Firing on All Cylinders
Fuel helps to ignite the nightlife and taste buds of Lewiston residents.
- By: Kathleen Fleury
Stepping into Fuel from the stony sidewalks of Lisbon Street, you feel as though you could be in Boston or New York. The posh design inside, with its prominent bar, red walls, and Parisian posters, immedi-ately conjures the ambiance of a big-city eatery, a sharp break from Lewiston's reputation as lacking the trendy bars and restaurants of nearby Portland.
Fuel - both the feel and the food - might just change that reputation.
In fact, fortified by Fuel's opening in the spring of 2007, downtown Lewiston has spawned a miniature restaurant row. Joining Fuel in the revival is Fish Bones, Da Vinci's, and Espo's, a cluster that is breathing life into a district previously devoid of it. For their part, Fuel owners Eric and Carrie Agren have revamped Lyceum Hall, a 25,000 square foot space built in 1871, into Lewiston's hottest culinary destination. "We really wanted to do something different for downtown," explains Eric Agren. But he is realistic about the limitations of his location. "We don't have Wall Street power lunches [in Lewiston]. That's okay. That's why we like it here . . . Fuel is urban, but not uncomfortable."
Part of the reason Fuel succeeds in being at once comfortable and cosmopolitan is the hip bar that greets guests upon arrival. It is the perfect place to perch for a glass of wine and an appetizer (you can have a full meal here, too). The international wine list is refreshingly eclectic, with lots of good choices by the glass and a staff that can make informed suggestions. And the cocktails are killer. The bartender comes up with a new concoction every weekend, so look for Lisbon Street Berry Lemonades or Chocolate Martinis floating by in large glasses.
But the food is what the patrons that fill the often-packed dining room come for (yes, you need a reservation on the weekends or expect to wait). Head chef Justin Oliver, who apprenticed at the legendary Portland restaurants Commissary and Bandol, presents basic but well-executed bistro offerings punctuated by some surprise dishes that add a bit of flair to what otherwise might be deemed a safe selection.
The menu is most daring - and successful - in the appetizer section, where the French classics of frog legs and escargot (which were introduced slowly for fear of scaring away potential guests) compete with the retro favorite, fondue. The house specialty of Fried Green Tomatoes showcases the menu's slight southern influence through juicy slices of meaty tomatoes encased in a light, tempura-like batter. Each bite, dipped in an underflavored aioli, produces an eruption of oily goodness. But the star of the first course is the saut`ed Maine shrimp with chorizo. The salty and smoky broth, tender shrimp, and chewy sausage represent a welcome replacement to the standard mussels that occupy bistro menus everywhere.
The entrees may not be particularly daring but they are particularly good. The coq au vin is traditional, presented in a small cast-iron skillet and filled with vegetables and fall-off-the-bone chicken swimming in a savory, intense sauce. The braised short ribs are accompanied by bright carrots and fingerling potatoes, and all the textures are spot on. Other mainstays include a daily pasta, duck confit, salmon, roasted organic chicken, and an assortment of steaks. A handful of fish and a daily vegetarian special round out the entree selection, which changes every two to three weeks. The entrees beg for guests to accessorize them with the handcut pommes frites or one of the silky, absolutely delicious, gratins.
Dessert is not the big draw here, but if you have a sweet tooth, the flavored crA¨me brA»l`e boasts a perfectly caramelized top and creamy inside. Homemade clafoutis towers over the other dessert offerings, and if the servers would announce it pre-dinner (it takes twenty-five minutes to make), it would no doubt be a favorite. (Service in general is an area in which Fuel has ample room for improvement.) Though the profiterole underwhelms, the homemade chocolate ice cream lost in the center is divine.
With the exception of the occasional southern delicacy (repeat: must order the fried green tomatoes), there is no question that Fuel is at its best with straight-forward, French bistro food. Before moving back to Maine, Agren lived in Chicago, a city renowned for its high-end restaurants. "I love Alinea, but it's only a once-a-year kind of place. It's expensive and exhaustive," he says. "French bistro is really the stuff I love. I'm surprised that we're the only French bistro in such a French-based community. We're French country done well."
For the more adventurous eater, Fuel offers a few options for degustation menus, unpretentiously called "Feed me, Justin." Consisting of impromptu meals designed around individual preferences, these tasting menus offer guests a truly unique dinner experience, one you are more likely to find in L.A. (Los Angeles) than L.A. (Lewiston-Auburn).
So Lewiston is lucky to finally have a dining destination like Fuel. But Fuel also is fortunate to have the support of Lewiston.
"The city really helped a lot getting me in touch with the right people. They were very receptive to growth," says Agren. "It has happened more than ten times, people thanking us not only for the food but for the investment downtown and for what we're trying to do. Taking people's money for food, you don't expect them to thank you."
Fuel is located at 49 Lisbon Street in Lewiston. Open 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Appetizers $4-$10; entrees $10-$25; desserts $5. Full bar. Handicap accessible. 207-333-3835. www.fuelmaine.com
- By: Kathleen Fleury