RECLAIMING COLONIALISM Phoever Maine’s banh mi is terrific.
So often these days we take trivialities too seriously, when what is most compelling (and necessary) is the art of engaging weighty matters while keeping a light touch. Something analogous is the genius of Vietnamese cuisine, which excels at deploying bright flavors and the textures of crisp fresh vegetables in combination with richer and murkier ingredients, especially beef. This is the particular delight of eating pho, which at its best manages to give the deep comforts of noodles in beef broth a simultaneous vividness. It is also the chief pleasure of eating at the new Phoever Maine in Westbrook, which embodies this spirit of lightness even as it touches on serious matters: the immigrant experience, hard drinking, and some seriously good food.
The name of the restaurant is cutesy, and the menu giving Maine-based names to some Vietnamese dishes seems cute too. But it also seems to reflect the deep connection of an immigrant family for their adopted home. Any place that thinks to name its spring rolls after the Bowdoin Log (a legendary dessert the college serves on special occasions) has some deep Maine knowledge. A cocktail named after the Philippine processing center where the family got held up on their journey reminds you of the difficulties of the immigrant experience.
The dining room is a simple square space and nice enough, with a few booths in addition to the tables. But the real action is at the bar, where the young server (Jenny?) is adept at warmly teasing regulars in the Carla-at-Cheers fashion that animates the heavier task of serious late-afternoon drinking. Phoever has six beers on tap and some interesting cocktails, and seems to have become the go-to place for some dedicated Westbrook drinkers. Jenny also warmly chats up newcomers, and creates a pleasant atmosphere that animates the whole place.
None of which would matter if the food were not good, but it is. The pho #4, for example, was a good one. The broth had an almost floral fragrance, and was rich but not too heavy, with an oniony sharpness. Big slices of thin brisket had a great char flavor, while slices of rarer beef were more tender and sweet. With a squeeze of citrus, another of sriracha, and a dash of crunch sprouts and basil, it was a great bowl.
The beef salad combined lots of thin slices of tender meat with the sour zing of citrus and the bite of scallion and mint. The shrimp and papaya salad meshed several notes of sweetness without becoming cloying, thanks to expert use of herbs and citrus. The banh mi sandwich also shows off the brilliance of Vietnamese cuisine, which responded to French occupation by creating a sandwich that elevates French staples with Asian touches inside a classic crunchy baguette. The Phoever version with various cured porks, a generous shmear of sweet pate, crunchy vegetables, and spicy mayo was terrific.
Phoever’s kitchen shows skill with rice noodles, whether fat and tender in the pho, or round, thin, and a touch more resilient in the vermicelli noodle bowls. One version of the later combined grilled pork and beef with a pork sausage that was both spicy and sweet, along with crunchy spring rolls. There was plenty of diced-up carrot and cucumber, as well as peanut to lend the bowl some freshness and crunch.