Small Wonder

Little Village Bistro brings fine food and fresh energy to a historic midcoast community

The gray shingled, single-story building just off Wiscasset’s main thoroughfare has housed a revolving door of restaurants over the years. Longtime locals may remember it as Mark Antony’s, a popular Italian restaurant that operated from 2003 to 2010 and was followed by Thai Golden Restaurant, then Route 27 Pub, a second venture from the owners of Mark Antony’s that didn’t last very long. When Wiscasset native Tony Bickford decided to rent the building and open Little Village Bistro in April 2015, family and friends were skeptical. “They all thought it was a bad location, between a gas station and a garage, and it had a history of nothing making it there,” he says.

Bickford and his team have proven those worries were unfounded: now five years in, Little Village Bistro thrives year-round on a combination of skill, pluck, and kindness. On a chilly Saturday in the off-season, all 45 seats are booked for the evening. My friend and I hang our coats in the enclosed vestibule, part of a 12-foot addition Bickford built onto one side after he bought the property in 2017. Previously, diners entered through the patio door to find themselves in the middle of the restaurant; the new design keeps cold air out and provides a more gracious welcome. The dining room strikes a balance between cozy and quietly elegant, with dark gray walls, crisp white trim, an upholstered banquette along one wall, wire-cage pendant lights, stacks of birch logs, and framed black-and-white photos. The bar, wrapped in gray-glazed barn board, is at the far end of the room.

Server Rebecca Thayer, who has been at Little Village Bistro since it opened, makes us feel relaxed and at ease from the moment she approaches the table. When my friend says she is avoiding gluten and asks about breadcrumbs in the haddock’s crabmeat stuffing, Thayer offers to have it prepared with plain crabmeat. We start with a special of honey-roasted Brussels sprouts with Marcona almonds and preserved lemon aioli, and spicy tuna crudo; the thin slices of rosy raw fish are drizzled with a Sriracha vinaigrette and garnished with microgreens, lemon zest, and sea salt. With the appetizers, I sip a Mary Rose the Barr: a pleasantly astringent and citrusy cocktail that makes a perfect aperitif with Barr Hill Gin, Chartreuse, rosemary, lime, and club soda.

Further evidence of the thoughtful service is the salad, which we order to share; it arrives on two separate plates without our having to ask. An appealing tangle of baby arugula, shaved root vegetables, orange segments, and mint, it is lightly dressed with sesame vinaigrette and, despite the winter-season ingredients, tastes like sunshine and summer. Our main courses are equally attractive—generously portioned and nicely but not preciously plated. The slab of perfectly cooked, buttery haddock is draped over a small mound of crabmeat, with sautéed broccolini on the side and lemon-herb aioli. It’s easy to understand why this elevated version of a classic Maine seafood dish is one of chef Bickford’s signatures. The duck, which we ordered medium, is also flawlessly executed: the pink slices of a whole breast, each with its own mantle of crispy mahogany skin, are fanned over mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach and topped with strings of crunchy fried onion. I like that the maple-balsamic reduction is on the plate—instead of napped over the whole assemblage—for me to add as I wish.

Given the excellence of our meal, I’m surprised to learn that Bickford himself is not in the kitchen tonight; Thayer says Tony and his wife, Chelsea, are out on a rare date night. That both principals of a small restaurant can leave it on a Saturday night without guests being the wiser is a testimony to the Bickfords and their staff. Tony credits their strong team, beginning with sous chef Dallis Heflin, who started at the restaurant as a 17-year-old dishwasher, fresh out of the culinary vocational program at the local high school. “He and I are two peas in a pod—we mirror each other,” says Tony, who estimates the two have spent more than 10,000 hours with each other in the past five years. “I’m not quite up there with Dallis, but I’m getting there,” Chelsea adds. The Bickfords met when Chelsea dropped off her resume before the restaurant opened. Chelsea is responsible for training the dining room staff, but she also has a well-developed palate that helps with wine pairings as well as cocktail and menu ideas. The two began dating in the summer of 2016 and were married last October. “It’s a love story,” says Tony. “We’re able to spend all this time together and still be head-over-heels.”

A bright and zesty arugula salad with shaved root vegetables, orange, mint, and sesame vinaigrette.

It’s an oft-cited trope that business colleagues feel like family, but at Little Village Bistro it’s a genuine analogy. The love the Bickfords share extends to their staff, including Chel-sea’s mom, Bethany Leeman, who is often behind the bar, and to their guests, many of whom are regulars. “We’ve watched each other grow up, get married, and start families,” Tony says. “If a customer has spoken to one of us, the rest of us will know what they’ve talked about,” says Chelsea, adding that the tension that often occurs at restaurants between the kitchen and the front-of-the-house staff is nonexistent here. “Everyone is in it together.” I can’t help comparing the restaurant to the similarly named train engine in the famous children’s book, who delivers her cargo by working hard and believing in herself. There’s an analogous optimism, good humor, and work ethic delivering the goods at Little Village Bistro, which seems to be home to stay.

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