The Maine Idea

Taking the farm-to-table ethos to an extreme, the groundbreaking Portland restaurant Vinland remains entirely locally sourced—even in the dead of winter.

photograph by greta rybus

chef David Levi of Vinland: photograph by greta rybus

In Portland, farm-to-table restaurants with eat-local missions are more common than a pair of Bean Boots. So perhaps it was inevitable that our neighbors to the north would push the concept even further. Chef David Levi’s passion project, Vinland, which turns one this month, features 100 percent locally sourced ingredients—which means that citrus, black pepper, and olive oil are all banned. With the exception of wine and coffee, everything used at Vinland comes from Maine.

Levi’s bona fides include a two-month internship at Noma (the Copenhagen restaurant that popularized the hyperlocal movement), and a master’s degree in poetry from Bennington College. Surprisingly, it’s the latter that Levi claims has informed his menu the most. Comparing his radical agenda to poetry, he says, “Form is at the heart of art.” Such erudition is on further display on Vinland’s website, where you’ll find a 1,500-word mission statement peppered with quotes from poet Wendell Berry and sentiments such as “It is time for us to reclaim the dignity, beauty, and sustainability of real food, our birthright, and a blessing to our children.”

It all sounds very, well, academic. But if you skipped the manifesto and tucked straight into Levi’s signature Hakurei turnip soup with onions, yogurt, and a beautiful array of herbs, you’d be none the wiser—at Vinland, Levi’s aim is to create dishes that stand on their own merits.

And yet, as many a New England chef knows, winter is the one time when calling in produce from afar is deemed acceptable. So how does Levi stick to his plan during the harshest season? By dovetailing a fairly standard fine-dining playbook (strip steak with poached parsnips, crispy chicken with lovage) with more-exotic ideas (fermented-buckwheat bread sticks may start a meal; radicchio might appear in a cocktail). Creative workarounds replace pantry staples: Yogurt whey and apple vinegar make fine substitutes for the acid in lemon juice; maple syrup and honey are used in lieu of sugar; and the clarified butter known as ghee takes the place of olive oil. There is, Levi acknowledges, no good substitute for black pepper—so if he thinks a dish needs it, he’ll scrap it altogether.

Levi also does plenty of prep before the winter sets in. He installed a cellar to extend the shelf life of produce (last year, the restaurant ran out of onions); sprouts baby beet greens in Vinland’s window; and brightens winter braises with pickled and fermented vegetables. Seafood like scallops and monkfish, meanwhile, fills in the gaps in the menu. That said, Levi doesn’t have much to say about lobster—but he does proclaim, rather proudly, that Maine “may well have the world’s best seaweed.”

photograph by greta rybus

Levi’s signature turnip soup, accented by a bright slash of beet powder; photograph by greta rybus

While You’re in Portland

Don’t miss this new crop of restaurants and bars.

Tandem Coffee and Bakery: Few things can compare to the apple-and-feta scone at the newest venture from this boutique coffee roaster.

Bao Bao Dumpling House: Chef Cara Stadler offers Asian small plates—kung-pao-chicken dumplings, smashed cucumber salad—in a casual setting.

The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box: Creative flourishes (pine-needle-infused absinthe, chamomile syrup) add a twist to the cocktails at this new bar.