Maine’s Most Radical Restaurant is Serving Wild Blueberries and Seaweed for Dessert
Second only to San Francisco in number of restaurants per capita, it takes courage today to open a restaurant in Portland, Maine. Not only did David Scott Levi open one in 2013, he made a philosophical pledge that had never been tried anywhere in America. His restaurant, Vinland, is the first restaurant in the United States to serve 100% local, organic and gluten-free food.
Fast forward to July 2015. Vinland is a thriving, outrageously inventive restaurant that has been applauded by chefs up and down the east coast, and praised in prestigious magazines and newspapers. David was even invited to New York City last January to prepare a dinner at the Beard House, former residence of the famed cookbook author. Levi’s name, his restaurant, and his ardent philosophy, are gaining traction.
On a recent evening, I was invited to dine at Vineland for the first time with two special friends. We chose the tasting menu, which allows one to order five small plates. Because all of us are slightly obsessed with sea vegetables, we ordered every plate on the menu that featured seaweed, and there were a few! When it came time for dessert, we ordered the Panna Cotta and when it arrived I was simply amazed: seaweed Panna Cotta topped with Wild Blueberries! Wow! The dish was not only beautiful; it had depth, complexity, a smooth texture, and color!
The following morning I called David and asked if I could interview him about his dessert and his choice of Wild Blueberries. With a soft-spoken and very polite demeanor, here is what he told me.
What inspired you to create this interesting dessert?
Well, I’ve wanted to create a seaweed dessert for a long time, and then one day I had this epiphany. We had this seaweed variety called Irish Moss on hand and I finally had an idea for how to use it.
Why did you choose Wild Blueberries?
Wild Blueberries are pretty much the best fruit out there. I was in the Yucatan in Mexico last winter and I had the chance to taste a freshly picked Papaya and it was delicious, but if I had the choice, I would pick Wild Blueberries over any fruit.
What attributes does the seaweed add?
The kombu has a strong flavor which defines the dish. The Irish Moss adds only a small amount of flavor to the dish, but it is high in carageenan, a thickening agent. At Vinland, we order our seaweed from Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed Company in Penobscot Bay.
What makes Wild Blueberries so special in your mind?
They are just a wonderful fruit, and I find the frozen ones to be as delicious as the fresh ones.
Does your local food philosophy limit what you can use for ingredients?
No. We are not Luddites here at Vinland; and I cannot be put into a straightjacket in terms of ingredients. We keep a reasonable level of variety in our pantry. We use cold storage, fermentation, dehydration and freezing. The traditional means of food preservation are closer to my heart, but we use modern tools here and it would be silly to pretend that we don’t.
Are you averse to using frozen foods in your restaurant?
No, since the fresh Wild Blueberries are available only a few weeks of the year, we are open to using the frozen ones. From a chef’s perspective, I do not find the frozen ones to be inferior at all.
What other attributes do you like?
With their high levels of antioxidants, they are just a great local fruit. And since, I prefer fruits with a lower glycemic index, Wild Blueberries just feel better to my body. They are also aligned with my aesthetic – I like the way they look.
What recipes have you created at Vinland using Wild Blueberries?
We’ve made Wild Blueberry Ice Cream; Wild Blueberry Buckwheat Pancakes; Wild Blueberry Compote; and a Wild Blueberry Gastrique, served over Pork Belly (a Gastrique is a thick sauce produced by a reduction of vinegar or wine, sugar, and usually fruit.)
David’s staff was busy preparing dinner for the evening ahead, so we kept our conversation short, but he was kind enough to hand-write his recipe for the Panna Cotta. If you ever get the chance, stop by Vinland in Portland. You won’t be disappointed.