on Epicurious.

Chef Cara Stadler of Tao Yuan in Brunswick and BaoBao Dumpling House in Portland is named to Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, landing her a spot on the cover of the magazine’s July issue and a star turn at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado.
Chef David Levi of Vinland is featured in the Bon Appetit story “How to Get Around the Lime Shortage Like a Locavore Chef.” (Levi didn’t know there was a shortage because his 100 percent Maine-sourced restaurant in Portland doesn’t use them.)
The Holy Donut makes Thrillist’s list of “The 21 Best Donut Shops in America.”

Cold River gin, made in Freeport at Maine Distilleries, is featured in “Bartender Picks: The Best Craft Distillers,” on Serious Eats.

Maine dominates this month’s Bon Appetit: “Where to Eat and Drink in Maine, a.k.a Vacationland U.S.A.” includes restaurants, lobster shacks, farm markets, breweries, and distilleries. In addition, the issue has 14 Maine-inspired recipes and from Maine Magazine’s Joe Ricchio, a guide to “The Maine Beers You Need to Drink.”
“The Essential Maine” is the title of Saveur’s extensive homage to our fair state’s food and drink; the issue features oysters, donuts, beer, farming, restaurants and more.
Regular visitor to Portland, Andrew Zimmern, writing for Food & Wine, spotlights his local faves in “Portland, Maine in 10 Plates”.

Central Provisions in Portland is named one of Bon Appetit’s “Hot 10”  – America’s Best New Restaurants 2014.
Bon Appetit also names Portland Hunt & Alpine Club one of “The 5 Best New Cocktail Bars in America 2014”.

Maine Congresswoman and organic farmer Chellie Pingree is named to Food & Wine’s list of “The Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink”.
Chef Rob Evans of Duckfat shares his local food and drink favorites with Serious Eats, a list that includes Piccolo, Rosemont Market and Oxbow

The Financial Times features Vinland, Eventide, Duckfat and other popular destinations in “The other Portland steps into the spotlight.”
The Boston Globe publishes a big feature on the “Culinary boom in Portland, Maine,” with numerous references to its author putting on weight.

Food & Wine includes Eventide in Portland on its list of America’s Best Oyster Bars
Playboy’s round-up of “The 101 Best Breakfasts in America,” includes The Holy Donut in Portland.
The New York Times visits The Lost Kitchen in Freedom, praising its “rustic and refined” food and decor.

The Daily Meal’s round-up of of Maine’s 17 Best Lobster Rolls includes iconic sandwiches from the expected places — Red’s Eats — and the more obscure — Trevett Store.
Bobby Flay includes Waterman’s Beach Lobster in South Thomaston in his “10 meals of a lifetime” for Food Network Magazine.

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