As a kid, I was a serial dabbler. Though I tried lots of sports and activities, I never stuck with one long enough to become great (or even very good). There was always some new endeavor waiting for me: soccer, Boy Scouts, video games, even xylophone – although that may have ended because my parents hid the mallets. My habit was to pick something that sounded like fun, learn a few of the basics, then abandon it once I hit the phase where further progress became subtle and demanded hours of hard work.

My dilettante years ended when I became a language-obsessed teenager, happy to spend my weekends memorizing irregular participles of German verbs so I could test them out on my Austrian pen pal. But I still hold a special empathy for people powering through their own frustrating in-between periods. During a meal at the upscale, modern American grill, Hoxbill last weekend, I felt it especially keenly.

I knew something wasn’t quite right the minute I walked in. The host seemed perplexed when I told her I had a reservation. “You what?” she asked, then turned to another front-of-house staffer, who glanced at my guest and me, then shrugged and went back to sorting that evening’s freshly printed menus.

Hesitatingly, she guided us to a table on the outdoor patio, where we were seated at a four-top with a stunning view of Camden Harbor. From here, we could practically dip our toes into the Megunticook River and watch the passing schooners as we sipped cocktails like the sweet-and-seductively floral, Mezcal-based Red Sky at Night ($12).

“Don’t mind us,” our server laughed as she brought our drinks. “We’re training a bunch of new people. Everyone’s got a shadow, including me.” She gestured at the woman behind her staring fixedly at the ground.

According to owner Matt Haskell, Hoxbill has been both busy and understaffed this season, so the addition of new employees is a step in the right direction. It comes after a year of upheaval and reshuffling of both front-of-house and back-of-house staff that began last September, when the restaurant’s original chef, Tim Maslow (Ribelle, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Strip-T’s), departed unceremoniously after less than a month.

Rather than stick around to helm the duo of restaurants planned for the space – Hoxbill and an izakaya named Kurafuto – Maslow returned to Boston and opened his own Japanese brasserie in Boston’s South End. That left Hoxbill without kitchen leadership and Haskell with a half-completed, 200-seat dining project on his hands.

Things were touch-and-go until April, when Haskell convinced Key West restaurateur and former Maine resident Luigi Pacelli to take over as executive chef. Four months later, the food is beginning to show signs of genuine promise, despite the evident chaos that still presides over the chic, contemporary dining room.

Many dishes at Hoxbill make use of the restaurant’s super-powered Grillworks system, an open-flame, wood-fired grill that can be stoked to volcanic temperatures. When it is used well, direct exposure to fire adds a new dimension of flavor to dishes. Take Pacelli’s simple-sounding duck breast salad. In it, he uses fire to expose a subtle bitterness in the protein that he balances with dairy, acid and fruit: goat cheese from Sunset Acres Farm & Dairy in Brooksville, pink pickled onions and a blood orange sauce that drips leisurely into greens dressed with a pureed blueberry vinaigrette.

When the grill is deployed less carefully, the results can take down a whole dish, as I tasted in the pan-seared halibut with orange-strawberry salsa ($32). The biggest problem was not the overcooked, undersalted fish, but the gloppy, saffron-infused risotto underneath. Made with onions that had been charred over open flames, the rice was the consistency of spackle and tasted of nothing other than ashes.

Plating is also occasionally an obstacle to success at Hoxbill. My serving of tender, earthy braised greens ($6) came coiled artistically into a deep bowl, an aesthetic choice with unfortunate practical consequences: All of the chopped garlic and vinegary braising liquid sank to the bottom of the bowl, leaving the top forkfuls bland, and the bottom ones too tart to eat.

With the ultra-dense flourless chocolate torte ($9), it appeared that more effort went into decorating the plate than considering harmonious flavor combinations. The plate itself was double-dusted into a stenciled palimpsest of cocoa and powdered sugar that, according to our server, were not there to eat, but “just to look pretty in the shape of a spoon.” And while sine-waves of rich ganache and candied matchsticks of orange peel along the cake’s surface added layers of flavor, a small puddle of sauces left me baffled. In two concentric circles they pooled there, forming a shape that my guest and I thought looked disturbingly like the Eye of Sauron. In the center, a sticky blood-orange sauce (not “a red wine reduction,” as our server insisted), and surrounding it, a frog-green homemade mint sauce. Together, they tasted more like something that belonged on lamb, not a chocolate dessert.

I also encountered service errors that extended beyond basic knowledge of the menu. Servers were eager to help with wine, but did not yet appear to have the skills to do so. I accepted our server’s offer to help navigate the extensive by-the-glass list and was told both that Verdejo was a red wine, and that a Hedges CMS red blend from Washington State ($13) would be “a super light option.” It turned out to be a cabernet-merlot-syrah blend with a tannin structure firm enough to support a tanker truck.

Probably not the right choice to pair with Pacelli’s lush and beautifully seared Kurobuta pork chop ($32) from Royalton Farms in Vermont. But no matter. I saved my glass for dessert and focused on the chop, spread thick with a tawny duck demi-glace and served with slow-roasted herbed potatoes. It was a rock-solid dish, just like his loose and hauntingly smoky clam chowder ($9/$15), loaded with a generous bonus portion of littleneck clams slipped into the soup and a crispy, deep-fried potato croquette bobbing on the surface.

I might never have ordered the chowder, had a woman at next table not done so first. She was there celebrating her 92nd birthday with her middle-aged son. As she sipped her fishbowl-sized pour of house red wine and cooed happily over the truffle-oil-drizzled chowder, I heard her tell the server and trainee, “I was here before, you know. But it’s much better. Seeing it now makes me very, very happy.”

As if building on its newfound forward momentum weren’t hard enough, things are about to get significantly trickier at Hoxbill. Haskell and his team are finally ready to open Kurafuto in the adjacent space, with Pacelli set to oversee both kitchens – a daunting task even for someone who has run a Japanese izakaya before. But perhaps doubling down will generate a sense of urgency to focus on the difficult work ahead. Seeing two accomplished new restaurants on Camden Harbor would almost certainly make everyone very, very happy.

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. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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