Now that 2022 is almost half over, I think it’s OK to let you in on one of my New Year’s resolutions. Along with my commitment to take supply-chain issues and labor shortages into account when I review a restaurant, I promised to avoid damning with faint praise. It requires too much inference, too much decoding, and generally isn’t fair to readers. With that said, I’ll scoop myself in the first paragraph of this review so there’s no confusion: Portland’s The Knotted Apron is a decent restaurant with more promise than realized success.
Opening six weeks before the pandemic undoubtedly paved a bumpy road for this charming Rosemont-area bistro. As chef Ryan Hickman put it, “It feels like we’ve run three different types of restaurants here at this point. Like everybody else, we did takeout for a while, but really, we had an original plan to be a traditional neighborhood restaurant when we opened. But we’re trying to go with the flow of what people want. So then, now it’s more upscale.”
There’s no question that Hickman, who owns the business with general manager Kate Harvey, has the experience to operate either species of restaurant. As a back-of-house leader at Back Bay Grill, Arrows in Ogunquit and Pine Point Grille in Scarborough, Hickman learned how to follow seasonality’s lead, developing a culinary style he describes as “mostly French and Italian, simple, but with a lot of technique and dedication to making everything in-house.”
Hickman certainly means “everything.” At The Knotted Apron, components of dishes that other chefs might outsource are prepared from scratch, like puff pastry – a notoriously time-intensive and difficult dough – used as the base for his well-baked, if undersized French onion tart ($11). Served on a palm-sized cast-iron griddle, the savory, Gruyere-topped tart reminded me of pass-around hors-d’oeuvres you might find at a ritzy party.
Meanwhile, in the dessert section of the menu, Hickman remains committed to his homemade ethos, churning fantastic ginger ice cream to scoop onto a dense, rather deflated lemon chiffon cake marooned inside a moat of barely macerated strawberries ($11). A dollop of whipped cream might have made this dish seem more integrated, but it also might have pushed it into shortcake territory. Next time, I’ll ask for that ice cream on its own.
Many cocktail ingredients are similarly prepared from scratch, like lilac-infused sugar used to dust the mouth of a flute containing a Champagne Supernova ($11). Vodka and lemon form the basis of this Aviation-esque drink, but I found it hard to taste anything apart from sugary Crème de Violette and the floral perfume from the weirdly incomplete lilac-sugar rim.
“Oh,” I joked to the server, “The bar left a gap for me to sip through!” She laughed, then explained that sometimes that happens when the cocktail is poured sloppily. “But yes, you can drink from there,” she said. Then she perplexed my dinner guest and me by adding, “Or whatever else you want to do.”
Also puzzling: the interior design of the space. The wall separating the kitchen from the bar has been removed, and while that allows for the chef and sous chef to interact more with guests, it strands legacy design elements without context. Take the fireplace and polished-wood surround, for example. Once a focal point of the bar at JP’s Bistro, it now feels cut-and-pasted into the expanded room, as does the haphazard styling of the enormous wall clock and portrait of Anthony Bourdain.
Outside is another story, though. Here, the patio with its 18 seats (bringing the total to about 45) is inviting and spaced nicely for comfortable dining and drinking during these lingering-pandemic-era evenings. A duo of chairs around a portable fire pit also beckons for passersby to take a seat, order a cooling, non-alcoholic Chasing Waterfalls ($6) cocktail made with the restaurant’s excellent rhubarb shrub and a snack of crisp-topped focaccia ($7) – a dish Hickman acknowledges is hit-or-miss. “I think it was OK when you came the other night, but it’s got to be on-point to be the best in town.”
That self-awareness is part of the reason I think The Knotted Apron will mature into a more consistently great restaurant. Hickman and his team already have the measure of seasonality; it’s often seasoning that trips them up.
In the snap pea agnolotti ($17), parcels of handmade pasta filled with funky Tallegio cheese, egg yolks and heavy cream, it was an excess of salty elements, from cheese to house-cured pancetta, that wiped out the subtle sweetness of peas and pea shoots. Whereas on the main dish of exquisitely pan-seared halibut ($36), the culprit was a sugary sauce made from equal parts confit garlic and Maine maple syrup. It was so sweet, it annihilated the flavors of the accompanying fiddleheads, sadly the last of the short season.
When everything falls into place, though, Hickman demonstrates that he has the chops to bring even complicated dishes together beautifully. His Indian-inspired confit duck tikka masala ($27) is all the proof you need: crisp skin and a dairy-free sauce blooming with scents of cumin, cinnamon, coriander and cardamom. It might not be in Hickman’s French/Italian wheelhouse, but the dish retains European flourishes in glossy, emerald favas and olive-oil sautéed mushrooms.
I hope The Knotted Apron gets a chance to live up to the potential that dishes like this show. As Hickman himself says in his naturally candid perspective on things, “It’s been a tough couple of years, and we’re not our best yet, but things are trending in the right direction.”
I, for one, am in favor of giving him the benefit of the doubt.
WHERE: 496 Woodford St., Portland. 207-805-1523. knottedapron.com
SERVING: Wednesday to Saturday, 5-9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and snacks: $7-16. Pastas and entrees: $17-36
NOISE LEVEL: Department store changing room
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
GLUTEN-FREE: Some dishes
RESERVATIONS: Recommended, but walk-ins welcomed
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: This upscale, nominally French-Italian bistro on the border between the Rosemont and Deering Center neighborhoods has a lot going for it, not least of which is its inviting front patio, an ideal spot for a non-alcoholic Chasing Waterfalls cocktail and, if you’re a little peckish, a slice of sweet-savory French onion tart. Showing impressive dedication to his craft, chef/co-owner Ryan Hickman makes the pastry base himself, along with nearly everything else on the menu. Not all dishes are outright winners, but there’s plenty of promise in dishes like summery lemon chiffon cake with terrific ginger ice cream, super-seasonal snap pea agnolotti, and off-theme, but one of the best dishes at the restaurant: confit duck in a warming, aromatic tikka masala sauce. And in these warm months, everything tastes better outside, so grab a patio reservation if you can.