The Fiddlehead Restaurant
The Fiddlehead Restaurant is comfortable and casual like your best friend’s home would be. The expression “we’re just like family here” doesn’t have much meaning anymore, but if you’re a regular at the Fiddlehead, it seems to actually be true. There are many regulars, who feel well taken care of and consider the Fiddlehead “their restaurant.” Ceiling fans spin lazily above a dining room that’s all worn wood, exposed brick, and simple white walls with a pop of apple green trim. A chalkboard above the bar poses a question: “In New England what is the legal limit of lobster one can catch at night with a flashlight?” Hanging lanterns, rustic leather seats, and some original art make the atmosphere funky and fashionable. Sunlight pours in from the large windows and lights up a corner banquette piled with pillows. “We like people to come in, sit, stay, and enjoy,” says co-owner Laura Peppard.
Peppard is petite, energetic, and pregnant with her first child, due in December. She bustles around the restaurant in a short dress and cowboy boots, wiping tables and setting out napkin rolls and water glasses. She and chef Mel Chaiken have owned the Fiddlehead for six years as equal partners. Chaiken grew up in Tokyo, where her mother taught her that simplicity, in any type of cuisine, creates the best food. She spent her summers in Malaysia, where she hung out in the kitchen watching her aunt cook Southeast Asian specialties. Chaiken found her way to Maine in 1998 to attend Colby College, but after graduation realized what she really wanted was a culinary career. Jobs on Mount Desert Island, including Northeast Harbor’s Asticou Inn, gave her a firm foundation in the kitchen and a strong work ethic. The intriguing menu at the Fiddlehead reflects all her previous experiences, “from the Far East to downeast,” as she likes to say.
The first course of silken tofu is a cool and soft surprise, with an oyster-like quality. It’s served in a pool of ginger-scallion sauce with chili oil and topped with hijiki (sea vegetable) and furikake, a Japanese spice mixture. It’s a little salty, a little spicy, and very refreshing. Chaiken said the idea for this dish came from a sous chef who is a vegan. “Mel is a very humble individual,” says Peppard. ”She’s happy to get ideas from everyone on staff.” Salad ideas are often a group effort changing seasonally with the availability of local produce. On this visit, Chaiken has created a crisp mix of thinly sliced raw kohlrabi, fennel, tiny mandarin oranges, and smoked scallops from Ducktrap River of Maine.
Then Chaiken brings out a beautifully seared piece of pork belly. It’s seasoned with a Chinese barbecue dry rub called char siu. The meat is well cooked, pulling apart easily, with just a thin layer of tasty fat. The sweetness of a Fuji apple and turnip chutney served alongside is a perfect complement to the meat. Sesame oil-braised potatoes are fork-tender and flavorful, benefitting from a quick sear in a hot pan. This is a dish for meat-and-potatoes lovers who are looking for something a little more innovative. In fact, the entire menu is intriguing and enticing, full of dishes you won’t see elsewhere.
Much of the produce at the Fiddlehead comes directly from Peppard’s own home, where her husband Aaron farms just under an acre on their property, plus two large greenhouses, providing the restaurant with everything from greens to cantaloupe. He also keeps bees for honey and chicken for eggs. Aaron is so enthusiastic about this farm-to-table arrangement that he transformed a spare bedroom into a grow room last winter, hoping to get a jump on the season. His wife laughs after telling this story. “I hope to get it back for the baby’s room this year,” she says.
In Bangor, the restaurant community is cooperative and neighborly, its members helping each other out when necessary. “It’s an easy place to do business, more like a small town than a city. Everyone actually likes everyone else,” says Peppard. “When it’s time to renew our liquor license, someone from City Hall will call and remind me.” It is just like family and, in some cases, it really is family—Peppard’s brother owns Giacomo’s, a popular restaurant down the street.
The food here is certainly excellent, but what Peppard and Chaiken seem most proud of is their staff. They are a young and friendly bunch who seem to have a genuine affection for each other and their workplace. When one shares some good news, there is much squealing in delight and hugs all around. Each of the servers handles several jobs, filling in wherever she is needed. Tonight Carlie is tending the bar, but she also waits tables and lately, she’s been making desserts, including a luscious s’mores pie for two and a mango crème brulee. She mixes up a Pisco Pear Sour that is bitter and sour with subtle fruity sweetness. The cocktail list is full of original creations with fun names and fresh flavors. There’s a Maine Martini made with Allen’s brandy. The Fiddlehead Bloody Mary is legendary, as spicy as you like and garnished, of course, with a pickled fiddlehead. “I’m Your Huckleberry” features house-infused huckleberry vodka. It’s been on the menu since the restaurant opened, but many cocktails are swapped out seasonally.
After six years, Peppard still seems a little amazed to find herself here, running a successful place. “We just wanted jobs to pay our bills and live comfortably. We’re not getting rich, but we’re loving the experience,” she says. “I never anticipated being so self-motivated.”
And the answer to the lobster question above the bar? Seven. No one is sure why, but there has been much entertaining discussion about it, just like you would have with your family.
The Fiddlehead Restaurant | 84 Hammond St. | Bangor | 207.942.3336 | thefiddleheadrestaurant.com