Blue Spoon, Portland
Standing on the crest of Munjoy Hill, in Portland's East End, you can see clear down Congress Street to Casco Bay. The water shimmers on the brightest of sunny days, just over a crest of green that makes up the park surrounding the Eastern Promenade. By any city's comparison, this is quaint. This particular section of Congress - typically one of the busiest thoroughfares in the state's most populous municipality - gets more placid as you walk down it, toward the water, toward the blue.
When choosing where to place a potential restaurant, most owners shy away from the quaint. They look for foot traffic, parking availability, exposure; that's why rents along the waterfront on Commercial Street are so outrageously high. Or they seek out the next up and coming neighborhood, and hope that the severe quiet, so deadly to many food businesses, goes away soon. Most like to shove themselves into the limelight. David Iovino doesn't.
"I love this neighborhood, and I love my location," he says, speaking of the tiny building in which his restaurant, Blue Spoon, resides on this section of Congress, "but if I could have, I would have gone down one of the side streets." On paper, it seems like the exact wrong way to start a restaurant, and well-intentioned friends have tried to remind him of that. But those experts might not be able to quite explain one fact: Blue Spoon has been Portland's most buzzed-about new restaurant with a clientele that ranges across the board, from the young and penurious to the old and well-heeled.
The variance in Blue Spoon's target demographic is a result of another seemingly backwards business move, borne out of the owner's own experience as a diner. Keep it simple, keep it flavorful, keep the prices down. "I wanted a place where people like me, who don't have a ton of money, could go out, have a good meal, and not drop a ton of cash," Iovino explains. And he won't hear of drastically raising his prices (around $15 for an entree). "If I want to run myself out of business, then that's my fault," he says. "But we've been open a year and a half, and so far, so good."
So far, so very good.
Some will be tempted to think that Iovino's neighborhood-centric attitude and concern for his patrons' checking accounts comes from a traditional New England frugality and sense of fairness. Well, they'd be wrong there, too. The chef grew up and cut his teeth in the tri-state area, living in New Jersey and attending the world-class French Culinary Institute in downtown New York City. From school, Iovino found a place on the line at SoHo's Savoy, a popular New York restaurant specializing in top quality ingredients prepared simply with a Mediterranean flair. He parleyed his internship into a full-time position and ended up staying there for a three-year stretch, after which he began to tire of city life. In October of 2000, instead of taking a vacation or changing jobs to alter his environment, he did what more and more talented young chefs are doing these days: "I sort of moved up here. On a whim."
Not knowing anything about the food scene in Portland, or anyone living there (except his trusting partner, who joined him in the snow and ice the following February), he landed his first cook's position at the doomed Commissary in the Portland Public Market. For Iovino, the experience left a lot to be desired, and he took his second position at the exceedingly popular art gallery-restaurant, Local 188. It was just what he had been looking for and fulfilled some of the joy he found in cooking in the first place. "Everyone there had an outside interest, most of them creative," he says. "You could use your brain in a lot of different ways."
From Local 188, he moved on to the Pepper Club, one of Portland's few restaurants that emphasize vegetarian and vegan cuisine. From all of this traveling, Iovino was starting to get a feel for the city's culinary landscape, and he began to pinpoint the neighborhoods where he could open his own restaurant. He quickly zeroed in on Munjoy Hill because of its intimate feel. It matched his developing image of a small, personal, affordable restaurant. The first location he looked at was a mess of a place, a corner building with an apartment above it. After his broker showed him a second location, a few doors down and even worse, he made his way back to the corner.
It didn't look so bad the second time around.
in February of 2003, Iovino and his companion closed on the corner building at 89 Congress Street. Securing license and permits lasted all the way into the summer, and renovations to the building took until November. When it came to figuring a name for his first restaurant, he wanted to choose something ambiguous. "I didn't want to name it anything with restaurant, or café, so I just chose Spoon," he admits. But there was a problem. Renowned chef (and French Culinary Institute faculty member) Andre Soltner owns restaurants of that name in Europe. Practical and simple as always, Iovino tacked on a colorful adjective in front of the utensil, and Blue Spoon was born. The couple took a break, enjoyed some of the last quiet holidays they might experience for a while, and opened their doors for business in January of 2004.
Iovino wanted a neighborhood restaurant, and a neighborhood restaurant he got. Before the doors opened, he led the kind of grassroots, word-of-mouth marketing campaign that only still works in the smallest of areas, or for the smallest of restaurants who want to keep it that way. The many friends he had made in his years in the city told their friends, the construction workers that renovated the dining room and kitchen told their families, and interested passersby dropped in to ask what was going on. Even with its sudden popularity, Iovino knows that his friends keep finding tables at his restaurant. "Most nights, we know at least a third of the people that are in here," he says.
In his quest to create a localized restaurant, Iovino has hit a nerve with his honest prices. But without honest food, the prices would not matter - you can't put slop on a plate and expect foodies to flock to it, no matter how cheap it is. Dishes like his roast chicken with Kalmata goat cheese, served over sage faro and seared escarole are indicative of what he's trying to accomplish. It's made up of nothing more than those ingredients - the goat cheese is a beautiful, almost unnatural shade of purple - but each portion is cooked and seasoned so that you'd swear he had some secret technique. It's no secret, just the spoils of passion and good training, but even so, Iovino realizes that serving simple food is a dangerous thing. "We're really borderline," he admits. "I think we could be a plain, blasé restaurant, but we've got a lot of character."
still, it's Iovino's passion that leads him to this type of food and, as with his price points, he's not conceding. "If a plate could have just three ingredients, a starch, a vegetable, and a meat, then that's fine with me," he insists. "That's what I cook for myself, and that's what I want to put out." The grilled tuna, cooked a beautiful medium rare and served with seasoned jasmine rice, seared greens with lemon and tzatziki, follows through with his philosophy. The Mediterranean influence from his training at Savoy is present, and his dedication to offering more than a few vegetarian and vegan options - so key to the success of the Pepper Club - have attracted a crowd with diverse tastes. The lamb pitas, spiced ground lamb rolled in phylo, and the salad, a mix of organic mesculin greens with Fuji apple, red onion, and toasted almonds, are delicious examples of the former and the latter, respectively.
"I just try and cook things that interest me," Iovino says. "If I didn't need the restaurant to make money, I would just have the kitchen as a studio." He believes the cooks that belong with him show passion, regardless of experience. "We'd come in every day, and make stuff that everyone likes." It's precisely that family atmosphere that comes naturally to him, so carefully crafted at Blue Spoon through the location he chose, the food he serves, and the people he hires, that shines through to the paying customer. There's the elusive value that has attracted his loyal regulars, the fact that he has remained honest with himself, his vision, and his customers.
So while his restaurant sits near the crest of the city's most famous street, its owner sees himself on a different side of another slope. "I still feel like I'm on the bottom of the learning curve," he says, "and that there's still so much out there." That's true, but David Iovino has what many restaurant owners covet: trust from his customers. And they'll move up that learning curve to the top of Munjoy Hill right along with him.
Blue Spoon is open Monday through Saturday for brunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. on Saturday), and Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. 89 Congress Street, Portland. 207-773-1116.