PORTLAND, Maine — When David Levi set out to open his first restaurant, Vinland in Congress Square, he had the region’s native people — members of the Penobscot Indian Nation — in mind. What would the Penobscot eat? Mussels flavored with apple cider vinegar? Smoked duck? Poached cod in herbal broth?
Such delicacies grace the menu at his 39-seat bistro, slated to open Friday, Dec. 27. Levi, a New York City culinary artist with a master’s degree in poetry, is a different breed of restaurateur.
First off, he created a manifesto. Like a conceptual art installation, it behooves you to read his 19 principles before taking in his creations.
“The goal is to help re-imagine Maine cuisine,” said Levi, who is not opening with lobster rolls or clam chowder. “I think we have an underdeveloped sense of it.”
The chef, who trained in Denmark and top New York City spots, seeks to do more than open a hip bistro serving trendy fare under flattering lighting.
His cooking method, honed at NoMa, a trailblazing Copenhagen restaurant, is local to the core. Levi’s intent embraces more than tweaks to a menu. We’re not talking about a Maine seafood dish here, a wild foraged mushroom tart there.
He promises to deliver 100 percent local cuisine. His radical approach means no olive oil, no lemons, sugar or black pepper will be used in his open kitchen. If he can’t find it in New England, he’ll improvise.
“I like a challenge,” said Levi, readying his renovated space, with a soaring golden ceiling, natural wood and birch accents.
Entrees such as hake filet require a little education. The articulate Levi and his trained staff are ready to explain the origins of leek hay and why condensed yogurt whey is an effective substitute for lemon. The emulsion provides a tangy snap and texture to his entrees.
Levi, who shattered his $40,000 goal on Kickstarter this summer, is eager to nourish this food-obsessed city with an ambitious menu that will appeal to all diets.
Though gluten-free, “we are not cutting any corners nutritionally,” he said.
He is cooking with clarified butter and lard from local, pasture-raised pigs, tapping food traditions that date back hundreds of years.
Fat, he says, is not an enemy.
“Just the opposite, it’s the absolute cornerstone to good health.”
Levi’s dedication to local and sustainable ingredients spreads to his philosophy in the kitchen.
“It’s time for chefs to grow up. Abusiveness and tantrums are not marks of genius but symptoms of immaturity and sociopathy,” he declares in his manifesto.
Gordon Ramsay and Harding Lee Smith beware.
“There are all too few restaurants that really embrace a positive, healthy noncoercive work environment,” said Levi, who has assembled a staff from top Portland restaurants such as Hugo’s that are in sync with his credo.
There will be an Emerson poem on the bathroom wall and cocktails infused with wild mushrooms at the snug bar.
Down the road Levi wants to open a cooking school. But before that happens he is claiming the terroir of an area, once known as Vinland by early Nordic explorers, and making a statement, both political and educational as well as aesthetic, with food.
“[Dining] is a mysterious and profound process of transforming that which we eat into our continued life,” he said.
Cultivating what’s fresh and natural instead of ordering from a distributor “forces us to innovate.”
That means reindeer lichen and parsnip juice, beet chips and custom tortillas, made in Portland, will be sprinkled throughout the menu.
So who will be dining at Vinland in the new year? Environmentalists, people on Paleo diets and foodies. But this is not an exclusive joint:
“It will have broad appeal. There will be a lot to like here,” said Levi. “I don’t think there is another restaurant like Vinland, committed to providing great nourishment based on traditional wisdom.”
Vinland is located at 593 Congress St. in Portland. Hours are noon-2:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; brunch 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday. Cooking classes are from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Sunday.