ONE OF THE YEAR'S BEST The Kitchen Garden Restaurant in Steuben.
Our lives are dominated by strange forces we cannot control — economic, demographic, epigenetic, psycho-sexual. It can be painful and confusing, but once in a while these forces smile upon us. We spent the last year talking and fretting about political specifics, only to discover that demographic trends and Nate Silver's algorithms are immutable: an Obama victory was predestined. In the restaurant scene these same dynamics are at play. So many particular interesting dishes, talented chefs, hopeful entrepreneurs, and yet so often success depends on these murkier powers: the public's inscrutable mood regarding spending, and what sort of meal sounds good tonight.
For four years those Maine restaurants that flourished have done so against a relentless tug of economic gloom, and some good ones perished because of it. But in 2012, we could feel the forces shifting. Those restaurants that established themselves this year might be fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to benefit from an improved economy and mood for food.
Very often in 2012 the right place was off the beaten path. Some of the best new restaurants that opened last year required Portlanders to drive north: GATHER in Yarmouth, TAO in Brunswick, and the KITCHEN GARDEN RESTAURANT way up near Bar Harbor. These three have almost nothing in common except that they are all unexpected gems — Tao, intimate, showing great creativity bringing Asian techniques to local ingredients; Gather, comfortable and unpretentious, but with a handsome space and some ambitious cuisine; and the Kitchen Garden, a two-person venture that is uniquely personal and utterly charming.
Only in a city as small as Portland can a restaurant be one block off the main drag and seem out of the way, but that is still the case with the terrific SCHULTE AND HERR on Cumberland. They began serving dinner last January, and it was one of the best developments all year — affordable, terrific German cuisine, and BYOB. The out-of-the-blue greatness of Schulte and Herr reminds me of the early days of the original Miyake.
A few other interesting new ethnic restaurants opened in neighborhoods that are a bit out of the way. I liked AL HUDA out at Morrill's Corner, FLORES on Congress where the West End gets westier, and SABOR LATINO on St. John Street. Meanwhile SAFARI RESTAURANT (recreated from the old Fez), the expanded SILLY'S, the relocated CHIANG MAI, and the brand-new THREE BUOYS SEAFOOD are creating a restaurant renaissance on Washington Avenue.
Another rule for success in 2012: be a good place to get a drink. In Longfellow Square, LFK is a spot for getting cocktails where you end up staying so long you reach for the dinner menu. At EVENTIDE OYSTER COMPANY, the appealing spinoff from the new proprietors of Hugo's, the tradition of ambitious but playful cuisine seems transformed in a more casual space with a hang-out vibe, a narrower seafood theme, and terrifically interesting cocktails.