A Delicious Contradiction

From DownEast

By Kristen Andresen Lainsbury

The Fiddlehead Restaurant in Bangor is a bit of a contradiction. It's nearly impossible to get a reservation on a weekend night, yet it has none of the conceits of your typical hot spot. Diners get white-tablecloth service — the only thing missing is the crumb sweeper — but the closest thing to a tablecloth in the joint is a humble little runner. Though the menu reads like a comfort food greatest hits list — truffled mac 'n cheese, grilled pork chops with slaw, noodle-free veggie lasagna — each dish has a twist that elevates it to fine dining status.

That's just the way owners Melissa Chaiken and Laura Albin like it.

Chaiken, the thirty-year-old chef, and Albin, a twenty-nine-year-old who runs the front of the house, have created their interpretation of a hometown restaurant. It's a place where their friends feel comfortable and their customers feel like friends. A place where pharmaceutical reps in suits rub elbows with "good old boys from the backwoods of Maine" in flannel and Carhartts. A place where you can come as you are and leave full and happy, whether you had pan-seared salmon dusted with furikake (more on that later) or a chili cheeseburger.

At Fiddlehead, there's no room for food snobbery. Nobody will tell you how your steak should be cooked. Nobody will try to make you feel like you're lucky to have landed a reservation (even if you are). And nobody will bat an eye if you order — gasp — chicken.

"We are anti-pretense in any form," says Albin.

"We're serving water in Mason jars and clearing silverware between each course," Chaiken adds. "We didn't know if it would clash, but we wanted a casual experience with great service."

And they knew how to get what they wanted. Despite their ages, they're restaurant veterans with a combined twenty-two years in the business — Albin grew up in North New Portland idolizing her two older brothers, both bartenders. Though she has a degree in creative writing from the University of Maine, restaurants are in her blood, and she's tended bar and waited tables throughout the state. Chaiken grew up in Tokyo, Japan, and came to Maine to attend Colby College, where she graduated with degrees in art and art history.

"I realized when I got out of college that I really liked to cook," Chaiken says, laughing. "It took me four years of college to figure that out."

She went on to work in the kitchens of some of Maine's most popular restaurants, including the Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor and the now-defunct New Moon in Bangor, where Chaiken and Albin met. The two became friends, and when they learned in early 2009 that the restaurant would close and reopen as a bar and grill, they decided to team up to open their own place.

"We wanted to take everything we liked about restaurants and mash it all into one," Albin says.

As it happened, the owner of Café Nouveau was looking to sell at the same time, and Chaiken and Albin landed in the historic Courtyard building overlooking Hammond Street. The burnished hardwood floors, high ceilings, and exposed brick walls give the space a warm, loft-like feel. But the real comfort comes from Fiddlehead's postage-stamp-size kitchen.

Here, Chaiken prepares traditional favorites in surprising ways — grilled smelts get a sprinkle of fennel pollen salt; fried mozzarella shows up on a salad with caramelized onions and balsamic reduction. And then there's the salmon, pan seared, over cucumber noodles, with a dash of furikake. In Japan, the savory, umami seasoning blend is as common as ketchup.

"I always think about things from my childhood or other people's childhoods, then we'll play with it and twist it around," Chaiken says.

The soups — whether a velvety bisque or a surprisingly light chowder — are a favorite, as are Chaiken's innovative vegetarian dishes, which go way beyond pasta tossed with vegetables. The staff at Fiddlehead is more than accommodating when it comes to special dietary needs.

Vegetarian meals are prepared using separate pans and utensils. The kitchen is thoroughly cleaned before Chaiken starts cooking for a customer with food allergies. When cornbread and molasses are delivered to the table — a great stand-in for butter and baguettes, by the way — the server brings along a tiny plate of cucumber, tomato, and watercress for those with gluten intolerance. Albin calls it "gluten-free bread." Others might call it "attention to detail."

And that's what sets the Fiddlehead Restaurant apart. Even on a busy night — when the phone is ringing off the hook for reservations that should've been made days ago, when the dining room is packed but the servers are serene, when every dish comes to the table steaming hot — despite the fact that there isn't a heat lamp or a microwave on the premises — those details don't fall by the wayside.

The silverware still gets taken away between courses. Burgers and ribeyes still come out at the temperature you ordered. Albin still slings her signature drinks — mango mojitos, Limoncello margaritas — but she's just as happy to mix a Maine martini (Allen's coffee brandy and cream, straight up).

It's a delicious contradiction.