The Buxton Common
Chef Max Brody and his skillful team serve comfort food and community in a restored landmark
On a bleak late-December evening, the old farmhouse near the intersection of Routes 22 and 202 in Buxton glows invitingly from within, telling me even before I see the handsome gold-lettered sign on the front lawn that we’ve arrived at the Buxton Common. Before long, we’re seated at a cozy table in one of the four intimate dining rooms, sipping Bermuda Mules (a zingy blend of Gosling’s dark rum, ginger, lime, and ginger beer), while discussing the menu, printed as a placemat with an illustrated border featuring local landmarks. Some of the old house’s walls have been removed for a more open feel, but the distinct dining spaces, with their wide-board floors, vintage wall sconces, and cheerful paint colors, retain a homey charm. As first impressions go, the Buxton Common makes a good one: well-mixed drinks, charming servers, and comfortable surroundings.
Veteran restaurateur Max Brody opened the Buxton Common in June 2018, following an extensive renovation of the circa-1790 property, which in its latest iteration had been an antiques shop, the Mustard House. The ten-month-long project included tearing down a crumbling ell to build an addition that houses the kitchen and bar area; work continued through an especially frigid winter and “took a lot of digging deep, literally and figuratively,” says Brody. The airy new section features an open-truss ceiling and a rustic concrete-topped bar made by local woodworker Otis Baron using beams salvaged from the old building. An over-sized vintage photo of local railroad flagman John Bradbury, wearing a bowler hat and a taciturn look, greets guests as they enter the restaurant. Brody acquired a copy of the photo from the Buxton-Hollis Historical Society. “I liked his expression,” says Brody with a chuckle.
Thoughtful and good-natured, Brody has worked in restaurants since before he was even a teenager. The son of cookbook author Lora Brody, he helped open NOLA in New Orleans with Emeril Lagasse and ran a Mexican restaurant with his brother in Taiwan before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and eventually launching his own venture, the Night Kitchen in Montague, Massachusetts. (The name references the Maurice Sendak children’s book, In the Night Kitchen; Brody is named for the main character in another Sendak book, Where the Wild Things Are.) After a successful ten-year run, however, Brody was ready to move on. His son was about to enter kindergarten, and while they had enjoyed rural Western Massachusetts, Brody and his wife wanted to live in a more walkable community. He and a friend visited Portland for a winter weekend, eating and drinking their way around the city during a nor’easter. “People weren’t staying inside,” says Brody. “There was a full-blown blizzard going on and a line outside of Hot Suppa.” The family settled in Portland’s West End, but Brody decided against opening a restaurant in the city. “There were communities out here that didn’t have a lot of dining options,” he says, referring to the area around the Buxton Common. “It just made sense to try to take advantage of that gap.”
By the full tables and cheerful buzz around us, it appears the newcomer has been embraced. At first, Brody, says, there was a “preconceived notion of us being a fancy place,” due in part to the renovation and new construction. “I wanted to be very conscientious about providing something that could be enjoyed by a wide demographic at reasonable prices,”says Brody. After he found a used smoker, creating a menu around it was an easy decision. “By saying we’re a New England smokehouse, it gives us a lot of leeway. We do ribs and brisket, but we’re not traditional Texas-style, or Kansas City, or Carolina. We smoke garlic, eggplant, tofu, and seafood.”
For starters, we choose deviled eggs garnished with a sliver of pork crackling and pickled okra, along with the “fins” board, an array of silky gravlax, herb-flecked smoked shrimp, and hot-from-the-fryer cod brandade fritters—crispy on the outside, creamy within. I could make a meal out of these irresistible nuggets dipped into the zippy horseradish sauce. The boards (the restaurant also offers charcuterie-based “hooves” and vegetarian “roots” versions) come with a generous-sized buttery biscuit that would make any Southern grandma proud. Like the cornbread and all the desserts, the excellent biscuits are made in-house by baker Beth Burnham, part of a crew that includes bar manager Tamahl Rahaman, pit master Guy Frenette, who previously ran the kitchen at Artemisia Cafe in Portland, and kitchen manager Robert Parry, a veteran of Gather in Yarmouth.
Like much of his menu, Brody’s salads are familiar but not routine. Instead of the expected iceberg lettuce, he uses tender yet still sturdy Bibb for a version of the classic wedge. Topped with crumbled blue cheese, chopped bacon, and rings of grilled red onion and napped with sweet-tart maple-malt vinaigrette, this is a salad to remember. Equally noteworthy is the kale Caesar, tossed with just the right amount of creamy, garlicky dressing, crunchy cornbread croutons, and a choice of pork cracklings or white anchovies.
I’m tempted by the shrimp and grits (one of my very favorite dishes) but decide instead on the smoked duck leg cassoulet, intrigued to see what Brody does with this classic dish from the south of France. What arrives would have made Julia Child swoon with delight: a hearty bowl of slow-cooked white beans studded with pieces of smoked pork, on top of which is nestled a grilled sausage, confit duck leg, and toasted bread crumbs. Cassoulet may now have cult status among cooks, but it originated as a peasant dish prepared with what was on hand. In Maine as in France, it offers delicious sustenance on a cold night, and I’m grateful for the server’s wine suggestion: a slightly spicy El Paso de Lazo tempranillo-shiraz.
While the Buxton Common’s menu changes seasonally, the “trays”—smoked meats or barbecued tofu skewers with two sides and a sauce—are a constant. Our combo tray includes pork ribs, a hefty slab of brisket, and Moxie-glazed pork shoulder (which we’ve asked to swap for the standard chicken). The meats are all expertly smoked, flavorful, and tender but still offer a pleasant chew (no mushy, overdone barbecue here). Despite its name, I prefer to dip bites lightly into the tangy, tomato-based, Kansas City-style “slather sauce,” savoring the smoky essence of the meat. The sauce is one of five guests can choose to customize their ’cue: the other options are a mustardy “Carolina gold”; sweet and spicy mayo-based “’bama white sauce”; molasses, vinegar, and black pepper “mop sauce”; and smoked chili hot sauce.
Following all of the kitchen’s savory goodness, dessert isn’t even on our minds, but we relent when our server suggests a special mocha mousse. Served in a mason jar and gilded with shards of crunchy coffee toffee, the mousse is lush and not overly sweet. Another server chimes in that the Jolly Woodsman coffee stout from Banded Brewing in Biddeford is a perfect match, and sweetly insists on bringing us a sample. She’s absolutely right.
Still in its first year, the Buxton Common already has the feel of a community staple, which Brody hopes to build on by offering catering and take-out meals, such as a whole smoked chicken with sides and biscuits. “We have snacks and sandwiches on the menu, so people can stop in for a cocktail or a beer without feeling like they have to have a full meal,” he says. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max famously cries, “And now, let the wild rumpus start!” At the Buxton Common, his namesake isn’t inciting a rumpus but, instead, purposefully creating a new storyline in an old landmark and, if my hunch is correct, a new destination restaurant for Maine.