Dine Out Maine: Knotted Apron is a neighborhood restaurant with a lot of potential, some of it unrealized

Now that half of 2022 is almost over, I think it’s a good idea to let you participate in one of my New Year’s resolutions. Besides my commitment to take supply chain issues and labor shortages into account when reviewing a restaurant, I promised to avoid censure with faint praise. It requires a lot of inference, a lot of decoding, and is generally not fair to the readers. With that said, I’ll pick myself up 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 achieved success.

Opening six weeks before the pandemic undoubtedly paved a bumpy road for this charming Rosemont area bistro. As Chef Ryan Hickman said, “It feels like we’re running three different types of restaurants here at this point. Like everyone else, we’ve been eating out for a while, but really, we had an original plan to be a neighborhood eatery when we opened But we try to keep up with the flow of what people want. So now it’s more upscale.”

Ryan Hickman, chef and co-owner of The Knotted Apron. Sean Patrick Owlette / Staff Photographer

There’s no doubt that Hickman, who owns business with general manager Kate Harvey, has the expertise to run either type of restaurant. As in-house leader at Back Bay Grill, Arrows in Ogunquit and Pine Point Grille in Scarborough, Hickman has learned how to follow the progression of seasonality, developing a style of cooking that he describes as “mostly French and Italian, simple, but with plenty of technique and dedication to making everything in the home “.

Hickman definitely means “everything”. At The Knotted Apron, ingredients for dishes other chefs might source from are made from scratch, such as puff pastry—a difficult and time-consuming dough—used as the basis for a well-baked, if tiny, French onion tart ($11). Served on a palm-sized cast-iron tray, this delicious Gruyere tart reminded me of a quick appetizer you’d find at an upscale party.

Meanwhile, in the dessert section of the menu, Hickman still sticks to his homemade ethic, whipping up gorgeous ginger ice cream to scoop on a dense, somewhat deflated lemon chiffon cake puffed inside a ditch of barely-there strawberries ($11). Some whipped cream may have made this dish look more complete, but it may also have pushed it into the shortcake territory. Next time, I’ll order the ice cream alone.

Many cocktail ingredients are similarly made from scratch, like the lilac sugar used to dust the mouthful of the champagne supernova flute ($11). Vodka and lemon make up the base of this flying drink, but I found it hard to taste anything other than the sugary creme de violet and the floral fragrance of the oddly patchy lilac sugar rim.

“Oh,” I joked the server, “the tape left a gap for me to archive!” I laughed, then explained that sometimes it happens when a cocktail is poured sloppy. “But yes, you can drink from there,” she said. Then my dinner guest baffled me by adding, “Or whatever else you want to do.”

Wait what?

Also puzzling: the interior design of the space. The wall separating the kitchen from the bar has been removed, and while this allows the chef and chef to interact more with the guests, it ties in the old design elements without context. Take the fireplace and the surrounding polished wood, for example. Once a focal point of the bar at JP’s Bistro, it now looks cut and pasted into the expanded room, as does the random design of the enormous wall clock and Anthony Bourdain’s portrait.

The attractive outdoor patio at The Knotted Apron. Sean Patrick Owlette / Staff Photographer

However, there is another story out there. Here, the 18-seat patio (bringing the total to about 45) is inviting and well-spaced for relaxing food and drink during pandemic-era evenings. A pair of chairs around the portable fire pit also invite passersby to sit, ordering a non-alcoholic Chase Falls cocktail ($6) made with the restaurant’s excellent rhubarb bush and a snack of crunchy brownies ($7)—Hickman admits it’s a hit or miss. “I think it was fine when you came in last night, but you should be about to be the best in town.”

This self-awareness is part of the reason why I believe The Knotted Apron will mature into a more consistently great restaurant. Hickman and his team already have a seasonality scale; It’s often the seasoning that gets them stuck.

In snap pea agnolotti ($17), handcrafted pasta packages filled with funky Tallegio cheese, egg yolks, and heavy cream, there was a glut of salty items, from cheese to house-cured pancetta, that killed off the sweetness of peas and peas. Pea sprouts. While the main course is a wonderfully grilled halibut ($36), the culprit was a sugary sauce made with equal parts garlic and Maine maple syrup. It was so sweet it took away the accompanying violin flavors, unfortunately the last short season.

Warm and aromatic duck leg is made with beans, mushrooms and tikka masala. All items assemble. Sean Patrick Owlette / Staff Photographer

When everything falls into place, though, Hickman shows he has the pieces to put complex dishes together beautifully. An Indian-inspired tikka masala ($27) is all you need: crisp skin and a dairy-free sauce that blooms with the scent of cumin, cinnamon, coriander, and cardamom. It might not be in Hickman’s French/Italian wheelhouse, but the dish retains the European flourish in gleaming mushrooms, emeralds, and sautéed olive oil.

I hope The Knotted Apron gets a chance to live up to the potential offered by dishes like this one. As Hickman himself puts it in his naturally candid view of things, “It’s been tough years, and we’re not our best yet, but things are heading in the right direction.”

I, for example, support giving him the benefit of the doubt.

evaluation: ***
where: 496 Woodford Street, Portland. 207-805-1523. knottenapron.com
service: Wed to Sat, 5-9pm, Sun 10am-2pm
price range: Appetizers and snacks: $7-16. Pasta and appetizers: $17-36
noise level: The changing room in the store
vegetarian: some dishes
gluten free: some dishes
Reservations: Recommended, but visits are welcomed
ribbon: Beer, wine and cocktails
Wheelchair allowed: yes

minimum: This upscale, nominally French-Italian bistro, on the border between the neighborhoods of Rosemont and Deering Center, has plenty of great things to do, not least of which is its quaint front yard, perfect for an alcohol-free Chasing Waterfalls cocktail and, if you’re a little conceited, a slice of onion tart Delicious French. Chef/Co-Owner Ryan Hickman shows an impressive dedication to his craft, making the pastry base himself, along with just about everything else on the menu. Not all dishes are perfect winners, but there are plenty of promising dishes in dishes like summer lemon chiffon cake with great ginger ice cream, super seasonal pea agnolotti, and not-so-distinguished dishes, but one of the restaurant’s best: duck confit in a warm and aromatic tikka masala sauce. And in these warm months, everything outside tastes better, so book a patio if you can.

Lemon chiffon cake with ginger and strawberry ice cream. Sean Patrick Owlette / Staff Photographer

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