Cara Stadler was just 24 years old when, in 2012, she opened Tao Yuan. Two years later, the Brunswick restaurant earned her the first of what would be five consecutive nods as a semifinalist or finalist for the “rising star” award at the James Beard Foundation’s annual culinary equivalent of the Oscars. Food & Wine twice named her one of the country’s best new chefs. Then, in early 2020, all the momentum at Tao Yuan came to an abrupt halt. Like other restaurant owners, Stadler shut her doors when the pandemic hit. Then, unlike many others, she neither closed Tao Yuan for good nor rushed to reopen it. For the next three and a half years, the restaurant lingered in limbo.
Clockwise from top left: the wonhwa toddy consists of scotch, quince, ginger, and black-lemon bitters; dry-aged duck breast; chef-owner Cara Stadler in her next-door aquaponic greenhouse.
22 Pleasant St., Brunswick. 207-725-9002.
Small plates $9–$27.
Back . . . Again
After a brief winter break, Tao Yuan re-reopens for dinner service this month.
Next door, chef-owner Cara Stadler’s ZaoZe Cafe & Market sells groceries and serves small-plate lunches, tea, coffee, and pastries. In Portland, she runs Bao-Bao Dumpling House.
Stadler had come up through high-profile kitchens scattered across several continents, including a couple of Michelin-starred establishments in Paris. Perfection was her milieu’s relentless standard. So it hardly seems a coincidence that the deliberate pace of rebooting Tao Yuan had a lot to do with upholding standards. Stadler only wanted to run her restaurant as she originally intended, and staffing was the biggest hurdle: amid the worker shortage that followed the pandemic lockdown, she wasn’t willing to operate without a full (and fully capable) staff. This past October, she finally felt ready to open again.
Now, it’s almost hard to remember that the place was ever missing from the food scene. The dining room possesses its familiar unstuffy elegance. The menu, comprising small plates, reads exactly as varied and inventive as before. And Stadler still rarely permits any one dish to hang around for very long. Past guests will, however, recall at least one fixture: the Asian slaw. Slaw might sound rather pedestrian relative to, say, a 30-day dry-aged strip steak with pear, gochujang, onion, ginger, garlic, sake, honey, soy, mirin, and sesame, but it remains the single best way to kick off a Tao Yuan meal. The crunchy slivers of cabbage, snow pea, and carrot are tossed liberally with a vinegary, earthy dressing and laced with roasted peanuts and sweet little bits of fried shallot. It’s one of those deft dishes in which the sum is improbably greater than the parts, and it whets the palate for everything that follows.
Dry-aged duck breast is another Tao Yuan staple, and every time the satiny slices of meat emerge from the kitchen, they’re crowned with a delicate sear. The duck’s accompanying elements are always changing. This time, they involved a puree of red kuri squash and accents of pistachio, pomegranate, and persimmon. The most fun bite of the evening came from the unexpected marriage of Jewish deli sandwich and Chinese steamed buns: spiced brisket, purple kraut, Swiss cheese, and a fermented-tofu aioli atop a fluffy bao infused with rye and caraway. A Reuben, pretty much.
From left: salad with chicory, Iberico ham, and miso-honey vinaigrette; yuzu cream, matcha-almond sablé, mango-melon gel, mango-calamansi sorbet, and fresh basil
Three or four small plates per person generally add up to a satisfying meal, and a few others from the outing aren’t going to get their due here, because one must leave room for dessert — both at the table and in print. The standout was a baked dark-chocolate custard with frozen banana cream, taking a tried-and-true flavor combination and layering nuance from miso, sesame, and dulce de leche. Tao Yuan’s desserts are as creative and finely executed as its savory dishes, and everything on the menu is just as excellent as ever. Stadler’s star was once rising. Now, it’s risen.
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