PLENTY OF LIME Frontier’s new menu features fish tacos.
"Civilizing" the frontier was a long and complex process, with lasting effects on our culture. The multi-ethnic building-up that followed the exterminatory tearing-down allows us to ponder our history in a somewhat gentler, more multicultural light. Here in Maine, the frontier is not westward, but rather curls along our rivers — the once bustling ribbon of towns built around water-powered mills. As one writer put it, "Maine must confront the hulking empty shells of our industrial past — the huge riverside mills that dominate so many of our towns. Who will settle this territory, conquer its demons, and make it productive?" Five years ago the Frontier Café in Brunswick staked out a striking riverside space in the Fort Andross Mill — where they served mostly soups and sandwiches you ordered at the counter.
It was really nice. But the space was so terrific, and the ambition of the proprietors so obvious (Frontier also features an art-cinema, and a gallery), that you always thought they might do something more with it, culinarily. Now Frontier is seeking to civilize itself — closing for a few months to redo the space a bit and create a more ambitious menu. With its high ceilings, massive windows, and beautiful long tables made from salvaged wood, you would not have thought that Frontier could look much better. But it does, thanks to a handsome new bar, and great rustic-meets-modern bar-stools — that live up to the grandeur of the space.
Would the new menu? You now read it at your table, and order from a waiter rather than at the counter. And you can do it while sipping some interesting cocktails served in big glasses — especially a "royal fixe" made with gin and tarragon. Or you can sip something from an interesting wine list, which included an affordable bottle from Lebanon that went well with the menu's varied cuisine. It might make you nervous at first to note the dishes that range from Asian, Mexican, French, and American (among other influences). Can one kitchen do a good job with this variety of approaches? Mostly it can, it turns out.
If there is a unifying theme at Frontier it is the notes of sour and citrus (especially lime) that emerge in many dishes — and mostly to good effect. A fried tofu appetizer had a great chewy soft texture, without greasiness, and had a nice limey-cilantro flavor. It came with a bright pink sour slaw, and a sweet-sour tamarind chutney. Mussels came stewed in a glowingly yellow-green curry sauce, tarted up with lots of lime, galangal, and lemongrass. It came with slices of nan, and we wished for a fleshier bread to soak up the sauce.
Among the entrées, the steak frites stood out as the best — perfectly medium-rare, super-tender, with a nice salty-sour red wine sauce, and an aioli so stocked with rosemary it was almost crunchy. Roasted pork medallions, wrapped in pancetta, were also terrific, though the Brussels sprouts might have used more roast, and its red onion marmalade was a touch too sweet. Fish tacos were quite respectable, with a good breading, a great sour tomatillo salsa, plenty of lime, and another sour-slaw. The weakest spot was a General Tso with tofu. It had a bit too much sugar in its sauce, but also some good, slightly bitter broccolini and more of that nicely fried tofu. Vegetarians might be frustrated to be choosing between this entrée, a Thai sounding peanut-noodle, and a veggie burger.