JUST THE RIGHT MIX Flavors, textures, and ingredients work together at Tao.
Early this year on this page I urged Mainers to stop complaining about our choices for Chinese food — to cease wishing for "a transcendent Chinese place that surprises and delights." Stop wishing for something and it will arrive. Here in Maine, the OM has worked — within months of that column, Tao Restaurant in Brunswick began to serve Chinese inflected dishes that are surprising and delightful.
Tao is pulling off some tricky stuff with genuine grace. "Fusion" food often leads to muddled disaster, but Tao seamlessly brings foreign techniques and flavors to bear on local ingredients like Maine blueberries and local scallops. The kitchen is run by Cara Stadler with help from her mother, which sounds quaint. But in fact Stadler has a bewilderingly impressive globe-trotting resume, including stints at celebrated restaurants in California, Paris, and Shanghai. They have renovated an old grocery a handsome, cozy dining room with a fireside bar.
One salad illustrates many of Tao's strengths. On first description it might sound like a jumble: grilled peaches, greens, prosciutto, nectarine, pickled blueberries. But in fact it works together perfectly, hitting each part of the tongue with the salty meat, the smoky-sweet of peach, the sour caperishness of the blueberries, a spicy mustard under the peppery greens, and a touch of umami in the dressing. A dish of blistered peppers featured smallish dark green Shishito. They were roasted just barely to a blister, which preserves the native heat, and covered with an addictive mix of salt and spices. In the house version of shao mai, pork and shrimp are ground together and steamed in a thin dough package. With just a hint of salt and a little grease they were fresh, soft, and full of the sweet flavor of the meat.
More entrée-like dishes are also served as "small plates" meant for sharing. This is another of Tao's strengths, since the small plate approach is as easy to mess up as fusion. But Tao gets the portion and prices right, and encourages you to order an eclectic mix of dishes. The Dong Pu Rou features rich pork belly meat with miniature bits of candied apples bearing an almost crunchy sweet exterior. Cutting through the fats and sweetness is the sour of pickled chard and the grassiness of a celeriac puree. Squid ink noodles, spotted with clams and mussels, were creamy from the ink, and hot with Korean chilis. It was one of the only dishes that seemed satisfied to hit a few notes of flavor rather than four or five. The fried cauliflower was barely browned, and surprisingly decadent with thick pieces of rich bacon, and a salty brown broth.
Tao gets all the accoutrements right as well: like a beet and yuzu martini in which a rich musty flavor is followed by a sharp citrus, or a minty gimlet with a spicy undertone of pureed ginger. An almond cake was dense but not heavy, with a restrained almond flavor that spoke of fresh nuts rather than extract.