By Nancy Heiser Photographed by Douglas Merriam
22 Pleasant St., Brunswick
Cara Stadler, chef-owner of Tao, is on a quest for that perfect combination of flavor, texture, beauty, and aroma. A taste of several of her small and often exotic plates is all it takes to discover she is accomplishing her goal.
The talented chef also just turned twenty-five, which, considering the raves the Brunswick restaurant has been getting since it opened in June, makes her a tad precocious.
A high school graduate at sixteen, Stadler trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, then cooked or staged at renowned restaurants in France, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, and Maine. Memories of the places she’s lived have inspired the chef’s unique and deeply flavored creations at Tao, whose name means “peach” in Chinese, shorthand for an ancient tale of a peach-blossom paradise.
“What we like to do is take a classic dish and put our own twist on it,” Stadler says. For instance, her delectable smoked duck over buckwheat noodles is a mix of cultures: the noodles are Japanese, the peanut sauce resembles a Thai satay, and the concept of cold noodles is classic Chinese. “We smoke our duck over a mix of Maine hardwoods — basically, whatever my dad and I dragged out of the forest,” she says.
At Tao, portions are small — think tapas — and meant to be shared. Two of us sampled eight dishes over the course of a dinner. Each arrived separately, perfectly timed to enjoy before another took its spot. The presentation was like opening little gifts throughout the evening.
A hot soup poured tableside from a pitcher over caramelized fennel wrapped in feathery wontons created a bowl of anise-flavored bliss, the broth strongly flavored with tomato and Thai basil, cherry tomato halves bobbing like festive floats. This was the best of August in a bowl.
To recreate grandma Tang’s roast pork buns, Stadler riffs on a family recipe by preparing the pork sous vide for twelve hours and adding a little sweetness and spice. The result is not only fabulously delicious, but a perfect example of how she takes a classic Asian street food and gives it new dimension and depth.
The chef is uncompromising about using seasonal and local ingredients. Korean-style calamari with Sichuan pickled fiddleheads, a customer favorite in spring, won’t appear again until next year. In September, when plums were no longer fresh for including in her Japanese-inspired kakuni of braised pork belly with roasted beets, she substituted autumn’s lovely husk cherries. In the five months since Tao opened, she’s changed thirty dishes on the menu.
As winter approaches, Stadler plans to include braised short ribs, lamb, local shellfish, as well as hardy squashes, celeriac, pears, apples, and cranberries in her fare. “There’s a whole area of China that uses Middle Eastern flavors in their food, such as cumin,” she says, and she’s eager to introduce that cuisine.
The chef’s mother, Cecile Stadler, is Tao’s business manager. It’s not the first time the two have teamed up. For eight months they ran Gourmet Underground, a dining club in Beijing. After that, Cara worked with David Laris to establish and run as executive chef Twelve Chairs, hailed as one of Shanghai’s fine dining establishments. Mother and daughter are really enjoying the new collaboration in Maine. “One of the biggest pleasures is the closeness of our relationship. This has been a wonderful surprise,” says Cecile.
Cara concurs: “This was the right time and place for everything to come together, with the things I want to do long term.” Those goals include an on-site, solar-heated rooftop garden and greenhouse.
Cara grew up coming to Maine in the summers — her family has owned property in the midcoast for four generations — and last year her parents made Phippsburg their permanent home.
“Brunswick is an up-and-coming foodie community,” says Cecile of their decision to locate the restaurant here. “The whole concept of small plates has been very well received.” Aside from the fact that it’s midway between Cara’s home in Portland and hers in Phippsburg, she appreciates Bowdoin College’s year-round community and the fact that people driving north along the Maine coast usually pass through Brunswick.
The chef particularly values the thriving farmers’ markets nearby. Four days a week she and sous chef Saskia Poulos, who has influenced several dishes at Tao, hand pick their produce at Brunswick’s and Portland’s markets.
“I want to introduce new things,” says the young Stadler. “There is so much amazing food in the world. The people in Brunswick are up for new adventures and taking a leap of faith. It’s really nice to see.”
Nancy Heiser has written about food for many national and regional magazines.