North 43 Bistro
The best things often happen when you least expect them. “Comrades” in the restaurant business, Stephanie Brown and Laura Argitis have been friends for over a decade. Brown, chef and owner of the late, great Seagrass Bistro in Yarmouth, would often stop in at Argitis’s restaurant, the Old Port Sea Grill, just to catch up. “We’d bounce ideas off each other,” Brown says. “But we never had a conversation about doing something together.” Then Argitis got wind of a too-good-to-miss opportunity: a new restaurant being built in South Portland at the former site of Joe’s Boathouse at Spring Point Marina. “I had a serendipitous conversation, and I knew it was meant to be,” says Argitis. “It was perfect, and I needed Stephanie’s food.”
She wasn’t the only one. I, along with other Yarmouth residents, was sorry to see her close Seagrass Bistro in 2013 and take a job at the Woodlands Club. We enjoyed her casual hospitality style combined with exciting food that was sophisticated but not complicated. When I heard Brown was teaming up with Argitis for North 43 Bistro, I was thrilled that she’d be back in the public sphere. Brown brings Tuscan, French, and Asian influences to an enticing menu of bistro-style food. She was trained at the Culinary Institute of America in French classical technique, but her childhood experiences also inform her cooking. “Growing up in an Italian family, food was part of my culture,” she tells me. “We sat at the table for hours. Everything was homemade.” She has worked in Boston, California, and Colorado and now feels “true to who I am as a chef.” In her open kitchen with a water view at North 43 Bistro, Brown is in her element.
She and Argitis had a vision for the place that would become North 43 Bistro. “We were adamant about it not being a seafood place with a nautical theme,” says Argitis. You won’t find a trace of navy blue, a knotted rope, or shiny brass. The pair worked on the interior space with designer Debbie Kingry. “She asked us all the right questions and put our vision into reality,” Argitis says. Kingry created a comfortable if slightly masculine interior warmed with soft furnishings and neutral tones. Dark wood lends a cozy, intimate feel to the first floor, where you’ll find the main bar. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the front of the building provide loads of light and an expansive view of the marina, Portland Harbor, and even Fort Gorges. Two outdoor decks on the upper and lower levels invite patrons to soak in the view and enjoy the sea breeze in warm weather. “We had to think about the other 40 weeks of the year, too,” says Argitis. “We wanted it to be inviting without screaming ‘waterfront.’ As restaurant veterans, we thought hard about it all.” Brown knew she didn’t want to be behind a wall, so there’s an open kitchen where she can keep an eye on diners and “check in with servers to make sure everyone is happy.”
It’s not hard to be happy with the food coming from Brown’s open kitchen. The chef switches up the menu completely every four weeks. “I get bored with things,” she says, “and you can get complacent making the same dishes over and over.” Each version of the menu is full of delicious and creative options at both lunch and dinner, all taking advantage of the best of the season. Lunch runs the gamut from open-faced grilled southwestern salmon tacos and summer corn chowder with Maine crabmeat to a pulled jerk chicken sandwich and a fabulous burger topped with apple cider bacon. If the view of all those boats has you craving seafood, try the fried clams or lobster sandwich on a house-made butter bun. The dinner menu is a beautiful compendium of Brown’s influences and styles. Piquillo peppers stuffed with well-seasoned Italian sausage is a tasty starter, as are the grilled and glazed shrimp served with prosciutto-wrapped nectarines, a luscious sweet and salty duo. A hefty grilled beef tenderloin is exceedingly flavorful, accented with a bright, smoked tomato chimichurri. The meat is propped up on big steak fries, the perfect complement. At the lighter end of the scale, pan-seared scallops with strawberries, baby spinach, and a cilantro-lime beurre blanc is a summery and vibrant dish. It’s a perfect example of Brown’s cuisine: top-notch ingredients layered with flavor but unfussy.
On a recent Friday afternoon, I notice the crowd is a little more dressed up than guests at the old Joe’s Boathouse might have been. The ambiance is decidedly more upscale, drawing patrons from the neighborhood and those who have ventured across the bridge from Portland. A white summer sangria with fresh blueberries and watermelon puree is just the thing to kick off the weekend. Argitis tells me the cocktail program started with simple drinks, but more craft cocktails will be added in the fall. The wine list is still evolving under Brown’s guidance. “It has to be compatible with the menu changes,” she says. “It’s more about taste and personal preference than any particular vineyard.”
“We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to be very busy right from the start,” says Argitis. Brown is grateful for the reception as well. “You wonder how long people will remember you,” she says. “Well, my cup is overflowing with the shared enthusiasm for opening this place. It’s been very special for me.”
North 43 Bistro | 1 Spring Point Dr. | South Portland | 207.747.4009