View of Congress Square evolves for groundbreaking Portland chef
PORTLAND — Change is coming soon to Congress Square Plaza, and not just in the form of a renovated hotel or a controversial "event center."
Vinland, a 39-seat restaurant serving locally sourced food, is scheduled to open in early fall at 593 Congress St., on the eastern edge of the plaza.
Since spring, the plaza has been ground zero in a bitter debate over a proposal to add meeting space to the neighboring Eastland Park Hotel, which is now under renovation and scheduled to reopen as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel in December.
The proposal calls for selling 9,400 square feet of the city-owned plaza – about two-thirds of the space – to the hotel owners, RockBridge Capital LLC and New Castle Hotels & Resorts. In May, a City Council committee voted to open negotiations for the sale.
While negotiations continue, chef David Levi is quietly working to transform the plaza with what he says will be the country's first restaurant to serve 100 percent locally sourced, organic food. Relying on a lot of DIY work and a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign, he's now renovating the former sandwich shop into what he said will be a "gorgeous, open space for fine food."
"This is not just a restaurant, not just a job," Levi said Monday. "This is about building the local economy, doing more for our land, and creating a truly Maine cuisine. Vinland is totally mission-driven."
The locavore trend is nothing new, especially in foodie destinations such as Portland. But Levi is taking "local" to the extreme.
Vinland will shun cooking staples such as olive oil, cane sugar, lemon and pepper, because they aren't produced locally. The restaurant's vegetables will be grown on nearby farms. The only salt used will be sea salt, harvested along the Maine coast.
"By being 100 percent local, we can honestly say that every dollar we spend on food is supporting our neighbors, whether they're small organic farmers, fishermen or foragers," Levi said. "This is what Vinland can do to help."
When it comes to beverages, however, Levi said his restaurant has to be more flexible. Diners expect coffee and tea, which both require plants that can't be grown in the Northeast. And few wines are produced locally.
"There's a line between (the locally produced) form we want and being in a straitjacket," Levi said. "And I don't want people to feel as if going to Vinland is like doing penance."
Beverage exceptions aside, Levi said his menu will use creative alternatives to ingredients that can't be found in Maine. Instead of lemon, he'll use rhubarb or a condensed yogurt whey; each provides the acidic "zing" of lemon. Instead of wheat flour, he'll use parsnip flour.
"Time after time, the foods I'm most excited about are born out of the need to find another path, a way around using the ingredients that aren't available to me," he said.
Levi is a West End resident and a former high school teacher who changed careers a few years ago after serving as an apprentice with leading chefs in Denmark, Sweden, Italy and New York City. That openness to change will be evident in his menu.
While always local, "the menu will be changing all the time," he said. "I never get attached to a particular dish. I'm more interested in what are the elements that make up a satisfying meal."
Another change Levi may consider is the addition of outdoor seating. And that's a change the Westin hotel developers have already envisioned. In fact, architectural sketches of the plaza shown in May depicted sidewalk tables outside the restaurant, in space that will remain public even if the plaza sale is completed.
Levi said he was originally skeptical about the sale of the public space, but now he's cautiously optimistic.
"I don't see any use in romanticizing Congress Square Plaza," he said. "Transforming the space into one that is more inviting to a broader cross-section of the city has enormous value."
However, he said he and other neighboring business owners want the city to take a look at the overall design of Congress Square.
"If we're not doing a broader redesign of the square, if we're just losing public space, then I can't support this," he said.