If you’re coming out of hiding, there are worse places to do it than on the waterfront.

Stephanie Brown, former chef/owner of Seagrass Bistro in Yarmouth, first disappeared from the public eye when she sold her business and went to work as the executive chef of the private Woodlands Club in Falmouth. “From that point on, for four years, members of the club were the only ones who could have my food,” she said.

Earlier this year, Laura Argitis of Old Port Sea Grill lured her back. All it took was an offer to partner on a new endeavor – a South Portland bistro called North 43, housed in a newly renovated, contemporary corrugated steel, glass and wood structure that occupies the spot where Joe’s Boathouse once sat in Spring Point Marina.

Inside, there’s an open kitchen, high-backed twill banquette seating and chunky dark wood tables. Right away, it’s clear that the interior is at odds with the exterior. From the giant gilt-lettered, Copperplate Gothic sign reading “Company” to the striped throw pillows, the vibe indoors leans stately country, while the building itself looks like a modernist fold-out centerfold from Dwell magazine.

Despite its proximity to deep water and views that pan cinematically across the Fore River, hopscotching over Little, then Great Diamond islands, the bistro is not a nautical-themed seafood restaurant. Brown and Argitis rejected the idea as too touristy, focusing on a long view of their business, one where January is as important as July.

Instead, North 43 is, as Brown describes it, an “American bistro with French, Tuscan and Asian influences that reflect my style of cooking.”

“My training is French classical, my heritage is Italian, and my childhood was very much about homemade food, gardens, big dinners. And since we’re here on the water, Asian flair goes really well with seafood,” she explained.

With that in mind, it’s hard to know what to expect from the menu. That’s doubly true when you look at the cocktail list, which is full of enjoyable, if not particularly adventurous drinks like a citrusy bourbon cocktail ($9) with lemon, maple and apple cider and bourbon. Or the Eternal Flame ($10) a tweaked Negroni made with Aperol and chili liqueur – but not enough of either to make you guess that you’re drinking anything other than a standard-issue Negroni.

And when guests have knocked back a few, the dining room can get barbarically noisy. Despite a few soundproofing tiles on the ceiling of the dining room, I could barely hear my dinner guest on a recent visit – thanks to a party of nine, high-fiving across their table and bellowing in celebration of something having to do with LinkedIn. “Looks like a Friday in here, not a Thursday,” our server commented apologetically. “But you won’t notice them once you start eating.”

She wasn’t entirely right, but there was indeed plenty to focus on once our plates arrived. I was particularly taken with the Italian-esque pan-seared scallops with saffron-tomato reduction ($14), especially the sauce, an enthusiastically tangy and floral concoction. Brown prepares it by finishing puréed tomatoes with a compound butter flavored with saffron, shallot and thyme. Poured over three well-seared, medium-sized scallops, it was fantastic – the sort of sauce I would have sopped up with bread, if I had any nearby. The dish’s single flaw was an unnecessary drizzle of balsamic reduction that tipped the balance of the plate too far toward the acidic.

Wild boar with carrots and chard.

Another Italian-inspired dish, the rack of wild boar with chard and candy-sweet molasses-roasted carrots ($27) was nearly as good. Some days, a portion consists of one large chop, some days a few smaller ones. “It’s legitimately wild, so we have no control over the size of the rack. It just depends on the animal we get,” Brown said. Brined overnight in apple cider, brown sugar and anise, the boar is finished to order in a hot oven with apple butter and cinnamon, giving the meat a deep, caramel crust. It’s astoundingly good.

The chard that accompanies the boar, on the other hand, is not. Lift the edge of the rack, and you’ll discover torn raw leaves and broken stems, all folded onto the plate – no dressing, no cooking, no seasoning. “On each plate I try to put something simple to go with something more powerful,” Brown explained. But uncooked, forearm-long leaves of ruffled, late-season chard are fibrous and tough, unpleasant to anyone who is not part rabbit.

Elsewhere on the menu, chewiness is something to be avoided. It’s the entire reason why North 43’s curly kale salad ($10) is chiffonaded into skinny ribbons: “Kale can be really rough on the palate and the digestive tract. Chopping it brings a little bit of elegance to eating it. Plus the dressing works its way through the kale to soften it, so you’re not chewing forever,” Brown said. She’s right on both counts. Her creamy-textured Asian peanut dressing, made from cider, sambal, lime zest and lime juice not only tenderizes the greens, julienned carrots and shaved radishes, it is also bewitchingly tasty. The duck breast ($28) entrée reveals intriguing, cuisine-straddling elements, as well. Brown starts by searing fennel-, red pepper flake- and cumin-rubbed duck breasts, then roasting them with hoisin, tamari and anise, a few glugs of red wine, chicken stock and a blood orange purée. It’s a little bit Asian, a little French and a little Tuscan, all on the same plate.

But it’s all about execution, and on a recent visit, the duck was overcooked and its sauce both oversalted and far too tart. The line cooks that evening also ran amok, adding fist-sized piles of radish microgreens to the plate, creating a bitter, hairy-looking mess that hid the best components of the dish: tamari-roasted Brussels sprouts and remarkably savory, golden brown spaghetti squash galette – an ingenious (and seasonally appropriate) substitute for potatoes.

You have to give credit to Brown for trying, and sometimes succeeding, in her attempts to stitch together a patchwork crazy quilt of French, Tuscan and Asian influences. That’s no easy feat, and it explains why loyal customers from both of her recent local gigs have followed her to North 43, blending into the already eclectic mix of patrons: locals who walk to the restaurant, visitors who travel by water from neighboring islands, as well as people who keep boats at the marina. “I’ve been away for a while now, so it’s nice to see when people still remember you,” she said. With such an original perspective on something as potentially dull as American bistro cooking, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could forget her.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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