When I first discovered Elda in off-the-summer-tourist-trail Biddeford, Me., I was surprised. It seemed like a restaurant that belonged on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, or at least in Portland’s bustling restaurant scene, 25 minutes up I-95. Immediately, I sent a note to a friend who grew up in a similarly sleepy town near Portland. “What is happening to Maine?” He replied. “I can’t believe there’s a good restaurant in Biddeford.”
Well, there is. And in truth, more than just one. In addition to Elda (which the owners spell with a lowercase e), there’s Palace Diner, a restaurant that has received national acclaim for its takes on breakfast and lunch comfort foods, along with a host of other upstart food businesses, including bakeries, breweries and, yes, more restaurants. Elda wasn’t first, but it’s still well ahead of the curve.
“I ask myself every day, why am I here?” said Bowman Brown, the chef and owner. “Biddeford was really the only place with cheaper rent on the coast. It’s kind of the last frontier.” Mr. Brown first gained acclaim nearly a decade ago for his award-winning work at Salt Lake City’s Forage. When Forage closed in 2016, he decided to venture east and opened Elda last December. From an open kitchen at the rear of an appealing room with high, tin-tiled ceilings and exposed brick walls, Mr. Brown prepares an inventive and ever-changing menu that leans heavily on local seafood, often with a whiff of smoke and touch of char from the wood grill. The result is a wholly original and totally crave-worthy modern Maine meal.
Many of the markers of modern American restaurants are there: a drinks list featuring natural wines and creative cocktails, dishes with influences from Japanese and new Nordic cuisine. But where else are you likely to find a doughnut filled with crab, chiles and fudgy egg yolk? (Verdict: surprisingly spicy, with a tinge of sweetness from the powdered sugar and malt vinegar powder dusting.)
“A lot of it is reverence and respect for age-old traditions,” Mr. Brown said. “But also wanting to throw out the book and do something a little bit edgy even if it’s a bit uncomfortable.”
During a recent visit, there was nothing uncomfortable about a standout starter of three Maine oysters, each with a tailored accompanying flavoring. The dish encapsulates Elda’s winning approach: respect for the bounty of Maine’s waters, complemented by outstanding technique and a dash of unexpected flavors like the buttermilk snow and lemon oil that topped a meaty Pemaquid oyster. The same went for gently warmed peak-season cherry tomatoes and kimchi-marinated mussels served in a nori-flecked pie crust garnished with basil.
And then there’s Maine’s most famous sea creature. Instead of the usual steam treatment, lobsters take a trip over the grill before a bath in lobster-infused butter. It was a welcome touch that helped the sweet meat stand out against rich, buttery grated, cooked corn and tart husk cherries. It was nothing like the food I grew up with attending summer camp in Maine — chicken patties in the dining hall, lobster rolls on the coast, campfire s’mores — but it makes perfect sense in an up-and-coming town like Biddeford in 2018.
Surprisingly, though, my final bite of the night did remind me of camp. A light and fluffy wild blueberry soufflé is classic Maine, but it was the spruce ice cream served alongside it that has me reliving life as a 12-year-old on the ropes course, hands covered in sticky sap and nostrils filled with the invigorating aroma of pine.
Elda, 140 Main Street, Suite 101; eldamaine.com. An average meal for two, without drinks or tips, is about $100.