Sea Grass Bistro (Yarmouth, ME)

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(Sea Grass Bistro Dining Room)

Sea Grass Bistro is probably Yarmouth’s best-regarded restaurant. I’d never been motivated to go there but I’ve recently been exploring Maine’s “bistros,” examining how the term is deployed in this state. In Maine, it seems “bistro” can mean anything from a casual French-inspired restaurant (the original French usage), to an entry-level fine dining spot, or—most commonly—a neighborhood restaurant. I don’t understand exactly why such restaurants deploy the term; perhaps they reason that the foreign label manufactures a certain allure that will tempt patrons. Having recently had positive meals at Mache Bistro and Solo Bistro, two bistros that fit within the “neighborhood restaurant bistro” category, I made a solo reservation at Sea Grass Bistro, expecting an analogous experience.

I was curious as to  what relationship Sea Grass Bistro has cultivated with the community. The clientele involved mostly elderly folks, as well as a couple of families and younger couples. What was most interesting to me was that some of the tables were clearly celebrating special occasions (with birthday messages written on the desserts, etc.) while others were just out for an ‘ordinary’ meal. I find this crossover appeal to be simultaneously alienating and liberating; while it’s great that each of the tables have individualized the experience to their desires, it also makes it so that the restaurant’s personality is difficult to define. There is a significantly more ambiguous identity to restaurants like Sea Grass Bistro or Solo Bistro than with White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport or Tru or Alinea in Chicago, restaurants where people are either celebrating or dedicated restaurant enthusiasts.

I was surprised to find that Sea Grass Bistro is located in a strip mall with several other restaurants, raising the question: how exciting can a restaurant in a strip mall possibly be? Entering the restaurant was equally disorienting, as the space—with exposed beam ceilings and an expansive ‘barn-like’ space—resonated more like a tavern then an upscale restaurant. The environment did absolutely nothing to create the impression that it was a chef-driven restaurant. There was a handsome bar with several seats, but I found the space between bar and dining room wasn’t segregated enough; this was a bit off-putting since the bar was standing room only and bar patrons tricked into the boundaries of the dining room proper. The way a restaurant designates its space is crucial for not only establishing the tone of the meal but also orienting one’s sensory perceptions; the bar was really the focal point of the restaurant, and having my eyes focused on it (and hearing the chatter emanating from it) made the environment seem somewhat incoherent.

As fortune would have it, the bartender actually wound up being my server. I have no doubt that this was because I was the only solo diner as he did not serve any of the other tables. While he was affable and understood the menu, I felt bad for him as he was working harder than anyone else. At one point during the meal, he disclosed that they were much busier at the bar than they had anticipated and this was more information than I’d wanted to know. While he got the job done, it’s always an uncomfortable feeling when the server is overworked to the point of drawing one’s pity.

The menu was concise and my server informed me that it undergoes a complete overhaul every three weeks. However, it appears as though the menu gets whittled down over the course of the evening and by the end of my meal, it had atrophied substantially—I would recommend an earlier reservation than my 7:30 seating. Still, the menu was one of the most creative I’ve seen in Maine in terms of ingredients, although the exoticism was tempered by relatively tame accompaniments. Many dishes had one particularly novel component with more standard accompaniments. That said, I was particularly impressed to see squab on the menu, particularly at the comfortable $10 price tag. However, there was a real disconnect between the creativity of the menu and the casual, communal space of the dining room. In this case, I think the atmosphere is casual enough that it gives the chef free rein to be as creative as she’d like without alienating the client base. I ordered the squab as a starter and the swordfish for my main course.

Instead of a bread service, Sea Grass offers grissini, served in a jar adorned with painted sea grass. Although I have no evidence to back this assumption, it seemed to me that the motif of the bread sticks emerging out of the jar reproduces the aesthetic of actual sea grass sticking out of the water. Unfortunately, the grissini were horribly stale and a major disappoint; because there are a limited number of courses and no amuse bouche, I think there is a real onus on neighborhood restaurants to offer a quality bread service (a la Solo Bistro) and so my evaluation of their bread service is conducted with greater scrutiny than in a fancier restaurant that offers other ‘perks’ and complimentary bites. Consequently, the poor bread service at Sea Grass would legitimately compromise whether or not I’d return.

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The squab was delivered by my bartender server with minimal plate description. It was a generous portion for just $10, although the accompaniments—grilled peach and currants—weren’t particularly notable. One aspect of the presentation that I didn’t care for was the use of micro greens—I can’t understand why so many neighborhood restaurants are now garnishing with micro greens. I don’t find that it enhances the visual appeal, and in many cases I find it acts as a generic ‘cover’ obscuring what are often pristine compositions. Still, the squab was enjoyable; I would have preferred a crispier skin as that would have generated more of a textural contrast, but the sizeable portion allowed me to savor a protein that I don’t often get to enjoy. One can debate the merits and limitations of large portion sizes versus small ones, but suffice to say that the large number of bites equated to renewable entertainment.

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My swordfish dish looked nothing like I’d expected and its appearance wasn’t very attractive. It was served with zucchini gallette, house made angel hair pasta, mushroom ragu, and cherry tomatoes. This was a much larger portion than necessary, with ‘filler’ accompaniments that—similar to the micro greens—really served no purpose other than to take up space on the plate. Perhaps investing in alternate service ware would enable the chef to become more precise with her ingredient pairings and plating compositions. I love swordfish and this was a superlative execution; it went quite well with the zucchini and I focused my energies on the interplay between the two components. My evaluation of the angel hair is perhaps colored by the fact that I don’t particularly care for pastas, but I think I can reasonably argue that it was completely unnecessary in this context. The angel hair also had a creaminess that adulterated the dish and cut into the smoky flavor of the swordfish. This was, similar to the squab, an instance in which interesting ingredients were deemphasized through the incorporation of unnecessary components.

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There were three dessert options: chocolate ice cream, Grand Marnier crème brulee, and peach bread pudding. I went with the bread pudding and was disappointed with what I received: the bread pudding was too hard and the berries were bland and ovveripe—they didn’t have the intense flavor characteristic of Maine blueberries. This dessert was completely unremarkable—both in terms of preparation and conception—and so I question whether the chef is spending as much time on the pastry section of the menu as she is on the savories. One characteristic of neighborhood restaurants is that the chef is burdened with both savory and pastry, and Sea Grass exemplifies the limitations of this tendency.

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Although the décor is warm and moderately lively, Sea Grass is not really a great restaurant for a solo diner. The space felt incoherent to the point that I would have preferred dividing my attention through engaging with a companion. I also felt very estranged from the environment; the space felt very unremarkable and yet the other tables all appeared to be having a great time. Ultimately, I think Sea Grass Bistro would have made a greater impression on me if I’d gone in the middle of the week or if I hadn’t had to drive more than an hour. Also, having just gone to Solo Bistro, I felt as though this meal basically reproduced that experience, except that because of its geographical proximity, I have an inherently greater attraction to Solo Bistro. Consequently, Sea Grass made very little impact—this despite the fact that the menu offered some very unusual ingredients, all of which were ably prepared. While the menu was appealing, the space didn’t frame the experience in a productive (or equally appealing) manner.

While the bistro title does feel a bit like a cheap attempt to purchase cultural respectability, it is interesting to explore the way in which it’s used in Maine. Ultimately, I would prefer it if they dropped the moniker, but it’s a title that seems to engender a varied clientele—one necessary to sustain moderately upscale restaurants that may not be able to otherwise remain profitable. Sea Grass Bistro appeared to have many different resonances for its different customers; for some, it constitutes a special occasion/anniversary meal; others bring the family; and for others it is a favorite meeting place in which to catch up with friends and support a local chef. To be sure, it’s great that the restaurant has cultivated such a broad-ranging relationship with those in its community. However, the strong relationship with the town precludes a more autonomous personality and I could not locate a strong identity in the restaurant. Basically, it does not offer enough excitement to lure me back since I could simply dine at a restaurant in a different neighborhood that serves the same function. While I enjoyed the cuisine for the most part, there was also something impenetrable about interacting with a restaurant that has so much significance for its patrons and none for me.

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