Over-the-Border Dining in Kittery

Our neighbor is having a dining renaissance

Bridges can be a stopping point or a link to another opportunity. Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth, with its iconic vertical-lift system, was replaced and opened again in 2013. It’s way past time to walk, bike or drive across it via Route 1 to see what’s happening in downtown Kittery, Maine.

Years ago, Kittery Foreside, which is located right along the Piscataqua River, was the center of commerce. Today, it’s just a few blocks lined with modest historic buildings on a bend in the road. Some may only know Kittery as a map pin on the way to Maine attractions or the outlets, but magic is happening in this little corner — not through luck, but because of concerted efforts by those who love the Foreside and are working on its reinvention.

Michael Landgarten, owner of the iconic Bob’s Clam Hut on Route 1 Bypass in the heart of the outlets, bought a former bank building/Masonic lodge in the heart of Foreside about four years ago. He and like-minded folks were seeking to keep the area “special, gritty and, like bread, accessible to everyone,” he says. They didn’t want luxury condos — they wanted the holy grail for urban planners: a vital, walkable downtown.

That downtown is now home to no less than nine outstanding restaurants and cafés — each a worthy destination. Kittery can also claim two new establishments on Badger’s Island as part of the amour. And let’s face it, that island is only in Maine due to Colonial politics — we should have annexed it years ago.

The first eatery to open in the former bank building, now called 7 Wallingford Square, was Lil’s Café. Landgarten named the café after a much-beloved waitress at Bob’s Clam Hut. It’s now the social hub of Foreside, with killer crullers (developed by pastry chef Jennifer Woods, who worked with Lydia Shire), great coffee and aromatic baguettes. The space is sunny and welcoming, and I was quickly given a grand tour of the building by two regulars who love the place as much as Landgarten does. Seems the seed to the development of a great downtown is a place to talk about it. A unique feature of the café is the Vinyl Vault. It’s the bank’s vault, which was repurposed for the curated LP collection owned by Landgarten and fellow music lover Mark McElroy. LPs range from classic early ’60s tunes to lesser-known ’80s music. The prices are reasonable too.

My companions for the day, Keith Sarasin of The Farmers Dinner and Executive Chef Chris Viaud of the soon-to-open Cabonnay in Manchester, took an inside hallway to Anju Noodle Bar, a casual restaurant that opened shortly after Lil’s was created. Along the way, we were shown The Wallingford Dram, a new classic bar venture by Julian Armstrong and Michael Pazdon. Our guides were contractors who completed the build out. The small bar with dark wood evoked a classic barscape, and our trio made a compact to come back when it opened at 3:30 p.m. It was noon now and time to explore the menu at Anju.

Grab a cocktail at the trendy Black Birch.

Co-owner Armstrong was inspired to bring healthy food to the area after the success of his fermented foods company Son-Mat. Kimchi, Korean fermented cabbage, is at the heart of Anju, and it’s the perfect way to start the culinary journey here. It’s spicy but not too spicy, and tastes fresh even though it stews for weeks while developing a nice dose of probiotics to help aid digestion. It’s an Asian recipe for health and has become quite trendy in restaurants. Of course, it needs to be lacto-fermented and not just a quick-pickle, a totally different animal with a similar piquant taste. Anju, which means “‘place to drink with food’ in Korean,” according to Armstrong, is just that. In my estimation, it’s a place you could eat every day or night with healthy-ish offerings, including pork buns and ramen noodles that sop up their house-simmered bone broth. Flavors run the gamut with plenty of umami for interest. A fun dish is the halved 7-minute egg soaked in soy, mirin and sake for that 1,000-year-old-egg look floating in the ramen. Armstrong adds a nice selection of local beers and a collection of wines that are nitrite-free and organically produced.

After watching the chef scoop up bone broth that simmered overnight, hang fresh-cooked noodles in wire mesh baskets above the range and create omelet-style eggs in the oven for tamago while the garde manger added the finishing touches, we started to pack up.

Next we wandered into Folk, a local collective for artisans. Next door was MEat (Maine Meat), a whole-animal butchery. Both are tenants of the renovated bank building. MEat is first of its kind in Maine. Owner Jarrod Spangler was inspired by Old World butcher shops, and he’s dedicated to sourcing locally and using all parts of the animal. Here you’ll find lamb, beef, pork and chicken, fresh from the farm and cut to order if asked. If you are not in the market for an armful of soup bones or steaks, then take home their house-smoked and cured deli meats. The deli case is unlike any other in the region.

Across the street are more interesting storefronts. This corner in Kittery has really come alive. One hundred feet away, we noticed a restaurant call B.O.K. It was closed for the day, but owner Bill Clifford was happy to talk. Turns out he’s the waitstaff, head chef and bottle washer. B.O.K. stands for Bill’s Original Kitchen, and by his own account, he’s unique for running a full-service restaurant single-handedly. By doing dry runs in his garage and timing service demands, he knew he couldn’t handle 20 seats, but he could work with 16. He trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in Boston restaurants and in the institutional food industry. He claims to make the tastiest lobster roll around using precooked lobster from Taylor Lobster down the street, and his pot roast burger is on its way to legendary status. Yelp diners seem to love him, so if you arrive and he’s in the kitchen, then just read about his concept. It’s framed and hung to the left of the door. Clifford will be with you shortly. Meanwhile, survey the day’s menu penned on presentation paper hung on the wall.

Next stop was The Black Birch — if only I could find it. Seems they love to underplay their location. Looking squarely at a municipal building with a hand-painted birch tree on the glass door, I assumed we’d arrived. Indeed, the bureaucratic façade faded away, and we were swept into a hip bar with hip lighting, a hip menu and vinyl spun by the hip bartender. You may be sensing a theme. Bless the hipsters — it’s a nice combination. The bar offered intelligent cocktails, and the bar menu was very interesting. We cut to the chase and ordered the duck confit poutine. We loved our drinks, and the fries were addictive. Knowing that Wallingford Dram was next on the agenda, we decided not to wait until the promising, on-point menu appeared at 5 p.m. The place is certainly a wonderful stop (come early) and was drawing folks over the bridge even before 7 Wallingford Square added steam to the momentum.

Once settled in the comfy confines of the dark, rich, wood-lined bar at  Wallingford Dram, we were taken in by the promise of cocktails listed in a booklet menu. It is a beautiful read. I ordered the Dame Shrub with gin, Maine hemlock garnish, rosemary-pear shrub, lemon, ginger and seltzer. It was as refreshing as it sounds and has been a staple on the menu since opening day about a year and half ago. All infusions and tinctures are house-made and add that certain something that elevates a drink above the humdrum. A good drink can be great, but a great drink is an occasion.

Fortified, we walked our way to the last scheduled stop, Tulsi Indian Restaurant. There is something about Indian spices when freshly toasted and ground that adds amazing flavor to a variety of menu items. It’s that wonderful fresh taste we found at Tulsi, from the naan bread with herbs to the mussels scented with coconut to a universe of curries. Chef Raj Mandekar does not limit the menu to a specific regional Indian cuisine, but instead is inspired by cuisine from across his home nation, adding a bit of New England flair on whim. It turns out that yes, man could live on bread alone, if it’s from a tandoor oven. Tulsi is the kind of place to order wildly; the servers will guide you through the menu, and the kitchen can spice to taste on most items. Even if you get enough to take home, you’ll soon want to come back for more. That’s a guarantee.

Anneke Jans, a solid, contemporary American bistro near the waterfront, may have been the first spark to ignite Kittery Foreside as a dining destination about 12 years ago. Maybe that’s the urban planning key. Encourage that great restaurant, draw the talent, and the hip dining crowd will come. And then investors and talent will follow. Landgarten’s goal is to keep Kittery Foreside an accessible destination — a walkable downtown. When I mentioned that Foreside must have parking issues in summer, he replied simply, “That’s why we have feet.” If your boots are made for walking, then start in Portsmouth, cross Memorial Bridge, stop in at The Pointe on Badger’s Island for a drink on the deck, take in the great views, and finally explore Kittery Foreside. Foot joy, indeed!

Lil's Cafe is a hotspot for coffee and crullers.

Where to Eat

7 Wallingford Square Building

Lil’s Café
Breakfast, lunch daily

Anju Noodle Bar
Lunch and dinner daily (except Monday) from noon

Maine Squeeze
Fresh smoothies and juices in former space for the drive-thru teller
Open year-round.
8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., daily

The Wallingford Dram
Opens at 3:30 p.m.
Limited food menu

Whole-animal butchery and deli sandwiches
Hours vary.

Other Foreside Restaurants

Anneke Jans
60 Wallingford Square
Dinner nightly at 5 p.m.

The Black Birch Kitchen & Drinks
2 Government St.
Bar opens at 3:30 with limited menu.
Regular menu at 5 p.m.
Closed Sundays and Mondays

B.O.K. (Bill’s Original Kitchen)
1 Government St.
Open for lunch and dinner.
Days vary with the season.

Tulsi Indian Restaurant
20 Walker St.
Opens nightly at 5 p.m.
Sunday brunch, closed Monday

On Badger's Island

Blind Pig Provisions
2 Badger Island
Tavern fare, open for lunch and dinner daily.
(Run by the owners of The Kitchen in Portsmouth)

The Pointe
31 Badgers Island West
Open at 4 p.m. for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday.
Hours and days may change with the season.

Categories: Features