The patio at Magnus on Water recently hosted a smartly dressed pair of twentysomethings lingering over dessert and drinks, a middle-aged fellow whose casual ensemble included white sneakers and white crew socks and who ordered and ate briskly, and a jovial bunch who passed bottles of wine around a firepit late into the evening. That’s all according to plan. “We wanted a place where people could have whatever kind of experience they want,” co-owner and front-of-house manager Brittany Saliwanchik says, “It can be a restaurant or a bar or everything in between.”
The best approach lies somewhere in the everything in between: order drinks from co-owner and beverage director Brian Catapang, who previously tended bar at Biddeford’s nationally acclaimed Elda, and enjoy food from chef Ben Jackson, who previously cooked at Portland’s nationally acclaimed (and now closed) Drifters Wife. Most everything on the menu comes from the surrounding area, and Saliwanchik, Catapang, and Jackson are enthusiastic foragers, rustling up, among other things, sweet fern, rose hips, bay leaf, fennel, seaweed, and winter mint. They also extract sea salt from water they collect at nearby Fortunes Rocks Beach.
That sea salt subtly accented the Fluffy Baby Duck, a cocktail of bourbon and lemon juice liberally topped with a froth that Catapang made by running oranges through an aerating juicer, then pouring the juice, plus vanilla liqueur and a couple of egg whites, into a nitrous-oxide–fueled whipping canister. The result was downright pillowy, somewhere between rich cappuccino foam and freshly whipped cream. “I take cocktails really seriously,” Catapang says, “but I don’t want them to seem too serious — they should be fun.”
Foraged winter mint (also known as wintergreen, the official Maine state herb) made an appearance in a riff on the classic negroni. Catapang matched the usual elements of bitter Italian liqueur and aperitif wine with smoky mezcal rather than gin, and he nixed the acidity of an expressed orange peel for a splash of pickled-blueberry shrub. He named it the Negroni Peel Out, both for the lack of peel and for the occasional road noise from the nearby intersection.
Brian Catapang and Brittany Saliwanchik manage day-to-day operations, and Julia Russell and Carmen Harris are also partners in the restaurant. The four co-owners met while Russell and Harris were vacationing in Maine from DC.
During long pandemic pauses, the owners were able to keep paying staff thanks to Paycheck Protection Program loans and $12,000 raised through a GoFundMe campaign.
Which is not to undersell the patio — if you picked up the whole thing, with its two hardscaped tiers and nice plantings and mix of dining tables and cozy seating, then set it down in a 7-Eleven parking lot, it would still be an utterly lovely hangout. The outdoor space was, at first, a bit of an afterthought, added because there happened to be room for it. Two months after Magnus first opened, though, the pandemic arrived. With a dining room too snug for social distancing, the restaurant closed until the patio was finished, in midsummer. After the owners tried a takeout program, then tried shifting to brunch service as evenings got cooler — “We were just throwing things at the wall and seeing if they stuck,” Catapang says — Magnus went on another hiatus last winter. In the spring, it opened again for patio seating, with Jackson, a 2020 James Beard Award nominee for best chef in the Northeast, newly heading the kitchen.
The menu changes often, and descriptions majorly underplay the degree of nuance in which the kitchen deals: “Carrots: pistachio, cilantro & lime” or “Beets: yogurt, onion, sesame & mint.” In actuality, the carrots are oven-roasted with cumin seed, rosemary, thyme, and lemon, then tossed in a dressing of lime juice, cilantro, and garlic and served atop a sauce of sautéed pistachios, garlic, and fire-roasted poblanos that are pureed with smoked paprika, sherry vinegar, and lemon juice. It takes a lot of adjectives to give the complexity of the dish its due: roasty, sweet, piquant, herbaceous . . . delicious. The beets brought more of the same, the sesame seeds toasted with some fennel seed and coriander and the yogurt cleverly blended with tahini, which lent a nutty, earthy richness our waiter correctly diagnosed as “cheese-like.”
Jackson served Gulf of Maine hake, one of two entrées on the menu, with a schmear of garlicky aioli, a couple of fistfuls of blistered cherry tomatoes, and basil. In relative terms, it was a simple presentation that let the individual ingredients stand out. The fillet itself was silky, the result of poaching in a concentrated stock made from scraps of the fish, a mélange of vegetables and seasonings, and white wine. Peperonata-topped lamb loin, the other entrée, was surrounded by a shallow pool of reduced lamb broth, and the meat, rubbed with roughly chopped anchovies, garlic, rosemary, and parsley, was tender to the point of rendering a knife almost unnecessary. Intense care is apparent on every plate.
After all the fits and starts that the pandemic wreaked on the restaurant, the owners feel like they’re finally homing in again on their original vision. “We joke all the time that it feels like we’ve had four different concepts already,” Catapang says.
“And we’re on to number five — going back inside,” Saliwanchik adds.
The patio is likely remaining open into the colder months, a place for hardy souls to grab a bite or huddle around firepits with cocktails. But for the first time since March of 2020, dinner service is also taking place in the dining room and bar. The indoors is a small and intimate space — only 32 seats — and proof of vaccination or a recent negative test is required of guests this winter, for the sake of fostering a convivial atmosphere. “When people walk through the door,” Saliwanchik says, “we want them to be able to fully relax into the experience.”