Chris Wilcox needs another restaurant.
I’m not trying to pressure chef/owner of Knightville’s Judy Gibson, a 30-seat restaurant in south Portland that opened just two weeks before the pandemic hit in Maine. I’m also not suggesting that his new moderately priced American restaurant has run its course – it was good enough for me to pick as my best new restaurant of 2021, and in many ways it’s better six months later. .
I offer Judy Gibson to feel like one half of a business pair, and without that extra context, diners sometimes have a hard time understanding it.
Friends have told me about recent spectacular meals at Judy Gibson’s, including one this week where neighbors visited and declared it “their new favorite restaurant,” as well as meals that left other friends “a bit confused that we ordered the wrong things. ”
Part of the problem is expectations. On Judy Gibson’s website, Wilcox describes the business as “a neighborhood restaurant,” and in many ways, it’s exactly that: cozy, off the beaten tourist path, and often empty enough for impromptu customers. can mark a table on the same level. Add a very smart server duo, and you have an awesome spot for a nose-tickling eucalyptus daiquiri ($13) and an appetizer of the best gnocchi I’ve ever had, washed down with a mint salsa verde, parsley, dill and horseradish and buried under a thin fuzzy blanket of parmesan shavings ($13).
The friendly, no-fuss vibe has been amplified over the past two years by Judy Gibson’s “pandemic pivot” to brined fried chicken in buttermilk and pickle juice. These birds sustained the restaurant through two harsh winters, then a transition period when Wilcox and his team of four offered fried chicken sandwiches sold exclusively at the bar. But the fried chicken was just a tasty stopgap.
Overall, Judy Gibson’s regular menu is neither comfort food nor the bistro-style dishes you might expect to find at a neighborhood restaurant. “I really love food. I’m very, very passionate about cooking and I read about it, learn new things and talk about it all the time,” Wilcox said. “I’m a pretty laid back person, but I like the juxtaposition of that with more experimentation. I have notebooks full of random ideas. I always try to make delicious food, but I also like to take risks.
Indeed, to hear Wilcox describe it, Judy Gibson’s overriding goal is, and always has been, to build a culinary lab where he and his sous-chef can play.
Chief among the restaurant’s experimental appliances is an expansive pantry that Wilcox has installed over the past two years – an apothecary of pickled and dried ingredients that allow him to combine seasonal foods with out-of-sync companion ingredients.
Take the grilled asparagus starter ($13) which I have tasted in two different formats on two recent visits. Both dishes featured tender, charcoal-marked spears; whipped hazelnut tahini and homemade quinoa chips for a Pringles-like crunch. The only difference between the two preparations was the choice of sauce. On my first visit, an umami salvo of aged Wilcox XO sauce concocted from crabs he almost had to throw away when he was forced to shut down Judy Gibson two years ago. I loved its sustained salty notes, but my guest found the dish difficult. On my second visit, another hand made pantry sauce, this time a black garlic chilli crisp which took the dish to a brighter and tangier place. This time my guest and I were thrilled.
Almost every dish I tasted incorporated something from Wilcox’s cache of preserved ingredients. In Anson Mills’ oatmeal nest brimming with candied maitake mushrooms and house-smoked American unagi ($14), it was pickled chilies; on the superb pan-fried pork shoulder with hakurei turnips and mustard greens ($33), a lacto-fermented celery, kohlrabi and green tomato chutney salvaged from last summer’s surplus.
As I chatted with Wilcox on the phone and heard him describe the renovation of the old Teriyaki Exchange space from the sub-floor to the butcher block workstation, I tried to figure out where in the mostly open kitchen , he kept his warehouse of ingredients. By using the square room in the back for a dishwasher instead of a cooking space, “I probably have 10 times more counter space, storage and work space than if I had closed this area,” he told me.
I also kept trying to figure out what the encyclopedic pantry of preserved ingredients and open kitchen reminded me of, until Wilcox mentioned his recent run as head chef at Eventide. Then it hit me: Judy Gibson is a kissing cousin of Eventide’s (still closed) brother, Hugo. “Of course I can see it,” Wilcox said when I brought up the comparison. “Of course, I don’t want people to think what we’re doing is too fancy. You can come in and have a drink at the bar, just walk in, without a reservation. But yes, I see how you would say that.
Hugo’s is no more a neighborhood restaurant than Judy Gibson. If Wilcox were cooking at a more expensive and more explicitly upscale venue, something like the now-closed Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick where he served as executive chef, we’d be celebrating his creative embrace of seasonality and ingenuity from the nose to tail. But after two years of takeout, I’m afraid we’ve come to expect comfort food from one of the most ambitious chefs in the state.
Wilcox revisits comfort foods, but not without a conceptual tweak or two. Its “hash brown” appetizer, for example, is actually beef tartare ($15). Wilcox confits shredded potatoes in beef tallow, shapes and fried blocks of indulgent hash browns, then tops the squares with smoked tuna mayonnaise, diced raw Farmer’s Gate beef and a dusting of powder of acid green dried ramp. It’s an absolutely stunning dish, especially when paired with a glass of Voštinić Klasnić Škrlet Dalmatian Coast pucky and peach white wine ($12).
I encountered minor oscillations in Judy Gibson, although infrequent. I devoured my BBQ Grilled Swordfish Entree ($33) and poured every drop of tamarind and pie sauce, but struggled to snag the grilled scallions on my fork. Although I enjoyed their smoky flavor, eating soft scallions was like trying to untangle a wet wig.
On my first visit, my pork tenderloin schnitzel ($33) was fried a bit too long in the mixture of lard, garlic oil and clarified butter, which left me wondering how much color came from the cooking and how much of the black, Nice olive breadcrumb garnish. Thirty seconds from glory…
But when the dishes deliver what they promise, like virtually all of Wilcox, they can be phenomenal. Check out the tuna crudo appetizer ($16) if you want proof. It’s almost always on the menu (in a modified format) and it’s the only reason to visit Judy Gibson. Here, sushi-grade tuna is sliced sashimi-style and glazed with honey, verjuice and strawberry umeboshi (salt-marinated Maine berries set aside at the height of the 2021 season) . Wilcox sets the fish on a dollop of homemade mayonnaise and adds a dollop of fried hazelnut amaranth seasoned with preserved stems of last season’s lowbush blueberries. The sensation of tiny toasted kernels bursting between my teeth was a delight unlike any I’ve ever experienced. Certainly not in a neighborhood bistro.
Which brings me back to Judy Gibson’s very premise. In almost every way, it feels like a sister restaurant to a fine-dining business, designed to offer a more casual, less expensive take on the upscale sibling experience – much like David’s Opus Ten has David’s 388 (and David’s) , Chicago’s Alinea had Roister and Montreal’s Le Mousso had (the superior) Le Petit Mousso.
For now, Judy Gibson remains an only child. If we’re going to keep it in business long enough to spawn a sibling (and we absolutely do), we should start treating it better: less like a neighborhood gastropub and more like the remarkably affordable culinary gem that it is.
WHERE: 171A Ocean St., South Portland. 207-808-8649 judygibsonrestaurant.com
PORTION: Thursday to Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (approximately)
PRICE SCALE: Appetizers: $12-18. Appetizers: $30-34
NOISE LEVEL: Picnic in a city park
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
GLUTEN FREE: Some dishes
RESERVATIONS: Recommended, but walk-ins are welcome
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: Judy Gibson’s first rule is that you have to start telling absolutely everyone about Judy Gibson. Let your friends know that chef/owner Chris Wilcox (Eventide, Velveteen Habit) is no longer serving his legendary pandemic fried chicken, and that’s a good thing. Instead, he makes excellent use of an encyclopedic pantry of local ingredients curated on-site, adding a helping of pickled blueberry stalks to his extraordinary tuna crudo, sprinkling dried ramp powder over a rich hash brown beef tartare… you get the idea. World-class gnocchi are a must, as is the restaurant’s only dessert – a coffee pudding ($8) enhanced with chocolate cookie streusel and caramel chai, the brainchild of patisserie manager Meghan Wilcox. at nearby Scratch Baking and, not coincidentally, the chef’s wife. The cocktails are creative and the wine list is short but well chosen, each bottle being offered by the glass. It’s rare to find an ambitious restaurant at this moderate price, let alone one with staff as knowledgeable as Judy Gibson’s. So what are you waiting for?
Ratings follow this scale and consider food, ambience, service, value and type of restaurant (casual bistro will be judged as casual bistro, expensive upscale restaurant as such) : * Poor ** Fair *** Good **** Excellent ***** Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the examiner returns for a second. The reviewer goes out of his way to dine anonymously.
Andrew Ross has written about food and restaurants in New York and the UK. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He recently received five Critics’ Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
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