Dine Out Maine: Knotted Apron is a neighborhood restaurant with a lot of potential, some of which is unrealized
Now that 2022 is almost halfway through, I think it’s only fitting to share one of my New Year’s resolutions with you. Along with my commitment to addressing supply chain issues and shortages of labor when I review a restaurant, I promise to avoid condemning with low praise. It requires too much inference, too much decoding, and is generally not fair to readers. That said, I’ll rush into the first paragraph of this review so there’s no confusion: The Knotted Apron in Portland is a decent restaurant with more promise than success.
Opening six weeks before the pandemic certainly paved the way for this charming bistro in Rosemont. As Chef Ryan Hickman said, “It’s like we’ve run three different types of restaurants here at this point. Like everyone else, we’ve been doing take-out for a while, but really, we had an original plan to be a traditional neighborhood restaurant when we opened. But we try to go with the flow of what people want. So now it’s more upscale.
There’s no doubt that Hickman, who owns the business with general manager Kate Harvey, has the experience to operate either kind of restaurant. As head chef at Back Bay Grill, Arrows in Ogunquit, and Pine Point Grille in Scarborough, Hickman learned to follow the lead of seasonality, developing a culinary style he describes as “primarily French and Italian, simple, but with a lot of technique and dedication to making everything in-house.
Hickman certainly means “everything”. At The Knotted Apron, components of dishes that other chefs might outsource are made from scratch, like the puff pastry – a notoriously time-consuming and difficult dough – used as the base for its Well-Baked French Onion Tart. , although too small ($11). Served on a palm-sized cast-iron griddle, the savory Gruyere tart reminded me of the appetizers you might find at a fancy party.
Meanwhile, in the dessert section of the menu, Hickman stays true to his house ethos, churning out fantastic ginger ice cream to drop onto a dense, rather deflated lemon chiffon cake wedged inside a ditch. barely macerated strawberries ($11). A dollop of whipped cream might have made this dish more integrated, but it could also have pushed it into shortcake territory. Next time I will ask for this ice cream on its own.
Many cocktail ingredients are also made from scratch, like the lilac-infused sugar used to dust the mouth of a flute containing Supernova Champagne ($11). Vodka and lemon form the base of this Aviation-esque drink, but I struggled to taste anything other than the sweet creme de violette and floral scent of the oddly incomplete lilac-sugar rim.
“Oh,” I joked to the waiter, “The bar gave me space to sip!” She laughed, then explained that this sometimes happens when the cocktail is carelessly poured. “But yeah, you can drink from there,” she said. Then she puzzled my guest and me, adding, “Or whatever else you want to do.”
Also confusing: the interior design of the space. The wall separating the kitchen from the bar has been removed, and while this allows the chef and sous chef to interact more with guests, it blocks legacy design elements without context. Take the fireplace and waxed wood trim, for example. Once a focal point of JP’s Bistro bar, it now feels cut and paste in the expanded room, much like the messy style of the huge wall clock and Anthony Bourdain’s portrait.
Outside, it’s a different story. Here, the patio with its 18 seats (bringing the total to around 45) is inviting and well-spaced for dining and drinking in comfort during those lingering pandemic-era evenings. A pair of chairs around a portable fire pit also invite passers-by to take a seat, order a refreshing, non-alcoholic Chasing Waterfalls cocktail ($6) made with the restaurant’s excellent rhubarb shrub and a snack of crispy focaccia ( $7) – a dish that Hickman admits to be random. “I think it was good when you came the other night, but it has to be on point to be the best in town.”
This self-awareness is part of why I think The Knotted Apron will become a more cohesive great restaurant. Hickman and his team already know the measure of seasonality; it’s often the seasoning that trips them up.
In the snow pea agnolotti ($17), packets of handmade pasta filled with funky Tallegio cheese, egg yolks and heavy cream, it was an excess of salty elements, cheese to the homemade pancetta, which erased the subtle sweetness of the peas and pea shoots. While on the main course of deliciously seared halibut ($36), the culprit was a sweet sauce made with equal parts candied garlic and Maine maple syrup. It was so sweet, it wiped out the flavors of the fiddleheads that came with it, unfortunately the last of the short season.
When it all falls into place, however, Hickman demonstrates that he has the chops to pull together even complicated dishes beautifully. His Indian-inspired confit duck tikka masala ($27) is proof: crispy skin and a dairy-free sauce flavored with cumin, cinnamon, coriander and cardamom. It may not be Hickman’s French-Italian wheelhouse, but the dish retains European flourishes in bright, emerald favas and mushrooms sautéed in olive oil.
I hope The Knotted Apron has a chance to live up to the potential of dishes like this show. As Hickman himself puts it in his naturally candid take on things, “It’s been a rough few years, and we’re not at our best yet, but things are going in the right direction.”
For my part, I am in favor of giving him the benefit of the doubt.
WHERE: 496 Woodford Street, Portland. 207-805-1523. apronnode.com
PORTION: Wednesday to Saturday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
PRICE SCALE: Aperitifs and snacks: $7-16. Pasta and appetizers: $17-36
NOISE LEVEL: Department store cloakroom
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
GLUTEN FREE: Some dishes
RESERVATIONS: Recommended, but walk-ins are welcome
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: This upscale, nominally French-Italian bistro on the border between the Rosemont and Deering Center neighborhoods has plenty going for it, including its inviting front patio, a great place for a non-alcoholic Chasing Waterfalls cocktail and, if you’ve got a a little peckish, a slice of sweet and savory onion pie. Showing an impressive dedication to his craft, chef/co-owner Ryan Hickman makes the pastry base himself, as well as nearly everything else on the menu. Not every dish is a winner, but there’s a lot of promise in dishes like summery lemon mousse cake with great ginger ice cream, super seasonal and off-theme snow pea agnolotti, but one of the restaurant’s best dishes: duck confit in a hot and aromatic tikka masala sauce. And during those warm months, everything tastes better outside, so book a terrace if you can.
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