When larger-than-life restaurant critic (and erotic novelist) Gael Greene passed away earlier this month, I realized I’d been mentally replaying something she said to me 17 years ago, on the one and only time we spoke. She and I were invited to a book launch for a mutual acquaintance, and as the only two early arrivals, we chatted over passed hors d’oeuvres and memorably terrible wine. Presented with a once-in-a-lifetime chance, I asked for her best advice for a new reviewer, and she answered without hesitating: “Evaluate what the restaurant is, not what you wish it were,” she said. “Promise me that.”
Easier said than done. Visiting a restaurant is often an exploration of its potential – how its spaces, tastes, smells and experiences might meet your needs (or, as Gael might have acknowledged, your desires). Unless you’re a tourist, a meal can also represent an opportunity to extrapolate to future visits. You ask, “Will it always be like this, or is this visit a fluke?” “Should I come back?” “Whom should I bring along?”
Generally, if I go off-script and incorporate wishful thinking into a review, it works out well for the restaurant. Sometimes, I’ll pick up on a whisper of intention and refuse to ding a chef for trying something daring, even if it’s not successful. Or with design, I’ll make room for the idea that a floor-to-ceiling renovation isn’t in every restaurant’s opening budget.
When I think about Portland’s Broken Arrow, a new-ish Modern American restaurant that has fought to adapt itself during its pandemic-era launch phase, I just can’t help myself. I see two businesses: the one that exists now and the one that it could easily become.
Right now, co-owners Holly and Lyle Aker’s bustling Arts District restaurant is pretty terrific – hence its rating of four out of five stars. Most of that success derives from executive chef Josh Worrey’s brief, seasonal and frequently updated menu.
You’ll find comforting dishes here – small plates like savory-sweet, Ottolenghi-ish roasted carrots with flat-leaf parsley, tahini and freshly plucked mint leaves ($12), or a larger-format plate of short rib ($34), where accompaniments like yellow-eye beans from Green Thumb Farm in Fryeburg and cracklingly spicy collards from Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham steal the show from the very respectable, slow-braised beef. Or golden smashed potatoes nestled up against a mottled dollop of aioli seasoned with charred scallions and yellow onions.
“When I first tasted that, it was like a ‘fat kid’ surprise to me,” Lyle Aker said. “It reminds me of Monday Night Football with my dad, eating ruffled potato chips and dip made with that French onion soup mix.”
I don’t know about how it pairs with football, but I do know the dish is a sturdy foil for the equally robust Ember cocktail of green Chartreuse, mezcal, Strega, chili pepper and lime ($15). And don’t forget dessert, where Worrey and his team offer tender, maple-drenched baked apples with an extremely buttery (perhaps too buttery) bread pudding ($10).
Alongside hearty offerings, there’s a thread of sophisticated plates that are good enough to land a spot on a fine-dining menu: tiny white anchovies bathed in lemon and Aleppo pepper ($8), as well as Maine bluefin tuna crudo sliced like a sharp-edged stack of dominoes and dotted with a tricked-out aioli seasoned to taste exactly like deviled eggs ($22). Yes, including the paprika. It’s a pricey dish, but absolutely worth the cost.
One of chef de cuisine Tom Bicskei’s contributions to the menu has even found its way into my own kitchen, by way of local tomatoes and sherry vinegar steeped to create a “salsa” that delivers a gorgeous kick of acid to creamy sweet-corn risotto. It’s a genius move that I’ve already used twice in the two weeks since my last visit to Broken Arrow. “For days after he came up with that dish, he was running around singing, ‘Sherry vinegar and tomatoes belong together forever!’” general manager Jessie Robb said. I’ll cosign that.
The trio of Robb and the Akers (which sounds like a great band name) do an admirable job of running the front-of-house (indoors and out), as well as the bar. When my dinner guest ordered a nonalcoholic cocktail, our server happily obliged, inquiring about my guest’s preferences and gamely agreeing to ask the bartender to give the drink a name. This produced the Captain EuroJournal ($7), made with ginger, basil, thyme, marjoram syrup and maybe a touch too little pineapple juice. Servers also do an excellent job of explaining components of dishes and recommending wines to match with them.
With so many elements in place that are working well, why the concern about Broken Arrow’s future, you might ask? In part, it’s the atmosphere, which reads as frontier-style, with gray (nearly black) paneling; a high-gloss, dark-stained wood bar; and taxidermy creatures mounted throughout. The space looks like it could be an Americana-themed watering hole in Denver or Boise. While I genuinely don’t dislike the interior design of the space, I worry that it’s not special enough to act as a point-of-differentiation for the restaurant, especially as it’s tricky to see much of it, with lights often sputtering at their dimmest setting.
“A friend came in and said he feels like he’s in a gothic Western when he’s in here, and I totally dig that,” Lyle Aker said. “If we came out with a country album, we’d probably release it at Broken Arrow.”
Indeed, on a busy night, it can sound very much like someone is celebrating an album release, spinning music at top volume so that hearing your fellow diners becomes almost as difficult as seeing them.
Turning up the lights and turning down the music are very easy solutions to these minor problems. More concerning is Broken Arrow’s identity. When I asked Robb and the Akers to describe the place to someone who had never been, they talked about local produce and Portland more than they did about Broken Arrow itself. I’m still not certain I could characterize the restaurant (or even the menu) in a few sentences.
Considering how often the restaurant has had to shift focus since it opened in 2020 – first operating on a ticketed, prix-fixe basis; then shifting to takeout before reverting to its current a-la-carte status – it’s understandable that it’s taking some time for the business to develop a personality of its own. But right now, it’s hard to pinpoint what the restaurant is (and what it wants to be). And with vicious competition in every direction, that could become a problem.
In the long run, Broken Arrow needs more than its first-rate cooking to buoy it, especially if (heaven forbid) the back-of-house team parts ways with the restaurant. I’d love to see more local cheese on the menu, especially considering that co-owner Holly Aker is the president of the Maine Cheese Guild. Cheese pairs well with dusky wood, strong cocktails and taxidermy, right?
For now, I’m doing as Gael Greene instructed: I’m evaluating the restaurant for what it is. If I can’t help daydream about what it could be, it’s because I would love to keep Broken Arrow around for years to come.
WHERE: 545 Congress St., Portland. 207-808-8938. brokenarrowmaine.com
SERVING: Tuesday to Saturday 5-9 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Small plates: $8-$24. Larger plates: $21-$40
NOISE LEVEL: Jetport flight path
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: It might not have a strong personality to differentiate it from its competition just yet, but don’t neglect Portland’s Broken Arrow. This dimly lighted, “gothic Western”-styled restaurant offers generous, well-composed cocktails and an eclectic wine list with several sub-$50 bottles to go with chef Josh Worrey’s appealing menu. The frequently updated menu showcases local ingredients and strikes a harmonious balance between comforting dishes like charred-allium smashed potatoes, roasted carrots with tahini, and polenta with wild-boar ragu (echoing the taxidermized boar that glowers bucktoothed over the bar), as well as more refined plates like a memorable tuna crudo with “deviled egg” aioli and sweet corn risotto topped with a quick-pickle-like local tomato salsa that is one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. The dining room is loud and dark, but excellent food and welcoming service make the tradeoff worthwhile.
Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):
The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.
Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in EuroJournal. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]