Dining is a lot like theater. You set off with high expectations, looking forward to a novel experience or a production as memorable as the last one you loved. You’re led ceremonially to a seat, a fine one you hope, with a pleasant view and enough space to be comfortable. Leafing through the menu – or the playbill – you learn about what’s ahead and the cast of characters behind the scenes, and then you settle in, anticipation building, and wait for the performance to begin.

Little Village Bistro, the “refined, casual American” restaurant that Tony Bickford opened in Wiscasset last April, puts on a good show. Nondescript from the outside, the newly renovated space (Bickford did the work himself) is surprisingly attractive, with seating for about 45 customers in an L-shaped dining room and another nine stools in front of the mirror-backed bar. The ceilings are low and bleached white, the walls are painted a soft sage, and the tables and banquettes are cozy, if exceedingly close together, fostering a sense of intimacy.

Bickford’s opening act is impressive, with a selection of familiar appetizers that demonstrate his commitment to fresh ingredients and his gift for complementary flavors. A cup ($5) of sausage minestrone arrives brimming with buttery cannellini beans, slices of onion and carrot, slivers of salty pancetta and chunks of house-made sausage – but no pasta. “We leave it out,” Bickford says, “because we have more and more customers avoiding gluten.” The soup is meaty and hearty and satisfying thanks, in part, to a deeply flavorful broth made of chicken, beef stock and white wine. And that sausage (he uses pork from Buckspork of Maine in Chesterville) is a standout: mild and only slightly fatty, aromatic thanks to a sprinkling of fennel seed, and distinctly sweet. A modest cup of the minestrone was soothing and filling; a bowl plus a few slices of the bread baked fresh daily would make a fine meal.

The plate of crab cakes ($13) that followed was even better. While the presentation was uninspired (two cakes are served beneath a small mound of shredded cucumber salad with a scattering of parsley leaves on top) the flavor was eye opening. “I’m a crabmeat snob, and this is incredibly good,” a friend said. She cut off one corner of a crabcake, plunging the golden-brown morsel into a pool of caper-laced remoulade and offering it with a smile. Fresh and lightly seasoned, the crab had barely enough breadcrumbs to hold it together, and the remoulade was creamy, spicy (Bickford adds tobacco, cayenne and paprika) and refreshingly bright, thanks to a few drops of lemon juice. Crab cakes bomb when they’re dry or leaden. These were airy and moist and well worth an ovation.

After such a strong opener, Act II was something of a letdown. The waitress recommended slow-simmered pot roast ($15) (“it’s one of our customers’ favorite dishes,” she said). A spoonful of the braising sauce was good – rich and meaty and fragrant with bay leaves and garlic – but the beef itself was dull. A long bath in the dark brown jus improved it, and it was better still layered with a spoonful of creamy mashed potatoes and a few lemon-zested peas.

A fillet of pan-seared, blackened Atlantic salmon ($16) was likewise uneven. The fish, though fresh, was overcooked. But the risotto underneath was a showstopper. Flavored with sweet tomatoes from Backyard Farms and topped with peppery microgreens from MicroMainea, the risotto was intensely creamy and rich – Bickford adds mascarpone to the tender grains of rice. He finishes the dish with a few drops of rosemary oil that heightened the flavor and added a subtle, piney scent. “Every chef has a go-to oil,” Bickford says, “and this is definitely one of mine. I like the fresh contrast it provides in a dish as starchy as risotto.” Bickford worked at the Thistle Inn in Boothbay Harbor before opening Little Village Bistro. He says he brought his rosemary oil, and many of his loyal customers, with him when he moved to Wiscasset.

Memorable productions end with strong finishes, and Act III at the bistro was a definite crowd pleaser. Apple cake ($6), studded with slices of tart Granny Smiths, was deliciously moist and offered heft, plus the comforting flavors of vanilla and cinnamon. Bickford says he bakes the cake in an angel food pan and douses it straight out of the oven with a toffee glaze that seeps into every crevice.

Besting the apple cake didn’t seem likely, but for an encore the waitress brought over a simple cannoli ($6) filled with house-made ricotta and decorated with a dusting of crushed pistachios. The shell was fragile, with a dimpled surface that shattered noisily under a fork. And the ricotta brought down the house with a texture as smooth as whipped cream, and a focused sweetness (Bickford says he uses white balsamic vinegar to make the cheese) enhanced with a grind of nutmeg. The cannoli gets a drizzle of chocolate sauce, but doesn’t need it.

Bickford continues to tinker with the menu at Little Village Bistro, while addressing a few concerns. He suggests making reservations because the tables fill up quickly, and acknowledges there’s limited space for waiting if your table’s not ready when you are. A few of the entrees miss their marks and deserve attention, and customers looking forward to a quiet evening will want to steer clear of the bar area. (Enthusiastic patrons at happy hour can make conversation at adjacent tables difficult.) But, this is a still a new production, not a long-running show, and Bickford has the skill to work the kinks out.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. He lives in Maine.

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