The first thing you need to know is that 18 Below doesn’t refer to the temperature. It’s the location: 18 Silver St. in Waterville, below ground level. Although if it is 18 below outside, this is a very comfy place to spend some time.
When we started this travel column, we decided to give any new restaurant a couple of years before we visited. A lot can go wrong in a restaurant, and most of it goes wrong in the first year or two. In fact, if a restaurant lasts two years, it’s probably going to be successful.
But so many friends recommended 18 Below to us, that we set aside our policy and visited last week, 14 months after it opened. And we discovered a very good restaurant, from the décor to the desserts.
Owner Travis Lajoy’s secret to success greeted us as we entered — his mother Donna! She’s the vivacious hostess, and we thoroughly enjoyed visiting with her. She’s obviously (and with good reason) proud of her son and his restaurant. She handed us off to our server, Steven, who was knowledgeable, personable and eager to take the extra steps to make our meal memorable.
I was especially impressed with the care Steve took to box up my leftovers, separating the broth from the mussels in my appetizer. You can plan on leftovers here, because portions are large.
Well, OK, I did eat all of my superb scallop entrée. These were huge caramelized scallops in a very tasty sweet pepper coulis. That sauce was delicious. And the perfectly cooked (rare) scallops came with two creative angle hair pancakes and seasonal vegetables.
Many online reviewers raved about the mussel appetizer and they were right on. These Prince Edward Island mussels — sautéed in Shipyard Export Ale (one of my favorite brews) with shallots, garlic, tomatoes and orange wedges — were exceptional.
Those orange wedges transformed the dish, adding surprising taste and zest. And the broth was very flavorful too. I could have drunk a glass of it! Steve thoughtfully swapped my dish of empty mussel shells twice as I worked my way through the huge number of mussels — and I still had some to bring home.
It tells you something that after less than a year, Travis had to move from a six-burner stove to a 10-burner stove. This place is hopping. I especially loved the walls of bricks and old wood, the low lighting, the decorations — even the Allagash barrel that serves as the hostess station. Lots of thought went into the design of 18 Below.
It’s a compliment to say that this restaurant could be set down in Portland’s Old Port and fit right in, offering high-quality food and a great dining experience.
The street-level lounge, called the Pearl, is gorgeous, resplendent in white, big enough for about two dozen people and perfect for a small event. It has the same hours as the restaurant and serves appetizers as well as drinks. The downstairs bar seats 36 and is available for larger events.
The restaurant seats 44 and the entire menu is available, from 4 p.m. to about 12:30 a.m., in both the restaurant and bar. They don’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait for a table on busy weekend evenings. Or go early or late. But definitely, go often!
When you enter this restaurant you will probably notice the modern, edgy atmosphere right off. There is a large, open waiting area in back of the hostess station where many patrons patiently wait for a table (on weekends), in the comfortable leather seating area. And I can see why they wait — both the food and the atmosphere here are worth it!
Tyler Libby started by gutting the building. He kept the old brick walls and added rough-hewn lumber below the bricks. Punched-tin lights hang over the comfortable booths, sconces (also punched tin) on the brick walls and candles throughout the space make this a warm, inviting place to hang out. The vents and pipes remain exposed on the ceiling.
Their menu features lots of fresh seafood, creatively prepared. There is a great variety on the regular menu, and a specials list broadens this by including five more entrees which change daily.
I ordered a tomato and fresh mozzarella bruschetta on that night’s menu of specials. The appetizer was very large and certainly enough for two. Ciabatta bread was spread with an amazing basil pesto, topped with fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, which had been toasted just enough to melt it. All this was drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Served with mixed greens tossed with a lemon vinaigrette, this could have been my meal! Absolutely delicious!
Though the pork tenderloin special sounded great, I stuck with a vegetarian theme and ordered the stuffed portabella mushroom entrée. The stuffing was roasted tomatoes and spinach, and this was topped with parmesan cheese. The roasted flavor of both the tomatoes and the mushroom really came through.
My dinner came with mashed potatoes and seasonal veggies, and was enough that I didn’t make a very large dent in it. (But it made yummy leftovers!) We noticed almost everyone that night excited about leftovers. The portion size is big and the entrée prices, ($13-$26) are very reasonable. My appetizer and entrée totaled $20.
After a full day spent teaching first grade, I was getting confused when the waiters kept zipping by. They all looked alike to me and I had just commented on this to George when the hostess, Travis’ mom, came over to point out that the servers were twin brothers. It had me mystified for a while.
18 Below is a family endeavor. Mom is the hostess (and helped reupholster the leather on the booths), and Dad helped with the renovations. Son Travis is the owner who created his vision for the restaurant (with a lot of help from his wife), and spends a lot of his time helping with preparations in the kitchen.
Creativity and presentation are certainly strengths of the chef here. The variety of preparations combined with the variety of proteins served here could have you coming back many times trying to try them all!
Visit George’s website: www.georgesmithmaine.com for travel tips, book reviews, outdoor news and more.