Lio, the newest venture from celebrated restaurateur Cara Stadler (Tao Yuan and Bao Bao), operates with the soul of a wine bar. But there’s more to it than that. It is true that, thanks to a nitrogen-powered preservation system that allows individual portions to be removed from bottles without spoiling the remainder, you’ll find a jaw-dropping three dozen wines available by the glass and half-glass here. And it’s also true that the concept for Lio germinated years ago from Stadler’s mother’s idea to open a wine bar in Brunswick.

But to describe Lio as a wine bar is to require an important contradictory footnote, one that says: “Well, it’s actually a fully realized small-plates restaurant with two head chefs (Stadler and Rachel Reynolds), a bar manager and a pastry chef.”

Lio is rife with similar asterisks – annotations that make it tricky to pinpoint what (and even where) the restaurant actually is.

There’s even one starring the restaurant’s name, which is a play on “liu,” the Chinese word for the number six. It’s a fitting choice for the sprawling, high-ceilinged space in the back of the Six City Center complex on the edge of Portland’s Old Port. Except that, due to a quirk of city planning, Lio’s address is 3 Spring St. No six to be found.

Step inside – not through the open side patio on the corner, but a hard-to-locate stairwell on Spring Street – and you may find more exceptions waiting for you at the host station. Walk-in customers are assigned high seats around a clever, curving bar in the middle of the room. Shaped very much like a branching tree limb, the bar is open in the center, so servers can move between, not around, customers. Tables, on the other hand, are reserved in advance for parties of at least three people. Except when they’re not booked, or at least that’s what I thought I heard, as the two hosts heatedly debated whether my dinner guest and I should be seated at the bar or a table. Apparently, we had triggered some kind of policy irregularity. We wound up at a table, with a lovely view of the neighborhood out the wall of windows.

On the menu, Lio’s footnotes and exceptions are frequently indicators of welcome, creative surprises. There’s the slow-drip, milk-clarifying technique (flagged on the menu with a literal footnote) that bar manager Morgan LaCroix uses to impart a creamy mouthfeel to the Strange Dreams ($11), a clear blend of Bimini gin, lemon verbena, blueberries and sambuca. A gorgeous drink, as is the Mountain Medicine ($13), made with vodka, Meletti amaro and vermouth infused with macerated strawberries.

Lio’s sautéed Italian romano beans with crispy fried shallots ($10) take an inventive turn through the use of both pickled baby chanterelles and the ne plus ultra of French fungi, foraged black trumpet mushrooms. On the rare occasion when they’re available, Reynolds dehydrates and pulverizes them into a musky, woodsy dust. “I love it when my mom makes green bean casserole for Thanksgiving,” she said. “So I was going for something like that, but I didn’t want it to be trashy.” It’s anything but.

In her simple-sounding cilantro spaghetti ($16), the surprise is the sheer wattage of herbal, floral flavor throughout the dish. It extends to the house-made pasta itself. “We had a large quantity of cilantro that needed to be used,” Reynold said. “So we blanched it and turned it into cilantro water. We substitute it for water, so the pasta is just semolina and that cilantro juice.” Paired with seared, smoky nodules of pork-and-fennel sausage and a few slippery littlenecks, the spaghetti – on the knife’s edge of being undercooked – tastes like a funhouse version of classic Italian sausage-and-peppers.

Pastry chef Kate Hamm’s interpretation of an early-season tarte tatin ($11) appears mostly traditional, with its mandolined layers of apple, caramelized in a cast iron pan with brown sugar and butter. But the scoop of goat-cheese ice cream on top made me do a double-take. Thundering with tangy, feral flavors, it gives a wild complexity to the classic French dessert, one I still can’t stop thinking about a week later.

If you’re picking up on a theme, you’re not wrong. Stadler describes Lio’s menu as modern European. Indeed, most dishes stick pretty close to the continental concept.

Pastry chef Kate Hamm puts the finishing touches on the Apple Tarte Tatin, featuring caramel, figs, cherries and goat cheese ice cream.

Except when they don’t.

Take the Melons and Cucumber ($10), a plate of compressed, mixed melons, cucumbers, Opal basil, onion and Mexican papalo, a skunky herb that can only be deployed in the tiniest quantities. Served as a composed salad of sorts, the dish unites sweet, custardy fruit with onion in a way that brings to mind cool, yet stinky durian fruit. Factor in the umami-rich blast of garum fish sauce and the bright chimes of grilled lemon and basil, and you’ve got an unintended silhouette cameo of Southeast Asian flavors.

More concerning than an occasional off-piste dish are problems with proportion and composition that mar otherwise brilliant plates. Lio’s crab roll ($12) (also not really a European dish) is a deconstructed riff on the sandwich. Here, a baton of fresh Maine crab meat cinched together by a layer of tomato-water-and-lemon-verbena gel is served as a spread, next to thin slices of toasted Standard Baking Co. baguette. Each of these components, along with tiny sprigs of chervil, sings in perfect tune with the others. But there’s more. Draped over the crab are several thin slices of pickled fennel that contribute a forceful sharpness, one that erases all the subtle flintiness of the picked meat. Halve the amount of fennel, as my guest and I did at the table with a knife, and the balance snaps back into place.

As much as I don’t mind a little tableside culinary hacking, it shouldn’t be required work. And the crab roll isn’t the only dish that needed it. That melon-and-cucumber dish I mentioned earlier prompted a few rounds of trial-and-error tasting to figure out how to get all the many elements (especially the grilled lemon) onto the tines of my fork at once.

The Strange Dream features Bimini gin, blueberry, lemon verbena, Alessio Chinato vermouth, Sambuca and lemon.

So too with the aged duck breast ($17), served very, perhaps too, rare alongside roasted carrots, farro and husk cherries — four entire husk cherries that rolled around like marbles on the plate. My dinner guest and I took turns trying to spear one to cut it in half, eventually giving up after one careened through the duck jus and slipped onto the table. I grabbed it with my fingers and sliced it in two. “This reminds me of a greased pig contest, and I know I’m not the winner,” I laughed, wrangling the other three ungracefully. And it’s necessary work; the dish is too salty without the tinny-tart sweetness of husk cherries. With them, it’s excellent. I just wish the kitchen had done the chopping for me.

Sautéed Italian flat beans with bacon, goat milk yogurt, pickled chanterelles, wild mushroom gastrique, crispy shallots and garlic.

When everything comes together though, Lio’s food rivals anything in the city. The lamb loin ($17) drives home that point with vibrant pickled currants, lashings of escalivada, a smoky Spanish eggplant puree, and what feels like an entire garden of fresh mint leaves. A blast of crunch from toasty slivered almonds and an extraordinary jus made from roasted peppers and lamb dripping make this a dish practically engineered to pair with a glass of the grippy Nino Negri Nebbiolo ($6/$12). On one plate, it’s all here: modern European flavors brought to life by creative, well-executed technique. No footnote necessary.

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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