There are certain perils involved with dining solo, especially when there is the distinct fear that you may miss something spectacular. Sans dining companion, you are officially on center stage, increasing the pressure to perform, knowing that each uneaten morsel of food that makes it’s way back to the kitchen will be displayed for all to see.
I am feeling up to the challenge at Tao, and given that each item on the menu is technically classified as a “small plate,” divided simply into the two categories of “hot” and “cold,” my goals seem attainable. Executive chef Cara Stadler, whose background includes stints in high-end kitchens from Beijing to Philadelphia, actually recommends at least three to four savory dishes per diner, a policy that further encourages me to order with reckless abandon.
To aid in my endeavor I consult with bartender Adam Alfter, and we decide it best for me to begin with Tao’s version of the Manhattan. Bulleit 95 Rye is employed as a base, and is accentuated with the superlative Dolin Vermouth de Chambérywhich imparts a lighter, drier characteristic than lesser vermouthsbefore the drink is garnished with house-brandied cherries and an orange peel. As I sip, Alfter goes on to describe his various bar projects, which range from smoked ice to a plethora of pickled garnishes.
At first glance it would appear that the menu is most heavily influenced by the cuisines of Japan, Korea, and China, though a few ingredients in other dishes certainly hail from elsewhere in Asia. I begin with the tuna tartare, constructed with ultra-fresh fish, buttery avocado, and crispy radish. Two elements in particular make this dish standout, the first being use of white balsamic vinegar with wasabi, as well as crispy rice used as garnish for a popcorn-like texture.
Next up is a duck breast smoked with maple wood, sliced, and fanned out over creamy, sweet sesame peanut buckwheat noodles. The pronounced smokiness of the bird is absolutely brilliant with the noodles and accompanying ribbons of cucumber and scallion, to the point where I am eating with such enthusiasm that I do not notice the wedge of lime provided in the bowl until I am halfway done. Of course, the acid from the lime juice takes the dish from excellent to the realm of Elysian, a word that some say I might overuse but that I feel perfectly describes many culinary situations.
I continue with a progression of dumplings, some served in bamboo steamers, much like at traditional dim sum. To accompany both my pan-fried dumplings with shrimp and steamed pork, and shrimp shao mai, I have been provided with a dipping sauce of soy and black rice vinegar. Each boasts delicate, chewy dough that serves to be just sturdy enough as not to allow the filling to break through. Grandma Tang’s Roast Pork Buns are an old recipe from Stadler’s grandmother, though the recipe has been slightly updated with the pork now being cooked sous vide until tender, before being mixed with fermented black beans, hoisin, and scallion. The bun itself is not unlike a delicious cloud that just happens to contain a whole bunch of damn good meat. Lastly, I enjoy wontons that have been filled with caramelized fennel before being covered in a piping hot tomato broth tableside. It is then garnished with Thai basil, which provides a pleasant anise-on-anise flavor when combined with the fennel.
The true standout of the evening is the Singapore Chicken Rice, a Hainanese dish that is so revered in that country that it is actually even served on its airlines. Stadler’s version involves chicken cooked sous vide before it is seared to attain crispy skin. The rice is cooked in both chicken and duck fat in an effort to achieve rich, intense flavor, and the whole dish is topped with a Chinese salsa verde of sorts, consisting of scallion, ginger, and cilantro, cooked with a bit of sugar and scalding chicken fat.
Tao truly fills a much-needed place in the growing, increasingly sophisticated Brunswick dining scene. I work my way through a few more dishes before being forced to admit defeat, and vowing to “complete” the menu upon return, which will hopefully be sooner rather than later.
22 Pleasant St. | Brunswick | 207.725.9002 | tao-maine.com