A cocktail doesn’t usually set the tone for the whole meal that follows — and this is coming from someone who’s kicked off more than a few dinners with a strong drink — but at The Garrison, in Yarmouth, the meticulousness and inventiveness from the bar signals exactly what’s coming from the kitchen. The base of The Garrison’s Rhubarbarian cocktail is rhubarb-infused rye whiskey. Then, ingredients start jumping around the map: a smoky rhubarb liqueur from Italy; a digestif from Germany, aged in Slovenian oak barrels; mint from the garden out back. Rhubarb imparts a tart-sour savoriness, the rhubarb-derived liqueur a hint of the woods, and the digestif a bitter herbaceous undertone — and a splash of lime adds some brightness. It was a complex, delicious, thoughtful drink, and a harbinger of the food to follow.
The wine list was concise but varied, and a couple of traditional Spanish Basque wines were excellent. The beer list, on the other hand, was merely concise: one sour, one IPA, and Miller High Life.
Frozen treats were the desserts of the day: raspberry-lime granita, lavender-rum-mango granita, and Thai-iced-tea ice cream.
Chef Christian Hayes and his wife and general manager, Christine, opened The Garrison in 2019 in the rear of an old mill building. The interior is brick-walled, artsy-industrial, and cozy — accounting for table and bar seats, there’s room for a few dozen guests — and big windows overlook the Royal River tumbling toward Casco Bay. For eight months, Hayes’s cooking made the restaurant a darling of the greater Portland food scene, and then COVID hit, and the restaurant shut its doors. In the interim, the Hayeses started a burgers-and-shakes takeout in downtown Yarmouth in order to stay afloat, and this summer, after almost a year and a half, The Garrison reopened. It was new when it closed and so, in a sense, is new now too. I went on the first night of service expecting some hiccups — waitstaff still getting the hang of the menu or the kitchen fine-tuning its pacing. The front-of-house ran like clockwork, and the kitchen hadn’t lost a step.
Descriptions on the menu, which is split between small plates and entrées, are an exercise in brevity. Consequently, the exact nature of a dish remains something of a surprise until that dish arrives. Maine monkfish, an entrée, was described as “buttermilk fried / speck potatoes / kelp kimchi / remoulade.” Seeing it on the table, it was suddenly very clearly a chefy homage to fish and chips. Monkfish, meaty and moist, is often likened more to lobster than to other white fish, and Hayes divvied it into nugget-size chunks, lightly battered and deep-fried. The house-made remoulade and kimchi combined to add zest and creaminess, and the standout element of the whole thing was the potatoes — boiled in heavily salted water with bay leaves, delicate skins still intact, and served chilled at the bottom of the bowl, absorbing flavor from everything else. Prices tend to dwarf portions at The Garrison, but an awful lot goes into every bite.
Among small plates, larb is a Laotian staple that hinges on a nuanced balance of sweet, sour, and spicy. Minced chicken is dressed in eel sauce and lime juice and laced with chilies, red onion, mint, and microgreens. Hayes also throws in a bit of diced apple. The pork tenderloin is yet another dish of finessed flavors: two tender, inch-thick medallions fragranced with Urfa peppers and sumac and garnished with feta from New Gloucester’s Flying Goat Farm and thin slices of crisp green olives.
The Rhubarbarian cocktail; the Royal River outside; raspberry granita; seats at the bar.
My favorite dish, though, was also the most straightforward. The menu item was simply called “mushrooms,” and the only additional information was “yolk.” A pile of royal-trumpet mushrooms showed up at the table, sautéed in olive oil until their pale flesh had turned golden, then dashed with sea salt. A glistening raw egg yolk jiggled alongside. Royal trumpets — also called king oysters — have a firm, almost springy feel under the tines of a fork, but they’re tender to chew. They taste mildly earthy and nutty, and stirring them in the egg yolk created a custardy coating. Great chefs, capable of working incredible transformations, still know when to step back and let an ingredient shine.