Portland’s Leeward might be America’s best new restaurant

By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Anthony Di Biase
Excerpt from our June 2022 issue

The name suggests protection against a gale, but Lee sideIt’s been a tumultuous two-year run. After opening their Arts District pan-Italian restaurant in March 2020, Raquel and Jake Stevens, transplanted from Oregon to Maine, ran the place for three full nights before closing the doors for two nervous months at the start of the pandemic. . The year that followed involved a mix of take-out and curbside dining and a short-lived attempt to reopen indoors. By the time the dining room returned last summer, the word was out: the fresh handmade pasta dishes and Maine produce and protein were something special.

This March, a few days after coming to dinner with my wife, Elsa, Leeward was named a finalist in the Best New Restaurant category at the highly acclaimed James Beard Awards. Only once before has a restaurant in Maine been a finalist – Central provisions, now an Old Port standard, was given the nod in 2015 but lost to a French restaurant in New York. When I returned to Leeward in April, to chat with the Stevens, they had just reopened after a week of staff-COVID closures and were preparing for more of the Beard bump.

“We sort of started doing summer numbers overnight,” said Jake, Leeward’s chef. “Our anxieties have changed from the early days, when it was, ‘Okay, are people going to show up? Will they like what we do? Now people come, and they come with high expectations.

We came on a Saturday night at the end of a long work week, kids with in-laws, pandemic seemingly quiet, expectations not as high as our cortisol. First priority: the cocktails. Elsa ordered a warmer called the Miracle Worker, oak-aged Camarena Reposado tequila, and orange blossom, vanilla, and chili flavored molasses. I had a Sour Edith, a powerful mousse of amaro Cynar, amaretto, egg white, lemon and orange. It was bold and bittersweet, a perfect appetizer, and I felt my shoulders relax. Bar manager Paige Beuhrer adds new cocktails to the list every few weeks, but the clever uses of amaro and vermouth, classic Italian restaurateurs, still have their place.

We unpacked, scanning the menu and the spacious cube of a dining room. Leeward occupies a 5,000 square foot space that was once part of Porteous Department Store, most recently a gaping Maine College of Art & Design studio. The Stevens installed the kitchen and bar, and Raquel, who manages the front of the house, took care of the decoration: a Tiffany lamp above the entrance, many dried flowers and houseplants sturdy, walls adorned with thrifty landscapes and seascapes (many of which are due to “a particularly good day at Belfast Goodwill”) The vibe is family room chic, minimal but not minimalist, and somehow cozy despite the exposed ductwork and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Free Street.

We ordered three snacks from the small plate portion of the menu, starting with digging into the fried dough pillows called gnocco frito, served with prosciutto and fennel salami and a creamy burrata cheese globe. Next, a beet and citrus salad sprinkled with mint leaves, fried capers and anchovy salsa verde. It was art. So was a plate of shiny, succulent scallop crudo, adorned with purple daikons, almonds, bright green chervil and dollops of lemon puree – we ooohed and aaahed. In the summer, when the scallop fishery is closed, Jake serves bluefin tuna, but the Gulf of Maine scallops, he says, are the finest he’s ever used.

Bar seating in Leeward, which serves dinner only, is reserved for walk-ins
Bar seating in Leeward, which serves dinner only, is reserved for walk-ins.

Elsa’s starter was such a comforting rigatoni bolognese, the only dish out of seven that is a constant all year round. It was fathoms deep, made with pork from Bristol Broad Boom Farm and grass-fed beef from North Carolina. The star of the evening was my plate of ricotta gnudi, fluffy little dumplings a bit like gnocchi but made with sheep’s cheese and kale rather than starch, bound together with a touch of egg and plain flour. Finished with sage butter and black truffle jam, they were earthy and delicately sweet and literally melted in my mouth. Raquel describes them as “a sheepskin blanket for your insides”. She wants gnudi on the menu all year round, but Jake insists it’s a winter dish, not least because he needs space on the menu to take advantage of local produce and seafood. ‘summer. Leeward’s offerings change more frequently in the summer, with the cuisine showcasing what’s in season.

“Our whole philosophy is about simplicity,” says Jake, “good products that haven’t been too dirty or tampered with.” Italian cuisine exemplifies this philosophy, he says, because “many dishes are simply better than the sum of their parts, where you can combine very simple things – a cheese or two, eggs, maybe chicken breast. dried pork, pasta. All of these things on their own can be great, but they probably don’t melt the face. Then you combine them in the right way, and it just becomes magic.

By the time dessert arrived – coffee flan and ginger ice cream, both deliciously subtle – our faces were melted enough that we refused to take our coffee corretto – that is, “corrected” with amaro and a few other liqueurs. We walked out onto Free Street with full bellies, flushed faces, reduced stress levels. It was our best night in ages.

Jake and Raquel Stevens are gearing up for their own big night out, in Chicago on June 13 at the James Beard Award gala. And yes, now our expectations are high.



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