Published Date Written by Timothy GillisWhile the public debates uses of Congress Square Park, the architect of a new restaurant that plans to open in a space facing the intersection of High and Congress streets already is deep into the discussions of what to do with the park.
Vinland, owned and operated by David Levi, will open at 593 Congress St. in early October, Levi said. A world-traveled restaurant innovator, Levi said he anticipates major improvements at the Congress Square Plaza spanning Congress Street in front of the Portland Museum of Art.
"I definitely picked the space knowing full well what Rockbridge was doing next door," Levi said, referring to the developers of the nearby Eastland Park Hotel. Levi said he was excited about the revitalization of the old Eastland Park Hotel, but said personally, he also has reservations about giving up public space. The city continues reviewing plans for the hotel developers and renovators to acquire part of the park for an events center. But at the same time Levi said he recognized the complexity of the planning effort and the potential of the plaza.
"I think it's a complex and nuanced issue, I think that we should really think twice and thrice before setting the precedent of selling park land for private use, but then again Congress Square has been a less than successful public space," he said.
"We do have a unique opportunity," he said, and envisioned a broader redesign of Congress Square that could make the site a pedestrian-friendly space. Plans include a High Street redesign with a two-way configuration, something Levi endorsed, and a more level refurbished area for people to walk.
Beyond discussion of Congress Square Park, Levi said he hopes to tap into the city's appreciative food culture.
Although it's his first restaurant, Levi is no stranger to fine dining and world-famous cuisine.
He grew up in New York and has spent a lot of time with family in Rome, Milan, Venice, and Tuscany, Italy, where he studied under two renowned butchers, including Dario Cecchini, considered by many to be the world's best.
"He is a real mentor and friend," Levi said of Cecchini. "I learned a great deal while working with him."
Levi also worked with Cecchini's own mentor, a man named Orlando whom everyone referred to as "The Maestro."
"He really worked with me the most in terms of how to break down the cows and the pigs," Levi said. "Traditional butchers are very different from the modern industrial means. With them, I learned how to work with my hands to separate the animal vs. chopping it into blocks."
Levi formed his own food philosophy in Italy, praising Cecchini for being a spokesman for the ethical treatment of animals and small family farms. He also emphasized the role of the artist in the community, whether the artist is a butcher or anyone else, and is a defender of traditional Tuscan cooking techniques.
"I worked in his restaurant for him," Levi said. "Working with some of his recipes was very educational, and I'll be using some of them in the Vinland menu."
Levi then worked at Noma in Copenhagen, which is widely considered to be the world's best restaurant.
"There you have a 12-course tasting menu that runs $300 to $500 a head. Dario's restaurants are all communal seating — loud and boisterous. You eat well, but it's not fine dining. Noma is the height of fine dining."
Vinland is aiming to be somewhere in between, he said. While he knows he cannot replicate the type of food that Noma produces, he will try to bring some of its approach. "We will have a tasting menu for a fraction of Noma's price, as well as an a la carte menu," Levi said. "The atmosphere will be elegant, but in a way that makes sense for Maine. People should feel comfortable coming by in their Bean boots."
An extra special aspect of Vinland will be that every ingredient will be sourced locally. "That's not something done anywhere in the modern world," Levi said. Asked if such a task is a tall one, Levi said, "Not really. I've gotten used to it because I've done these pop-up dinners for a year and a half, catering events and working within these self-imposed boundaries to support local farmers and fishermen. And to show what we can do here in Maine. It pushes me to innovate. If I can't use lemon, I ask: 'What can I use instead?' At this point, it doesn't actually seem that hard."
Levi was the guest chef recently at a Twilight Dinner, sponsored by Cultivating Community at their farm in Cape Elizabeth. The three-course meal was prepared by Levi to highlight local and seasonal food offerings.
"They've been doing this for a few years," Levi said. "I did it last year also. It's a non-profit educational organization that trains recent immigrants in organic farming. It sets them up with some land and work as organic farmers. They've got quite a good-size demonstration farm. The executive director, Craig Lapine, approaches local chefs to see if they are interested in doing a dinner to showcase their offerings. The chefs are volunteering their time, working mostly with donated produce from local communities."
Levi said his meal this year was a waterlogged affair, but he battled the elements anyway.
"It suddenly turned cold and started to rain very hard just as I was beginning service," he said. "They had set it up to plate outside. I was in a difficult position of having to serve 55 people at once in the pouring rain. From a chef's point-of-view, it was far from ideal, but everyone was there in the communal spirit. All things considered, it went very well."
Levi's positive attitude despite occasional adversity should serve him well in his new venture. He is opening his restaurant on a shoestring budget, he says, but that's doesn't change his philosophy about having everything in the place come from right around town.
He has started a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to raise $40,000. By July 9, he was reporting the campaign at nearly 50 percent of its goal.
To learn more about the new restaurant, and to donate to the Kickstarter campaign, visit www.vinland.me.
(Editor David Carkhuff contributed to this report.)