There’s a spare elegance about Vinland that is similar to the restaurant’s owner and chef, David Levi. He’s soft-spoken, unhurried, and he thoughtfully chooses his words as he explains his principles and philosophy. He believes strongly in local food that nourishes the body and soul. That food should be harvested mindfully, respecting the interconnectedness of nature and the animals that gave their lives. But for all the talk of his mission and form, Levi also gets to the point. “When it comes right down to it, the key is to make food that’s delicious,” he says.
“I will only serve food here that I feel good about eating,” Levi explains. “Every element of my life has contributed to what Vinland is.” He grew up in a home where there was plenty of exposure to real food. His mother kept a garden and passed on to him an appreciation for nature. His father’s family was from northern Italy, where food is practically a religion and there’s no shortage of strong opinions regarding it. His home was filled with the Italian staples that are the foundation for good food—olive oil, pasta, and cheese.
Levi attended college and graduate school in northern New England, where he received his master’s degree in poetry. Later, Levi worked as a teacher in New York and in restaurants, juggling both until finally cooking won out. “A restaurant is a wonderful place to learn. I meet people where they are, when they’re open and interested. Knowledge enriches the experience,” he says. Levi is not preaching. “We offer good food plus philosophy is available, if you want it.”
The practice of eating seasonally and locally is not unique, but Vinland takes the discipline to another level. Everything served is from Maine (or New England) and is organic and gluten-free. You will find no cane sugar, olive oil, citrus fruits, or chocolate. There are a few black walnuts foraged locally, but no other nuts. What you will find is an imaginative use of the items that are readily available in season. Of course, summer is easy. “The winter months require more planning and a willingness to stock up on critical items,” Levi says. “We’re forward-thinking about root vegetables, using them in unusual ways.” Parsnips, for instance, are used with oats to bake up a gluten-free brown bread served with mussels. They’re also called upon for dessert in an egg-yolk-rich custard that also contains local turmeric root and is lightly sweetened with maple sugar.
Levi offers a beautifully plated lobster tail on a creamy, tangy emulsion of matsutake mushrooms blended with ghee, whey, and egg yolk accented with fried nori. The whey, a by-product of yogurt making, brings an acidity to the dish that would usually be accomplished with lemon. This type of creativity is evident in every dish. “All year we have amazing seafood, meats, and dairy. In fact, I think we get the sweetest seafood in the winter,” he says. Levi presents a shallow earthenware bowl of grilled radicchio with shredded potato and melted aged raw milk Buggy Whip cheddar from Sonnental Farm in Smyrna. Radicchio is quite bitter, a flavor profile that many fear they won’t enjoy, but when it’s baked with mild potato and sharp cheese, the flavor is well balanced and it makes a hearty fall dish. “This is the perfect Vinland dish, demonstrating how we take an ingredient in an unexpected direction,” says Levi.
Bartender Timm Bielec chooses a wine for me that pairs well with the radicchio dish, Meinklang from Austria, a refreshing blend of Grüner Veltliner, Welschreisling, and Muscat. Like all the wines at Vinland, it’s natural and organic, meaning wild fermented and unfiltered. The wine list is heavy on small European wineries whose philosophies and passions are similar to Vinland’s. Bielec crafts liquers, tinctures, and bitters from local produce for use in the creative cocktails. Local ciders include Portersfield from Pownal made from heirloom apples infused with high antioxidant aronia and elderberries.
Also a major part of Levi’s mission is responsible care for the land and natural world. It’s interesting and somewhat astonishing to hear that the restaurant produces just a single bag of trash each month. Everything else is recycled or composted. “I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved,” says Levi. “You are what you eat, and I want to be of this place.”
Vinland | 593 Congress St. | Portland | 207.653.8617 | vinland.me