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Portland’s Leeward Might Be America’s Best New Restaurant

The Arts District Italian eatery is on the James Beard Awards short list.

Portland’s Leeward Might Be America’s Best New Restaurant
Maine scallop crudo, with lemon puree, purple daikons, almonds, and chervil.
By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Anthony Di Biase
From our June 2022 issue

The name suggests protection from a gale, but Leeward’s two-year run has been tempestuous. After opening their pan-Italian Arts District restaurant in March 2020, Oregon-to-Maine transplants Raquel and Jake Stevens ran the place for three whole nights before shutting the doors for two nervous, early-pandemic months. The year that followed involved a mix of takeout and sidewalk dining and one short-lived attempt to reopen indoors. By the time the dining room did come back, last summer, the word was out: Leeward’s dishes of fresh, handmade pasta and Maine-sourced produce and protein were something special.

This March, a few days after I came in for dinner with my wife, Elsa, Leeward was named a finalist in the Best New Restaurant category in the industry-esteemed James Beard Awards. Only once before has a Maine restaurant been a finalist — Central Provisions, now an Old Port standard, got the nod in 2015 but lost to a French eatery in New York. When I went back to Leeward in April, to chat with the Stevenses, they had just reopened after a weeklong staff-COVID closure and were bracing for more of the Beard bump.

“We kind of overnight started doing summer numbers,” said Jake, Leeward’s chef. “Our anxieties have changed from the early days, when it was, ‘All right, are people going to show up? Are they going to like what we’re doing?’ Now, people are coming, and they’re coming with high expectations.”

Leeward
85 Free St., Portland. 207-808-8623.
Price Range
Small plates $5–$22. Entrées $22–$37.
Pasta Provisions
Leeward’s cook-at-home pastas — cavatelli, gnocchi, and more — are available to go ($7–$14), as are containers of sauces, cheeses, and gelato ($6–$10).
From the Cellar
Raquel Stevens, a vet of Portland’s acclaimed Drifters Wife wine bar, curates a list of some 50 low-intervention, mostly Italian wines.

We came on a Saturday night at the end of a long work week, kids with the in-laws, pandemic seemingly at a lull, expectations not so high as our cortisol. First priority: cocktails. Elsa ordered a warmer called the Miracle Worker, oak-aged Camarena Reposado tequila and molasses made fragrant with orange blossom, vanilla, and chili. I got a Sour Edith, a potent froth of Cynar amaro, amaretto, egg white, lemon, and orange. It was bold and bittersweet, a perfect aperitif, and I felt my shoulders loosen. Bar manager Paige Beuhrer swaps new cocktails onto the list every few weeks, but clever uses of amaro and vermouth, the classic Italian restoratives, always have a place.

We decompressed, scanning the menu and the commodious cube of a dining room. Leeward occupies a 5,000-square-foot space once part of the Porteous department store, more recently a yawning Maine College of Art & Design studio. The Stevenses installed the kitchen and bar, and Raquel, who runs the front of the house, handled décor: a Tiffany lamp over the entry, plenty of dried flowers and hardy houseplants, walls hung with thrifted landscapes and seascapes (many owing to “a particularly good day at the Belfast Goodwill”). The vibe is family-room chic, minimal but not minimalist, and somehow cozy despite the exposed ductwork and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Free Street.

We ordered three snacks off the small-plates portion of the menu, first digging into the fried-dough pillows called gnocco frito, served with knockout prosciutto and fennel salami and a globe of creamy burrata cheese. Next, a beet-and-citrus salad sprinkled with mint leaves, fried capers, and anchovy salsa verde. It was art. So was a plate of bright and succulent scallop crudo, bedecked with purple daikons, almonds, bright-green chervil, and dollops of lemon puree — we ooohed and aaahed. In the summer, when the scallop fishery’s closed, Jake subs bluefin tuna, but Gulf of Maine scallops, he says, are the most beautiful he’s ever used.

Bar seats at Leeward, which serves dinner only, are set aside for walk-ins
Bar seats at Leeward, which serves dinner only, are set aside for walk-ins.

Elsa’s entrée was an oh-so-comforting rigatoni Bolognese, the one dish out of seven that’s a year-round constant. It was fathoms deep, made with pork from Bristol’s Broad Arrow Farm and grass-fed beef from North Carolina. The standout of the evening was my plate of ricotta gnudi, fluffy little dumplings a bit like gnocchi but made with sheep’s-milk cheese and kale rather than starch, bound with a touch of egg and flour. Finished with sage butter and a black-truffle preserve, they were earthy and delicately sweet and literally melted in my mouth. Raquel describes them as “a sheepskin blanket for your insides.” She wants gnudi on the menu year-round, but Jake insists it’s a winter dish, not least because he needs menu space to take advantage of summer produce and seafood. Leeward’s offerings change more frequently in summer, the kitchen highlighting what’s in season.

“Our whole ethos is about simplicity,” Jake says, “good products that haven’t been messed with too much or overly doctored.” Italian food exemplifies this philosophy, he says, since “a lot of dishes are just better than the sum of their parts, where you can combine very simple things — a cheese or two, eggs, maybe some cured pork belly, some pasta. All those things on their own can be great, but they’re probably not face-melting. Then, you combine them in the right way, and it just becomes magical.”

By the time dessert showed up — a coffee flan and a ginger gelato, both delightfully subtle — our faces were melted enough that we declined to take our coffee corretto — that is, “corrected” with amaro and a few other liqueurs. We stepped out onto Free Street with bellies full, faces flushed, stress levels lowered. It was our best night out in ages.

Jake and Raquel Stevens are gearing up for their own big night out, in Chicago, on June 13, at the James Beard Awards gala. And yeah, now our expectations are high.


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