A stellar restaurant dynasty writes a new chapter on the working waterfront.
I’m sitting with chef Fred Eliot at one of the long tables in the back of Scales, before dinner service. Fishing boats are docked so close that if the window were open I could reach out and touch them. The expansive restaurant is a beauty, all neutral finishes and rustic woods. There’s a slight industrial feel to the room, with its high ceilings and exposed duct work, hinting at its former function as a wharf warehouse. Natural light drenches the space, flowing in through those tall windows that provide the harbor tableau. In front of the busy open kitchen are cement lobster tanks and a metal table filled with ice and whole fish.
Scales is now in its second year, and Eliot and co-chef Travis Olson have settled in beautifully, bringing long experience and sure hands to the menu. There’s nothing stuffy or stodgy about the elevated New England fish house fare served at Scales. It may be inspired by traditional dishes, but “we’ve perfected everything,” says Eliot. He’s a born and bred Frenchman, classically trained, and with a resume that includes some of New York’s finest restaurants. At first glance, this may seem like an odd fit, but in fact it makes sense. “New England is very influenced by European cooking,” Eliot says. “Dana Street and I are very much on the same page. We both appreciate classic flavors, and we use them as a foundation.” Street, of longstanding Portland restaurant Street and Co., is one of the co-owners, along with his Street and Co. partner Victor Leon and Sam Hayward of Fore Street. The team lends Scales an enduring heritage of outstanding food that’s approachable, locally focused, and expertly prepared and presented. The chefs continue that legacy, while putting their stamp on every aspect of the menu.
Eliot tells me about the new dishes that are appearing on the spring and summer menu. Each description is making me hungrier, and eager for dinner. “We cook for flavor, simply, without masking it,” he says. A scallop dish, which seems to get unanimous praise, is getting a summer makeover with oyster mushrooms, asparagus, sugar snap peas, applewood-smoked bacon, and a salsify cream sauce. “Salsify is like a parsnip, but with hints of vanilla,” Eliot explains. When I get a taste of the dish a little later, I think he was far too modest in his explanation. It’s superb: the scallops seared and seasoned perfectly, the sauce light and exquisite, each element of the dish complementing the others. Count me in as a member of the Scales scallop fan club. Eliot likes to talk technique, and I always find it fascinating. “I’m very old- school,” he says, and describes another spring preparation, baked haddock in a fumet cream sauce with morels and asparagus. The fish arrives at the table in a cast-iron pan, perfectly executed, and the very definition of luxurious without being overly rich. Eliot’s classical French training is on display, beautifully in sync with Maine’s finest resources.
At the other end of the spectrum, and no less exciting, are the raw bar offerings. Each one that I taste is bright, fresh, and gorgeously plated. A fluke ceviche is astonishing in color and flavor, the fish set in a pool of leche de tigre, a vibrant combination of citrus with roasted pineapple that gently “cooks” the fish, accented with pickled red onions, jalapenos, corn crisps, and cilantro microgreens. Each mouthful bursts with an irresistible mix of sweet and spicy, crunchy and silky. I think nothing can compare, until a plate of finnan haddie crudo is served. It’s a completely different taste, but equally enticing. The smoked fish is paired with house-made crème fraîche, “everything” spice, rye crisps, and pickled onions, all reminiscent of an elegantly deconstructed bagel sandwich. Local oysters and littleneck clams are always available as well, sparkling fresh and just right with a glass of bubbly or maybe a cold rosé.
General manager Michael Burke has set up a substantial wine program, using his many years of experience in wine sales. Much of the list comes from regions known for coastal vineyards, and “areas that are influenced by the sea,” he says. “It’s a much bigger list than we first anticipated, with just under 200 bottles.” The elevated bar is a busy, bustling place from the moment Scales opens its doors each day. Cocktails are poured, birthdays are celebrated, and friends greet each other happily. “There’s a sense of fun here,” says Burke. “We want it to be top-notch, but relaxed.” Burke and the staff feel prepared for the summer and the visitors who come with it. “Last summer was pandemonium, and I think it could be twice as busy this year,” he says. “There are no quiet nights in the summer. But we’re a seasoned crew now.” One year in, Scales has found its groove.