Havana owner Michael Boland attempts to replicate his Bar Harbor successes in Portland.
- By: Michaela Cavallaro
Photograph by Ted Axelrod
For restaurateur Michael Boland, life and work are intertwined. His undergraduate years at College of the Atlantic (COA) instilled in him a strong eco-consciousness, a deep affection for Bar Harbor, and a passion for Central and South America, where he spent several months each year, skipping COA’s winter trimester to study river dolphins, learn Spanish and Portuguese, and travel. He eventually settled in Bar Harbor, opening a string of restaurants including the Quarterdeck, Rupununi, Guinness & Porcelli’s, and, most notably, Havana, where he and wife, Deirdre Swords, offer what they like to describe as “American fine dining with a Latin flair” — and justify their frequent trips far south of the border.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the couple’s entrance into the Portland restaurant market came about at least in part due to daughter Zoe, now age five. With her school days approaching — and those of her sister Juno not far behind — Boland and Swords felt the pull of their urban roots, his in Philadelphia and hers in Manhattan.
Boland had kicked around the idea of a Portland restaurant for a few years. Then, as the economy cratered, “it became a really good time to be a tenant,” he says.
Thus, Havana South. The 140-seat restaurant on Portland’s Wharf Street merged several formerly dubious spaces — the nightclubs Industry and Cake, as well as a tiny Thai restaurant — into a cavernous yet elegant array of rooms. The roomy bar’s floor-to-ceiling windows make it a prime spot for observing the entertaining excess of Old Port nightlife (to wit: women in impossibly high heels attempting to navigate the cobblestones after a few cocktails). In the main dining room, the combination of dark wood, vibrant red-orange walls, and exposed brick feels cozy and intimate — an accomplishment, given the square footage. Boland and business partners Cassady Pappas and Wade Apgar also installed rustic fabric panels, many of which are filled with soundproofing materials, along the tops of booths and room dividers in an attempt to dampen the din that occurs when the room is bustling.
And bustle it does, particularly on summer weekends when the stellar mojitos and sangria — the latter with a touch of cinnamon — are especially refreshing. Havana South does more bar business than Boland anticipated — just one of the ways in which the Portland expansion has challenged his expectations. Another challenge: Some diners are disappointed that the Portland outpost is not a carbon copy of the original Havana. Indeed, over time Havana South has become more casual than its Bar Harbor counterpart, with slightly less emphasis on fine dining.
However, the two restaurants still have much in common, including their Latin inspirations and lots of seafood. Havana South’s paella is brimming with Maine shrimp, mussels, clams, and even a lobster claw or two — all, Boland says, sustainably harvested from the Gulf of Maine. Meanwhile, the Latin inspiration comes through in dishes such as a cod stew that includes tomatoes, olives, capers, and jalapenos, and a perfectly cooked braised lamb shank with a side of agave-infused mashed sweet potatoes. Other dishes are less well executed: pork gorditas — pulled pork with pico de gallo, guacamole, and onion relish — can be surprisingly bland, with the gordita itself more of a circular slab than a chewy corn tortilla.
Desserts employ an intriguing mix of sweet and savory. Fried vanilla ice cream is stacked above a chile-chocolate brownie that packs a welcome kick, while a piece of carrot cake with salted caramel sauce relies a bit too heavily on the salt. Havana South’s wine list is extensive, and “wine guy” Ezra Provost, who’d be called the sommelier at a less self-assured establishment, helps diners navigate their options, from reasonably priced familiar varietals to more exotic and expensive choices. He and Boland also are aging and spicing their own rum, and they’ve just begun offering wine on tap, making Havana South one of the first restaurants in the state to do so. “It’s cool and unique and, most importantly, it jives with our ideals,” says Boland, referring to the fact that using kegs, rather than individual bottles, both preserves wine longer and cuts down on waste. “We’re doing some cool stuff, and we love doing it.”
Havana South is located at 50 Wharf Street in Portland. Open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. The bar menu is available until 12:30 a.m. Appetizers $6 to $11; entrees $16 to $27; desserts $6 to $12. 207-772-9988. Havanamaine.com
- By: Michaela Cavallaro