For a town of just 6,600 people, Belfast has an unusually vibrant restaurant scene: Two new eateries opened just in the past few weeks. La Vida, located at 132 High St., is a laid-back Mexican-Caribbean cafe, and The Lost Kitchen, on 108 Main St., is a locally sourced fine dining restaurant. While they’re very different in style and approach, they’re both dynamic new additions to the midcoast dining scene.
The Lost Kitchen is the culmination of a work-in-progress of Chef Erin French, who since December of last year has been holding secret supper clubs. The new restaurant is located downstairs from where her club was held, in the building that formerly housed the Gothic Coffee Shop.
For the supper club, French offered fixed-price six-course dinners that used seasonal, local ingredients, with the eventual goal of opening a year-round restaurant. Her dream has come to fruition now: The downstairs portion of the building opened in October with spare, simple decor, soft lighting and a convivial atmosphere.
The Lost Kitchen — open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner — takes the same approach as the supper club did. The menu always features a carefully selected cheese plate, served late into the evening when the kitchen is closed but the bar is still open. The bar, built out of shiny zinc, offers decidedly unfussy cocktails such as an apple pear cider and whiskey fizz along with a lovely, deep wine list. A raw bar serves up cold, explosively briny North Haven oysters.
Small plates and salads are equally simple yet one-of-a-kind. A Caesar salad made with kale and served with duck egg dressing adds unexpected heft to a culinary staple, and the Maine crab panzanella salad, a bread-based salad made with celeriac and apple, highlights the sweet, delicate crab.
As for entrees, they range in sophistication and change almost daily. Some more comforting dishes include curried cod tacos — a localized take on the California taqueria classic — and water buffalo burgers made from meat from the ME Water Buffalo Company in Appleton. But freshly made duck confit and juniper brined pork chops also grace the menu.
Entree prices top out at around $26 — not cheap but also not unaffordable. It’s a treat, no matter what your occasion to visit is. The Lost Kitchen isn’t lost anymore, and if you’re lucky enough to find yourself there, you may never want to leave.
La Vida, on the other hand, is the kind of place where you can relax with a Dos Equis and douse your food in as much hot sauce as you want. The restaurant — from Anthony Jackovino and Tina Del Santo, the same couple that brought Delvino’s to Belfast in 2010 — offers an exceptionally laid-back atmosphere across the street from the Belfast Co-op. Jackovino and Del Santo have transformed the space, which until now housed a series of dive bars, into a kind of brightly-colored taqueria, though the food strays from the staple Mexican-Californian style. There are fried plantains as well as tacos and burritos, and the venue — open seven days a week for lunch and dinner — embraces Caribbean, Latin and Jamaican food.
The results were mixed but not without promise. The Caribbean-style dishes succeeded in a big way. If the jerk chicken is on special, do yourself a favor and order it — half of a whole chicken, grilled perfectly, with just the right amount of jerk seasoning. A side of coconut rice cools the chicken’s spiciness. The fried plantains are also very good, and the Caribbean fish cakes have excellent flavor, a nice balance of savory and spicy — though they could be crispier on the outside.
The Mexican dishes varied in quality. Tequila lime marinated chicken fajitas were very good — pleasingly tangy, sizzling and not overpowered by citrus flavor. Steak fajitas were less appealing, as the meat appeared to be overcooked and a bit on the tough side. That said, there are few restaurants in Maine that cook Mexican food really well. El Rayo Tacqueria in Portland, Coco Loco in Bangor and El El Frijoles in Sargentville all excel at it but focus on simple dishes such as tacos, empanadas and quesadillas. With some practice — and a less heavy hand with filler side dishes like beans and rice — La Vida could be good. As it stands, their Caribbean and Jamaican dishes are the real stars of the show, paired with their excellent margaritas.