Wiscasset’s Back River Bistro now offers a midday meal to diners in search of chef-driven cuisine with a lighter touch and an attractive price point.
With lunch dishes that take inspiration from classic comfort food, the restaurant is serving up palate-pleasing takes on shrimp and grits and fried chicken sandwiches that showcase new techniques, unexpected textures, and flavor combinations that are both familiar and intriguing.
A number of items on the lunch menu are echoes of the dinner menu, providing an opportunity to experience the restaurant’s signature offerings during daylight hours. The beef tartare, a favorite of executive chef Aaron Hansen, is available for lunch, the rare beef served with a different preparation daily. Recently, a sriracha-spiced mayonnaise was folded into the protein, which was topped with microgreens from Morning Dew Farm and finished off with a tart squeeze of lime.
The restaurant’s signature octopus with a rich romesco sauce of tomatoes, red peppers, garlic, and toasted nuts also makes an appearance on the lunch menu. According to Hansen, the dish is one of the most popular items the restaurant serves.
New for lunch is a warm whitefish dip appetizer, similar to a crab dip, but a little thicker. It’s made with creme fraiche and the salty tang of fried capers complements the extra creaminess.
Most of the lunch entrees are items that can be found on any number of menus but “done up in our style,” Hansen said.
That style can be tasted in the chicken sandwich, a boneless thigh brined in chamomile instead of the more traditional buttermilk that Hansen said adds subtle herbal and even floral notes to the meat.
The chicken is dredged in flour seasoned with salt and ground Fresno peppers before being deep-fried. The sandwich is topped with herbed mayonnaise and pickles and served with a simple green salad and a generous helping of house made potato chips.
Cacio e pepe, a classic Italian dish consisting of spaghetti noodles, black pepper, and grated pecorino cheese, is enhanced with the addition of black garlic-infused butter. The black garlic adds a richer umami taste with hints reminiscent of unsweetened cocoa. The preparation showcases Hansen’s penchant for reinventing childhood favorites, in this case buttered noodles, in a way that is new and exciting while remaining deeply satisfying.
Back River Bistro shrimp and grits starts with the Cajun trinity of peppers, onions, and celery. Creme fraiche is added to the polenta, with the result being thick and creamy, more akin to a risotto in texture. The dish is topped with gently poached shrimp and the balance of spice will please those who like a little heat but it won’t put off those who don’t like things too hot.
The local mussels are steamed to order in coconut milk with green Thai sausage from Riverside Butcher Co. in Damariscotta, a preparation that gives the team of chefs an opportunity to play with more Asian flavors.
The $14 bistro burger is an affordable classic, made up of beef patty, American cheese, onion, pickle, and mayonnaise. Hansen said American cheese is a favorite of his for its meltability and flavor, and co-owner and wine director Corrinna Stum considers it one of the best burgers she’s eaten.
Lunch menu prices currently range from $7-$22, with more than half the menu coming in at $15 or less.
While reservations are suggested, Stum said walk-ins are always welcome with one dining room and the seasonal patio kept available to accommodate drop-in seating.
Back River Bistro is owned by husband-and-wife team Matthew and Corrinna Stum, both of whom earned their chops in the restaurant business. Matthew Stum worked for several restaurants in Indianapolis, including a stint as executive chef at Stella before moving to Maine where he worked for Portland’s celebrated Fore Street restaurant.
Corrinna Stum worked for the Boca restaurant group in Cincinnati and more recently served as the assistant general manager at nationally recognized Central Provisions, also in Portland.
The pair opened their first restaurant, Ruby’s West End, in Portland. Corrinna Stum said that project is currently on hold while they focus on Back River Bistro.
Hansen worked with Matthew Stum in Indianapolis. He and wife Alison, who manages the dining room at Back River Bistro, moved north to work with the Stums again.
Hansen enjoyed reworking the restaurant’s menu for daytime diners.
“Lunch is more casual, a little more lighthearted and definitely I would say more accessible,” he said.
Corrinna Stum sees lunch as a new way for customers to explore the bistro at a lower price while giving the restaurant’s team a chance to gear up for the upcoming summer season.
“We’re excited to be busy,” she said.
Lunch is offered 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursday through Saturday with an expanded brunch menu available from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.
Back River Bistro is located at 65 Gardiner Road in Wiscasset. For reservations and more information, go to backriverbistro.com.