EUROPEAN MERGER German substance with Greek and Italian flavor in the buttermilk chicken schnitzel.
There was a time when private clubs existed to meet a pressing need: maybe as a way to keep out parvenus, or to discreetly get into some gay stuff. Now the disappearance of class mobility means there is no such thing as a parvenu, and gay bars (and gay stuff) are so popular that straight people swarm them. So while I would have loved to report that 91 South — a private dinner club at the Pine Crest Inn in Gorham — is a hot spot for the super-rich or fellas on the down-low, it is in fact only a very pleasant little restaurant that has created a club status to accommodate some niggling government regulation or another. Membership costs a dollar.
That is a good deal. Thanks to a talented young chef, and a proprietor who loves to share his affection for affordable wines, 91 South is a find. And the private club status is not a mere label, but extends to the look and feel of the place. You enter through a side door into a domestic sort of kitchen. It is quiet in there and the laid-back chef looks calm. The back-porch dining room is neither polished nor shabby — more like comfortable with a touch of elegant. The walls of painted wood planks make you feel close to the outdoors. A sunken bar lines one wall, and pretty little lamps hang over the white clothed tables.
The wine list is a point of pride at 91 South. The owner searches for affordable bottles from out-of-the-way vineyards — and sells them at a very modest mark-up. The result is the area's best list under $30. We asked for something red, dry, and earthy, and got it in the form of a French blend with some nice tannin and a touch of astringency.
The wine list has a good mix from around the globe, and so does the cuisine. The menu is international in an understated way that avoids the common problem where the jack of all trades is the master of none — starting with the house focaccia, which is served with some savory dukka and a tiny ramekin of olive oil.
The dearth of oil left more bread to use sopping up the terrific broth from an appetizer of mussels with cream sauce. The big tender mussels were covered in chopped fennel and red onion that had stewed long enough to lose their bite but not their subtler flavors. It all soaked in a pleasantly complex sauce: creamy and herby, with a hint of sherry and a touch of curry heat. A shaved brussels sprout salad mixed the bitter of the sprouts with a touch of sweet honey, the salt-tart of pecorino and parmesan, and the salt-sweet of pancetta and toasted walnuts.
An entrée of buttermilk chicken schnitzel seamlessly merged the brightness of Greek and Italian flavors (spinach, tomato, young green olives, a lemony caper sauce) with the substantiality of German cuisine — a metaphor for the EU's current bailout project. Even the spaetzle in this dish seemed light.