Friday, July 30, 2010

Tapas? In Bangor, Maine? Really?

Sometimes when I'm travelling, I stumble across a really great little place. Usually it's something that seems perfectly ordinary and expected, but turns out to do its bit in extraordinary fashion: the roadside café in Middle Of Nowhere, West Virginia, or the taquería in southwest San Antonio. Last night, I thought I'd found that rarest of rarities, a strand of silver among the dross.

Bangor is not a bad little burg. A town of 30,000 or so, plus suburbs of another hundred thousand, nestled into the hinterland of eastern Maine, it's close to the dramatic coastlines, the rugged wildernesses, and the phlegmatic self-sufficient poverty of Down East, but it has none of that itself. It's an olio of blue-collar factory workers, fishermen, and small-town professionals, with the expected salting of quaint, dissociated relics of the 1960s masquerading as individualists or artists. In summer it's a pleasant place for someone accustomed to the heat of South Texas; I don't want to think of what it's like in winter.

The town's cuisine is generally geared toward the sea. Lobster, fish, scallops and shrimp are on every menu, and these people naturally know how to fix those things. And it's possible to find a good burger in town, and baked goods, and local ice-cream options are astounding to city folk who think well of Baskin Robbins. (My favourite is Pete's Pretty Good Ice Cream, down the road a piece towards Acadia National Park; see my blog from last summer's trip.) And every now and then there's a little blip of unexpected sophistication, like the tapas restaurant I found last night.

The place is called l'Aperitif, recently opened on Broad Street. It's on the second floor of a peculiar looking office building, with a balcony dining area that looks across the road and railroad to the waterfront; about as pleasing a view as one is likely to get hereabouts. The furniture inside tends toward the glitzy; outside it's Costco specials with Sam Adams umbrellas, and a poorly-laid carpet that seems to attack you as you walk. Still, the effect is pleasant, and if you don't look too close you might be able to persuade yourself that you're within smellin' distance of some European finesse.

L'Aperitif Tapas Restaurant and Eurolounge on Urbanspoon

We started off with a couple of frozen margaritas, using two different tequilas for comparison. Both were good, though the difference in taste between the two was noticable. Neither, though, was blended sufficiently. My dinner partner, who apparently has forgotten how to drink a margarita in her many years away from Paradise South, scarfed hers down so fast that she was left with a glass full of ice chunks. I exercised more discipline, and gave the ice a chance to melt over the course of the meal, but still the drinks could have used another minute or so in the blender before presentation. I don't hold this against them, being enough of a localist snob to think there's no way these Yankees could make a perfect margarita anyway. Maybe they've read about it, but they just don't know how it's done.

Our first tapas order was kofte, a specialty from the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. I have an Egyptian friend back home, Leila, who makes kofte to die for (and maybe she will read this and invite us over, hint hint?), but these were made with lamb and served in pita bread with a tomato-based sauce and some exotic greens of the New-Age-Trendy variety. A ramekin of what looked like yogurt-cucumber sauce was offered, but I didn't try it. The effect was successful, overall; the flavours were good and cooperated with each other, though I thought the portion size of this dish was a little skimpy for the price.

For our second dish, my dining companion picked tomato caprese. The presentation was, again, well done, with the cheese slices being cut in such a way that the tomato shape was maintained. The tomato itself was fresh enough that it might have come from the farm that morning (which it probably did; Bangor and environs is awash in farmers' markets). Next came chicken satay with a peanut sauce, three skewered pieces nicely arranged on the traditional small tapas plate. I'm not big on satay, but having now had it twice this week I feel confident when I say this satay was on the plus side of well-prepared.

My companion chose a chocolate-brownie martini for dessert. I elected to spend that time with my slowly-melting margarita, and couldn't think of any dessert that could possibly complement that taste. I did, though, sample the martini, which looked and tasted very, very rich. It must've been good, because it was gone and the glass licked clean before I could try a second taste.

The service is a mixed bag. Our waitress was a pleasant, chipper little thing who probably hasn't had much experience with curmudgeons, living in such a small city, but she was knowledgable about her menu and was ready to provide information about the dishes when asked. The bar and the kitchen were both slow. I'm sure they would say it's because each item is prepared with care by hand, but there's a limit to how much time that excuse will buy you. And if they are actually using all that time for careful preparation, the margaritas would have been properly blended.

Then there's the owner. He has, shall we say, a voice that carries. He takes the hearty, hale-fellow-well-met approach to his guests, and though he didn't come over and talk to us directly, we certainly heard every word he said to those diners whom he knew personally. I suppose if I'd seen him coming I wouldn't have been so startled by the sudden loud noise, and I suppose that, if I was in his circle of acquaintance, I'd've been appreciative of the individual attention, so much more sincere than those restaurant managers who go around asking every table how things are. But after the initial unexpected volley, his conversations took their place amid the background noise and I could return to contemplation of the view, the food, and our own conversation.

There are aspects of l'Aperitif that are pretentious. Hell, just daring to open such a place in a backwater like Bangor might be called pretentious, though I prefer to think of it as bold. I'm all in favour of offering the perks of big-city life to people in smaller cities, and maybe, in time, if it survives in a small market, this place will come to be a Local Favourite, adding just a little dash of sophistication to a not-bad little burg.

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