[dropcap letter=”N”]eighborhood fills a gap in the midcoast dining scene, which is long on pubs, casual seafood restaurants, and elevated farm-to-table joints, but short on fun, casual places with creative kitchens where one might, say, take a first date or bring the kids while still counting on a craft cocktail. Fog in Rockland comes to mind; maybe Van Lloyd’s in Damariscotta. But the pickings are slim for the sort of eatery that has neither a multi-page wine list nor a TV hanging over the bar.
The year-old restaurant is the brick-and-mortar incarnation of Seth Whited and Sarah Waldron’s popular, Belfast-based food truck, Good ’n You. At Neighborhood, freed from the cooking and food-storage constraints of a kitchen on wheels, they’ve been able to improve old customer favorites, like their hand-rolled falafel, and to build out an eclectic menu of more substantial dishes: think beef short ribs with smashed root vegetables and sautéed greens, or Korean bulgogi tacos with beans and dirty rice. Neighborhood, Whited and Waldron say, reflects the way they like to eat at home — which makes the place inviting and not a bit pretentious.
Shawarma plate with gyro meat, tzatziki, and grilled pita; fries tossed in top-secret “herb dust”; co-owner Sarah Waldron on the prep line; Churro waffle topped with salted caramel ice cream.
The dining room décor is, in Whited’s words, “not too modern, not too old-school.” It too feels homey; server Ashley Savage provides fresh floral arrangements for the tables, along with custom-patterned table linens she makes by hand.
The menu is open-ended, with preparations rotating according to availability of ingredients, but also through experimentation. Consider the shrimp and grits: Waldron used to serve her Cajun-dusted shrimp over traditionally prepared grits, but she often ended up with a surplus of grits that didn’t reheat well. So now she takes an arancini-style approach, forming her grits into cakes that she deep-fries, creating a crunchy, golden-brown shell around a warm, creamy center. A finish of pico de gallo lends brightness and acidity.
The kitchen philosophy is what you might call ad-libbed global. When I noticed gyros as an option for the shawarma plate, my eyes scanned the kitchen, fruitlessly, for a rotating mutton log. “We wanted to stay as true to the gyro experience as possible, but the traditional spit wasn’t feasible,” Waldron explains. “We essentially make a beef and lamb meatloaf, using the prerequisite spices — oregano, paprika, cumin, garlic powder, parsley — and pulverizing the meat until the fats emulsify.” It’s then baked and cut into slabs, which are finished on the grill to order.
The Army/Navy: aged rum, cilantro, simple syrup, and soda water; Neighborhood staff Dillan Springer, Cris Jacobs, and Jamie Edwards, co-owner Seth Whited, bar manager Jon Poto, co-owner Sarah Waldron; butterfly cake: orange cake with sweet cream filling and chocolate ganache, topped with toasted pineapple; putting finishing touches on a plate of shrimp and grits.
The many fans of Neighborhood’s Belgian-style fries — coated with Parmesan cheese and a liberal amount of “herb dust,” which only Whited knows how to make — can thank the building’s previous tenant (a Tex-Mex place) for leaving behind a fry cutter. Whited has fond memories of the building going back several iterations. He drank there with friends when it was a dive bar called Bruno & Rico’s and later sang karaoke and drank Jägerbombs when it was a nightspot called Club 132. He and bar manager Jon Poto have created cocktails named for these and other Belfast landmarks. The Bruno & Rico is a standout, a fragrant and surprisingly refreshing concoction of rye whiskey and apricot and herbal liqueurs.
For dessert, the waffle churro is a revelation — churro batter pressed in a waffle iron, coated in cinnamon and sugar, and served with a generous dollop of salted caramel ice cream. It’s a clever combo of flavors, textures, and temperatures that may just prompt a second order. “I wish I could take credit for them,” Waldon admits. “I personally hate baking, and the idea of a dessert menu stressed me out.” The churros and other desserts are the creation of pastry chef Becka Green, with whom Waldron worked at nearby Three Tides.
A great neighborhood place is the kind of restaurant you can keep coming back to without getting bored, and Neighborhood nails the balance of consistency and surprise. After only a year in downtown Belfast, it already feels comfortably at home.