After learning the craft at Le Cordon Bleu in France and then earning her culinary stripes in acclaimed kitchens in China, Singapore and California, Cara Stadler made the decision to return to one of her childhood homes: coastal Maine. Brunswick, to be exact, where in May she and her mother, Cecile Stadler, opened Tao, a restaurant combining casual atmosphere with high-end service, inspired by both Chinese and French cuisine.
“We wanted to come back to Maine, for sure,” said Cara Stadler, who recently turned 25. “It was just a question of where. We wanted to be somewhere in between Portland and Phippsburg, and Brunswick is pretty much perfect. The community has been incredibly receptive.”
Though Brunswick is light years from Shanghai or Paris, it is a surprisingly cosmopolitan food town, and it’s just a stone’s throw down the road from the summer home the Stadler family has had for generations in Phippsburg. Tao is the result of an on-again, off-again collaboration between mother and daughter, which began in China when the two ran Gourmet Underground, a dining club-style restaurant in Beijing. Cecile Stadler designed the sunny, invitingly minimal interior, while Cara Stadler created a menu reflecting all of her passions — from Chinese comfort food like dumplings and buns, to an array of elegant takes on Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean classics, like a Fennel Ma Po Doufu (tofu) and a spicy, Korean-inspired Beef Tartare.
“The great thing about Cara’s cooking is that the flavors you’re going to get here are going to be unique, because she’s classically trained in France, but she’s spent a lot of time in Asia,” Cecile Stadler said. “And she’s influenced by my cooking, which is home-style Chinese. And so she likes to take all these different flavors and put them into small plates for people to try… it’s all about her particular sense of what those flavor bites should be.”
Portions reflect that small plate, tapas-style sensibility, though a very reasonably priced lunch special ($12.80) comes with miso soup, a delightful Asian slaw, and your choice of five dishes: the Banh Mi, the popular Vietnamese sandwich, and the duck confit fried rice are two excellent choices. On Wednesdays a prix fixe menu priced at $40 for two people comes in three varieties — the vegetarian, seafood or meat persuasion, each with six items, ranging from the salt cod brandade, served with umeboshi (pickled plum) mustard, egg, greens and creme fraiche, to the Taiwanese drunken chicken.
Stadler’s insistence on fresh and locally-sourced means there’s a lot of wonderful seafood and meat on the menu, which changes almost daily; there’s Korean-style calamari one week, braised pork belly the next. The Singapore chicken rice and smoked duck, served with cold buckwheat noodles, appear regularly, and are already customer favorites. A simple but effective cocktail menu hits all the right notes — the beet & yuzu martini is a gin-based concoction dressed up with beet juice, yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit) and basil, while a light & stormy is like the traditional dark & stormy, with the added kick of mint and pineapple.
A recent setback for the Stadler’s restaurant has made statewide news — a nightclub and restaurant with locations in New York and Las Vegas is also called Tao (TAO, in their case), and has served Tao Brunswick with a lawsuit claiming trademark dilution and infringement, among other complaints. The case is still in litigation, but regardless of the outcome of the suit, mother and daughter plan to eventually build a year-round greenhouse in the lot behind the building, to raise produce for the eatery.
“We definitely have big plans,” Cara Stadler said. “Whatever happens will happen, but either way, we’re just getting started.”
Tao is located at 22 Pleasant St. in Brunswick and is open 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, and is open until 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; there is also a lunch service from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. It is closed on Sundays and Mondays.