George

The only bad thing about writing a weekly travel column is that we seldom get to enjoy a return visit to our favorite places. It’s been three years since we last wrote about 18 Below in Waterville, but thankfully, it is just as good as we remembered.

Owner/chef Travis Lajoy’s mom, Donna, the personable greeter, is still up front. Steve Comfort is still the primary server. He’s an amazing guy who even remembered what we’d eaten here back then. We started this dining adventure with a bottle of a Spanish Tempranillo ($22).

While the regular menu — focused on seafood but with plenty of other choices — is a long one, I focused (with Steve’s guidance) on the creative specials menu: six appetizers priced from $2.25 to $10, and nine entrees priced from $22 to $25. After Donna alerted us to the crispy duck breast tenders and Steve described the sweet and spicy orange sauce, I knew I had to have that. The crust was crispy, while the meat inside was tender, and the sauce was tasty. The serving was large enough for two people, and Linda grabbed quite a bit of it after telling Steve, “Usually I’m not a duck person.”

When I saw the traditional dish Coquilles St. Jacques (a dish I’ve not seen anywhere in the five years we’ve been writing this column) in the specials menu, I quickly ordered it. It included a lot of fresh sea scallops, roasted mushroom cream and Parmesan crumbs, and was accompanied by baby spinach and tomato-tossed orzo. Oh my, what a feast. And that sauce was so delectable. Linda called it “really, really good” and that’s true. It reminded me of why this is my favorite scallop dish. Alas, despite the huge portion, there was nothing left to bring home.

Leo Mathieu, the new chef here, has thankfully only added to the great reputation of 18 Below. We’ll need to double down and dine here again, sooner than three years from now.

Linda

Another visit to 18 Below in Waterville reminded me what a beautiful space this restaurant really is. Brick melds with barn board and comfortable leather and upholstered booths make this such a nice place to dine. Candlelight and calming music add to the atmosphere.

From the dining room tables, you get a glimpse into the kitchen, where all those tempting dishes are being created. And we watched (and drooled a bit) as plates of entrees were picked up by the servers.

We have eaten here twice before and I haven’t done justice to my entree either time, so this time I came with a plan. I’d only order an entree and skip the appetizer. Maybe I’d even have room for dessert.

Travis’ mother, Donna, pointed out the duck tender appetizer, and Travis later told us he had tried them elsewhere and ended up creating his own version by thinly slicing the duck. Panko crumbs gave the meat a nice crunchy crust. George ordered it for his appetizer, and Steve was kind enough to bring out a plate for me so I could try them.

The orange dipping sauce was bright and paired brilliantly with the duck. My plan was going well. I didn’t order an app but I did find myself enjoying three or four of those delicacies. George was convinced I’d eaten half, but clearly this was an appetizer big enough for two.

The specials list here is full of creative dishes. I don’t usually eat seafood, but I wanted to try a seafood dish. The grilled chipotle shrimp sounded great. Spicy, colossal shrimp were served over saffron rice with a pineapple, mango and strawberry salsa.

The aroma when my dish arrived quickly got my attention. One look at the colors and I thought, “This should be a painting.” The saffron rice was really good and the shrimp was extraordinary. The chipotle flavor of the shrimp was at the forefront, but not overly spicy. The saltiness of the shrimp was muted by the fantastic fruit salsa. Although I rarely order seafood, Chef Leo won me over with this dish. It is the best shrimp dish I have tried, and our server agreed that it was the best he’d tried as well.

I was glad I didn’t get my own appetizer, as I really did do this plate justice. I saved just one and a half shrimp and a little ric,e which I thoroughly enjoyed at home. I’m definitely going to have to go back soon for a repeat.

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed by town in the “Best of Maine” section.

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