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Portland’s New Restaurant: Thistle & Grouse

Take your modern UK gastropub’s worldly flavors, then Maine-ify them with refined hyperlocal ingredients and some New England humor. You want hand-cut chips with that?
Words By Alexandra Hall
Photos By Lauryn Hottinger
ArchitectMark Mueller Architects|General ContractorOptimum Construction

Somewhat unusually, this story starts at the end of the meal instead of the beginning. Because that’s when our server, Nick, tells us he has a trick up his sleeve.

He means that literally. We’ve just ordered dessert at Thistle & Grouse, the ambitious gastropub next to the Cross Insurance Arena, when Nick performs a magic trick at our table with a flourish, then right away shows us how he did it. Like the rest of the staff here, he’s been working hard all night—and is clearly having fun doing it.

On the constantly-rotating menu, look for the likes of roasted pork belly with berbere-spiced apple mostarda and peanut Romesco.

It’s an ethos that extends to the kitchen. Chef-owner Bobby Will, best known around Maine for the fine dining he rolled out at Salt & Steel in Bar Harbor, came up cooking with Boston heavyweight chefs like Andy Husbands and Jason Santos before earning raves at Saltaire Oyster Bar in New York, then ate his way around the planet, and eventually landed in Bar Harbor, where he teamed up with Kimberly Kraus (now his fiancée) to co-own Salt & Steel.

Portland, though, beckoned as a preferable setting for their next idea. They’ve since shuttered Salt & Steel, and much of their team—including general manager Julia Mcinnis and bar manager Corey Schallek—came along to bring Thistle & Grouse to life. “One of the best meals I had in Scotland wasn’t Scottish food,” explains Bobby. “It was Indian. The international populations there influence UK cuisine with all of their flavors,” he says.

Hyperlocal ingredients meet internationally inspired specials, that change seasonally and often even weekly.

To be sure: Go to most any modern gastropub in the major cities of England, Scotland, or Northern Ireland these days, and you’re apt to be handed a menu of big global flavors alongside traditional UK dishes, all spotlighting a slew of hyperlocal, humble products. That’s the gist of what’s afoot here—with an emphasis on Bobby’s own Scottish heritage (MacDougal is his mother’s maiden name) merged with an appreciation for what immigrants contribute to the restaurant industry. “A lot of people still don’t realize that the backbone of restaurants are immigrants,” he says. And, as a third-generation Scot, he points out, “I’m an immigrant too.”

But equally crucial to the modern gastropub concept is employing as much of the local food chain as possible. Bobby’s list of purveyors runs to 25 and counting. “It’s more than worth it,” he says. “I’m getting the food fresh, the quality’s better, it’s more environmentally sustainable, and it keeps the money circulating in Maine.”

Like any modern European gastropub, the cocktail program is as serious as the food—but still an awful lot of fun.

All of that effort is evident in the dishes—almost all of which get tweaked when new seasonal ingredients come along, and often morph into specials. Sample the roasted heritage pork belly with an African berbere-spiced apple mostarda and peanut Romesco sauce. “That was inspired by an Ethiopian restaurant from my travels,” says Bobby. Each bite balances rich, earthy spicing and a nutty depth with the fruit’s sweetness and the pork belly’s velvety texture. It’s pub food gone worldly.

Or dive into his rotating roster of pot pies—a traditional English pub staple. He fills them with braised meat (duck, in our case), local vegetables, a beautifully fragrant curried gravy, and tops each with a perfectly crisped, golden crown of Maine Grains rye crust.

Chef-owner Bobby Will and fiancée Kimberly Kraus ran the highly popular Salt & Steel in Bar Harbor before setting their sights on Portland.

The space, housed in what was once a two-story horse barn with an open center, served as Rivalries sports bar before it was transformed by Bobby, Kim, and Calvin Fields of Optimum Construction. It now feels downright cozy in spite of its size. Walls are lined with prints of happy pooches, seascapes, and antlers, while a giant industrial chandelier serves as the room’s focal point. The result is an infectious energy—buoyed by the sounds of lively voices coming from the multi-leveled structure; the professional but jocular staff; and the deft and playful mingling of flavors from far and near.

And that’s a combination that does indeed add up to a little bit of magic.

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