Water Street Kitchen & Bar Puts a Mediterranean Spin on Maine Seafood
Chef-owner Ed Colburn's fresh dishes are bringing the flavors of Spain, France, and Italy to Wiscasset.
By Will Grunewald Photographed by Danielle Sykes
Chef Ed Colburn had cooked at a trendy seafood restaurant in Boston for a decade when he decided he needed a change of scenery. He thought he might start his own place and give it a similar feel — a couple dozen seats and an open kitchen snugged into a tiny footprint. Instead, in 2019, he wound up buying a roomy two-story building on the Wiscasset waterfront that could, at full capacity, host closer to a hundred guests.
Just up the Sheepscot River from where Colburn’s family has had a summer home for the past century, Water Street Kitchen & Bar moved into space that came with a long history and a ready-made following. For 40 years, it had been Le Garage restaurant (so-named because the prior occupant was an auto-repair business) where the menu leaned traditional New England — crab cakes, baked haddock, pot roast. Colburn had something different in mind. First, he ripped out the wall-to-wall carpet, spruced up the color scheme, and, most notably, added a bar and lounge with cozy seating and a gas-fired woodstove. Then, he built a menu around local seafood but with a Mediterranean set of influences, from Spain, France, and Italy. “You’re on the water in Maine, so you have to serve lobster, but I didn’t want to do steamed lobster,” Colburn says. “You’ve got littleneck clams that people can dig right in front of the restaurant, but I didn’t want to do chowder. So it’s a matter of using the same stuff through a different lens.”
River views from tables in the upstairs dining room (left); kale salad with shaved fennel (right).
One example of that approach is the paella. The kitchen doesn’t take any of the all-too-common paella shortcuts, such as parboiling rice in advance or cooking shellfish separately, and that’s why an order requires at least 35 minutes of lead time. Colburn uses a combination of vegetable, chicken, and lobster stocks for simmering the Calasparra rice, which arrives at the table perfectly al dente and perfumed by saffron, peppers, and onions. Maine mussels and clams mingle with pieces of chicken, chorizo, and shrimp (shrimp being the one shellfish on the menu no longer harvested in Maine). Pastas, too, are often decked out with seafood — mussels arrabiata, clams with garlic and olive oil, shrimp scampi. The fresh cavatelli with lobster is, essentially, a deconstructed — and better — version of a Connecticut-style lobster roll, tossed in melted butter and lightly garnished with chives. A hot-dog bun, it turns out, has nothing on those tender noodles, and the sweet lobster meat stands out — both visually and gustatorily — against the unfussy backdrop.
Passiflora mai tai (left); Bolognese on fresh fettuccine (right).
Although seafood is the focus, there’s plenty of terrestrial food on the menu too. The Bolognese, slow-cooked for four hours, is a frequent order, and the single most popular entrée is the half-pound cheeseburger. A bone-in pork chop, grilled beautifully, comes with mashed sweet potatoes, and a garlicky sautéed spinach balances against the sweetness of a cider gastrique — a dish that will be best appreciated by those who don’t mind mixing their peas and carrots. Some of the most enjoyable bites occur when the kitchen gives close care and fresh thought to familiar things. The now-ubiquitous appetizer of charred Brussels sprouts is, at Water Street, drizzled with a refreshing aioli of dill and horseradish and laced with crunchy bits of pecorino Romano cheese. For dessert, the key-lime pie is a faithful take on the classic, but it nails that oft-elusive texture that makes for a truly great key-lime pie — custardy and firm, but still with a little jiggle to it.
Over the course of a meal, it’s easy to get lost in the food and forget to look out the restaurant’s big windows. Pretty much every seat in the house comes with a lovely view of the wide, tidal Sheepscot and the boats and birds flitting past. Outside, at low tide, when the muddy, briny river bottom is exposed, you can really smell where all that good seafood comes from.