[F]or many chefs, the composition of a small menu poses far more challenges than an extensive one. Each dish must be meticulously planned to express the restaurant’s personality while using just a few ingredients. The best preparations, like chef Thomas Malz’s interpretation of classic chicken noodle soup, boast a variety of flavors and textures while remaining cohesive.
Malz, who co-owns Custom Deluxe in Biddeford with fiancée Megan McVey, begins with a presentation that resembles traditional Japanese ramen — a base of noodles accompanied by meat, vegetables, and a soft poached egg. A hot, rich chicken broth is tipped into the bowl tableside from a ceramic tureen. The yolk breaks, lightly binding the soup and giving the broth a golden hue. The first sip evokes the warm, comforting flavors of childhood. The chicken confit is extraordinarily moist, a nice contrast to the crunch of cabbage and carrots, and the fresh noodles absorb the essence of the broth beautifully.
“The chefs I’ve been drawn to, such as David Chang and Martin Picard, have built names for themselves cooking the food they grew up with and making it relevant again,” Malz says. “That type of thinking is hugely influential to me.”
Both Malz and McVey have impressive résumés in fine dining, but after working together in Washington, DC, for a high-profile chef hell-bent on expanding his empire, the two decided to scale down and start something of their own. They scoured northern New England before landing in Biddeford. “This town is absolutely exploding with possibilities,” Malz explains. “It’s incredible to be able to be part of a growing dining scene rather than moving into an existent one.”
Opening this past summer in a Main Street storefront formerly occupied by a Mexican restaurant, Custom Deluxe seats just 28 diners in a cozy, narrow room with high tin ceilings and exposed brick walls. The entire menu — the restaurant serves both lunch and dinner — is scrawled on a neon-ringed chalkboard that stretches nearly the full length of the wall.
“The idea behind the restaurant is the type of bistro you may encounter in Montreal or New Orleans,” says McVey, who manages the front of the house. “A small, unassuming neighborhood joint with clean lines, good food, and friendly service.”
The food is bistro-inspired as well. A perfectly seasoned, silky mushroom soup is topped with toasted benne seeds — which impart a nutty flavor that marries nicely with the earthy mushrooms and hint of tarragon — and served with warm rolls from neighboring Reilley’s Bakery. “They have been in Biddeford for over 100 years and are exactly the kind of small-town bakery I grew up around in Connecticut,” Malz says. “They make a yeast roll that is super airy and delicious, the kind of rolls that would always be found on our table for any family dinner.”
Meals are served on beautiful, mismatched china, a gift from McVey’s parents. The set is composed of antiques that have been passed down through countless family weddings, a tradition in McVey’s hometown of Staunton, Virginia. “We love the fact that the collection was used to celebrate so many important occasions in people’s lives before coming to us,” says McVey. The diverse china often inspires Malz to plate each meal according to the serving ware’s shape and design, so the presentation of one diner’s ribs — juicy and tender slow-cooked pork rubbed with fennel, garlic, and black pepper — will be somewhat different from another’s. The slaw that accompanies this starter combines flavors commonly associated with Vietnamese cuisine — like carrots, cilantro, and citrus — with fresh cheese curds, an Acadian staple that Malz considers “under-utilized and underappreciated.” The acid-piquant veggies are a perfect foil for the mild, squeaky-fresh balls of cheese.
Like the food menu, the wine and beer list is small, but the offerings are well selected. Beer gets more emphasis, with old standbys, like Saison Dupont Belgian Farmhouse Ale, alongside selections from newer, more adventurous breweries like Banded Horn and Deciduous Brewing Company.
Over a plate of angel food cake with maple meringue, Greek yogurt, and pickled blackberries, Malz explains the meaning behind the restaurant’s name: For as long as he can remember, he says, his grandfather drove a blue Chevy C20 Custom Deluxe pickup truck. After he died, the truck was refurbished by Malz’s uncle, who used it as the primary work vehicle for his granite business.
“Trucks like these are the workhorses of the kind of blue-collar towns Megan and I come from,” Malz says. “To us, the name represents finding a balance between our roots as well as our experience working in grand luxury hotels and high-end restaurants.”
Approachable and affordable, with dishes culled from all corners of the world, their Custom Deluxe also is a reflection of Biddeford, a former mill town on the cusp of reinvention.