Chris Wilcox needs another restaurant.
I’m not trying to put pressure on the chef/owner of Knightville’s Judy Gibson, a 30-seat South Portland restaurant that opened its doors just two weeks before the dawning of the pandemic in Maine. Nor am I suggesting that his moderately priced New American restaurant de ella has run its course – it was good enough for me to pick as my Best New Restaurant of 2021, and in many ways, it’s better six months later.
I’m proposing that Judy Gibson feels like half of a pair of businesses, and without that extra context, diners sometimes struggle to make sense of it.
Friends have told me about spectacular recent meals at Judy Gibson, including one this week where neighbors visited and declared it “their new favorite restaurant,” as well as meals that left other friends “a little confused that we’d ordered the wrong things. ”
Part of the issue stems from expectations. On Judy Gibson’s website, Wilcox describes the business as “a neighborhood restaurant,” and in many ways, it is exactly that: cozy, off the tourists’ beaten path and frequently empty enough for impromptu customers to score a walk-in table. Add in a duo of keenly smart servers, and you’ve got a genial spot for a nose-tickling eucalyptus daiquiri ($13) and an appetizer of the finest gnocchi I’ve ever eaten, ladled with a salsa verde of mint, parsley, dill and horseradish and buried under a thin frizzy blanket of Parmesan shavings ($13).
The friendly, no-fuss vibe has been amplified during the past two years by Judy Gibson’s “pandemic pivot” to buttermilk-and-pickle-juice-brined fried chicken. Those birds sustained the restaurant through two rough winters, then a transitional period where Wilcox and his team of four offered fried-chicken sandwiches sold exclusively at the bar. But fried chicken was just a tasty stopgap.
By and large, Judy Gibson’s regular menu is neither about comfort food, nor the bistro-style dishes you might expect to find at a neighborhood restaurant. “I really geek out about food. I’m very, very into cooking and read about it, learn new things and talk about it all the time,” Wilcox said. “I’m a fairly laid-back person, but I like the juxtaposition of that with more experimentation. I’ve got notebooks full of random ideas. I’m always trying to make delicious food, but I also like taking risks.”
Indeed, to hear Wilcox describe it, the overarching goal of Judy Gibson is, and always has been, to build a culinary laboratory where he and his sous chef can play.
Chief among the restaurant’s experimental apparatus is an extensive larder Wilcox has laid in over the past two years – an apothecary of pickled and dried ingredients that allow him to bridge seasonal foods with out-of-sync companion ingredients.
Take the grilled asparagus starter ($13) I tasted in two different formats during a pair of recent visits. Both dishes featured tender, char-marked spears; nutty whipped tahini and homemade quinoa crisps delivering a Pringles-like crunch. The sole difference in the two preparations was the choice of sauce. On my first visit, an umami salvo from aged XO sauce Wilcox concocted from crabs he almost had to throw out when forced to shut down Judy Gibson two years ago. I adored its sustained savory notes, but my dinner guest found the dish challenging. On my second visit, another scratch-made pantry sauce, this time a black-garlic chili crisp that took the dish to a brighter, tangier place. This time around, my guest and I were both enraptured.
Nearly every dish I tasted incorporated something from Wilcox’s cache of preserved ingredients. In the nest of Anson Mills grits brimming with confit maitake mushrooms and house-smoked American unagi ($14), it was pickled chilies; on the superb pan-roasted pork shoulder with hakurei turnips and mustard greens ($33), a lacto-fermented chutney of celery, kohlrabi and green tomatoes rescued from last summer’s excess produce.
As I chatted with Wilcox over the phone and heard him describe renovating the former Teriyaki Exchange space from sub-flooring to butcher block workstation, I tried to puzzle out where in the mostly open kitchen he kept his storehouse of ingredients. By using the boxy room at the rear for a dishwasher instead of cooking space, “I probably have 10 times the counter space, storage and ample working space than I would have if I had closed that area off,” he told me.
I also kept trying to figure out what the encyclopedic larder of preserved ingredients and open kitchen reminded me of, until Wilcox mentioned his recent run as chef de cuisine at Eventide. Then it hit me: Judy Gibson is a kissing cousin to Eventide’s (still closed) sibling, Hugo’s. “Sure, I can see that,” Wilcox said when I brought up the comparison. “Of course, I don’t want people to think what we’re doing is too fancy. You can come in and have a drink at the bar, just walk in, no reservations. But yes, I can see how you’d say that.”
Hugo’s isn’t a neighborhood restaurant any more than Judy Gibson is. If Wilcox were cooking at a pricier, more explicitly upscale venue, something more like the now-shuttered Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick where he served as executive chef, we’d be celebrating his creative embrace of seasonality and nose-to-tail resourcefulness. But after two years of takeout, I worry that we’ve come to expect comfort food from one of the state’s most ambitious chefs.
Wilcox does revisit comforting foods but not without a conceptual tweak or two. His “hash brown” appetizer, for example, is actually beef tartare ($15). Wilcox confits shredded potato in beef tallow, shapes and deep-fries blocks into indulgent hash browns, then tops the squares with smoked tuna mayonnaise, diced raw Farmer’s Gate beef and a dusting of acid-green dried ramp powder. It’s an absolute stunner of a dish, especially when paired with a glass of puckery, peachy Dalmatian Coast Voštinić Klasnić Škrlet white wine ($12).
I did encounter minor wobbles at Judy Gibson, albeit infrequent ones. I devoured my barbecued swordfish entrée ($33) and spooned up every drop of the tamarind-tart sauce but struggled to wrangle the full-length grilled scallions onto my fork. As much as I enjoyed their smoky flavor, eating floppy scallions was like trying to untangle a wet wig.
On my first visit, my pork tenderloin schnitzel ($33) was fried just a bit too long in the blend of lard, garlic oil and clarified butter, leaving me to wonder how much of the color came from cooking and how much from the black, Nicoise olive crumb topping. Thirty seconds from glory…
But when dishes fulfill their promise, as practically all of Wilcox’s do, they can be phenomenal. Check out the raw tuna appetizer ($16) if you want proof. It’s nearly always on the menu (in some tweaked format) and is reason alone to visit Judy Gibson. Here, sushi-grade tuna is sliced sashimi-style and glazed with honey, verjus and strawberry umeboshi (salt-pickled Maine berries set aside at the peak of 2021’s season). Wilcox plates the fish on a dollop of homemade mayonnaise and adds a spoonful of nutty fried amaranth seasoned with preserved stems from last season’s lowbush blueberries. The sensation of tiny, toasty grains popping between my teeth was a delight, like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Certainly not at a neighborhood bistro.
Which brings me back to the very premise of Judy Gibson. In almost every way, it feels like a sister restaurant to a fine-dining business, one designed to offer a more casual, less expensive interpretation of the experience at the upscale sibling – just as David’s Opus Ten has David’s 388 (and David’s), Chicago’s Alinea had Roister and Montreal’s Le Mousso had (the superior) Le Petit Mousso.
For the moment, Judy Gibson remains an only child. If we want to keep it in business long enough to spawn a sibling (and we absolutely do), we should start treating it better: less like a neighborhood gastropub and more like the remarkably affordable culinary gem it is.
WHERE: 171A Ocean St., South Portland. 207-808-8649 judygibsonrestaurant.com
SERVING: Thursday to Sunday, 5-9 pm (approx.)
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $12-18. Entrees: $30-34
NOISE LEVEL: Picnic in a city park
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
GLUTEN-FREE: Some dishes
RESERVATIONS: Recommended, but walk-ins welcomed
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: And it is
BOTTOM LINE: The first rule of Judy Gibson is that you must start telling absolutely everyone you know about Judy Gibson. Let friends know that chef/owner Chris Wilcox (Eventide, Velveteen Habit) isn’t serving his pandemic-legendary fried chicken anymore, and that’s a good thing. Instead, he’s making excellent use of an encyclopedic larder of house-preserved local ingredients, adding a portion of pickled blueberry stems to his extraordinary raw tuna, dusting dried ramp powder on a rich beef tartare hash brown … you get the idea. Truly world-class gnocchi are a must-order, as is the restaurant’s lone dessert – a coffee pudding ($8) upgraded with a chocolate cookie streusel and chai caramel, the brainchild of Meghan Wilcox, the pastry manager at nearby Scratch Baking and, not Coincidentally, the chef’s wife. Cocktails are creative, and the wine list is short but well-selected, with every bottle offered by the glass. It’s rare to find an ambitious restaurant at this moderate price point, let alone one with a staff as knowledgeable as Judy Gibson’s. So what are you waiting for?
Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such): * Poor ** Fair *** Good **** Excellent ***** extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant eleven; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously.
Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Dine Out Maine: Small, chickpea-sized surprises and big flavors at Nura