Where food in Maine is concerned, Portland deservedly gets most of the hype, crammed as it is with eager diners and hyper-talented, often NYC-fleeing chefs who came in search of low overhead and room to flex their creative muscle. The city is a bona fide culinary destination, with everything from mom-and-pop ethnic joints to trendy food trucks to inventive upscale kitchens run by James Beard Award–winning chefs. Portland had a big 2014, with a gaggle of highly anticipated openings and a few sleeper hits, and the rest of the state turned out a few buzzy spots as well. My picks for the year’s best fire on all the usual cylinders—creative menus, solid execution, great service, a pro-local ethos, and a snazzy room—but they all have one other thing in common: approachability. Maine’s lack of metro pretension, after all, is as integral as seafood to its culinary self-image.
I had my best meal all year while seated at the bar of this hip, nonthreatening small-plates emporium in the Old Port. The vibe is unhurried and sophisticated, with no reservations accepted. The open kitchen serves up knockout renditions of simple favorites: peppered lamb breast, fluke ceviche, caramelized sheep cheese with root veggies. The vast, clever cocktail list doesn’t hurt either.
Certainly the most ambitious kitchen to open recently in Maine, Vinland launched with a credo to serve 100% local, 100% organic food. Locals’ skepticism was quickly silenced by creative, satisfying experiments like capocollo with apple and pear compote or a pine gimlet made with white pine syrup. The Spartan, wood-heavy interior adds to Vinland’s mystique.
The classical brick building that houses The Gothic is a former bank looming over Belfast’s downtown, but the menu isn’t as austere or intimidating. Chef Jason Paul came to Maine from Los Angeles, and his seasonal menus go in heavy for healthful, locally sourced and foraged ingredients—think wood nettle gnocchi and dandelion ravioli.
Getting one of the 20 seats at tiny Piccolo became progressively more difficult this year, as word got out that the restaurant’s southern Italian entrees—like delicately spiced lamb neck ragu and moist, roasted capretto (baby goat)—were something special. The husband-and-wife chef-owners turn out simple, beautifully plated dishes, and the all-Italian wine list is adventurous.
Sanford isn’t known as a foodie hotspot, so this Québécois-influenced gastro-pub in a restored textile mill took Maine diners by surprise. The place feels like a sleek loft, but serves comfort food like your local tavern, if maybe your local tavern was in Montreal and into poutine and pork pies in a flaky pastry.