The truest test of a Maine restaurant’s mettle is how it copes with the off-season.

That goes double for a place that syncs itself to the rhythms of seasonality. No doubt, it’s difficult to make compelling, appealing food at any time of year. But it sure is easier to score a home run when the dazzling fruits and vegetables of August start you out on third base.

Come December, when winter’s lacerating chill makes its annual return, restaurants react differently to the diminishing supply of fresh produce. Some rekindle long-distance relationships with groves and fields more than a thousand miles away – places where “winter” is just a time when alligators have to spend an extra hour sunning themselves by the highway.

Other restaurants don’t even try, electing to hibernate until crocuses and the first brave Bostonites return in April.

But rarest of them all? Businesses like Kennebunk’s 50 Local that embrace the frosty weather, digging in their heels and interpreting the cold as an excuse to develop new kinds of connections with regional producers. And believe it or not, there’s plenty of fresh food out there, even now, thanks to glass-walled A-frames and hoop-houses. You just have to care enough to track it down.

“In the off-season, it’s hard,” chef de cuisine Tyler LaRoche said. “But we find what we need and can still change the menu every couple of weeks to keep people’s interest.”

Unlike the Skowhegan restaurant I drove past early this year that advertised “Winter special: No charge for extra rutabaga!” 50 Local seems to get a kick out of the challenge December presents. Its mostly French/Italian bistro menu telegraphs the slyly contrarian suggestion that right now – this very moment – is the ideal time to sit down for a meal, regardless of what you may have heard.

It starts with unexpected cocktails that bypass jingle-bell clichés. No Bailey’s-infused hot cocoa and mulled cider here. In their place, you’ll find the Campfire ($12), a sweet-and-savory Old Fashioned made with brown-butter-washed bourbon and toasted pecan bitters, topped with three toasted mini-marshmallows skewered on a toothpick. Or with dessert, an Amaro’s Another Day ($10) that juxtaposes the minty, schizophrenic complexity of Fernet branca with cold coffee’s bitter linearity. Foamy with freshly whipped cream and served in a cut-crystal lowball, it’s both unconventional and completely sensible.

Bar manager Mat Garofalo also concocts a few drinks that evoke warped, Dali-esque memories of warmer times. In his Ghost of Mary ($11), a Bloody Mary is reimagined as a translucent pink, fiery combination of vodka, tomato water (the perfect way to use less-than-perfect, off-peak tomatoes) and marble-sized “tomolives” made from pickled green tomatoes. The Sipper ($12) refracts summery Aperol through the smoky lens of mezcal, adding bracing citrus from Benedictine and grapefruit bitters in just the right quantity to make you question your own recollection of that spritz you drank six months ago. Drink two and you’ll start to doubt if July even happened at all.

Amaro’s Another Day cocktail, created by bar manager Mat Garofalo at 50 Local, combines Fernet branca and cold coffee and is topped with freshly whipped cream. It’s served in a cut-crystal lowball, and reviewer Ross finds it both unconventional and sensible.

This last duo of cocktails pairs well with food, especially with hearty dishes like buttermilk, panko and cornstarch-dredged, deep-fried calamari tentacles and tubes ($15), served with pomodoro sauce inflamed by Sriracha and chili flakes. Or a carbonara ($24) of homemade bucatini snarled around bacon and shreds of oil-poached chicken, all dressed with lush, yolky cream.

No matter what you’re sipping with dinner, it’s easy to get cozy enough at 50 Local to order another drink – even to loiter long after plates have been cleared. That’s due in no small part to a recent décor update that, via a phalanx of wall-mounted floor-length mirrors, throw pillows in metallic jewel tones and blond bistro chairs, toned down the space’s more formal feel. “It’s much more comfortable now,” explained general manager and co-owner Merrilee Paul. “The building itself is kind of office-y, with no real natural charm. So any charm there is, we had to build it ourselves.”

The restaurant’s unique brand of Kennebunk hygge extends to LaRoche’s menu, which manages to create clever culinary ligatures between modest snacks like an oniony, tahini-less hummus served with slices of excellent house-baked pita bread ($12), and more urbane dishes like rare hangar steak plated atop a ryeberry risotto LaRoche bullies into creaminess with a rich butternut squash purée.

Remarkably, LaRoche is only 25 years old. “This is the first serious restaurant I’ve worked in,” he said. “I grew up in Kennebunk, and I was looking for something nearby. I walked in one day in March of 2014, still in my culinary school uniform, and asked the bartender at the time if they had an application or did resumes. So I met (co-owner and executive chef) David Ross, who was in the kitchen. He hired me on the spot.”

Two years ago, when Ross stepped back from daily kitchen duty, LaRoche took over the kitchen and immediately began to put his own stamp on the menu. “I like to make food that’s very friendly,” he said. “Nothing too extravagant so it turns people off, nothing extreme or hard to understand, but still upscale.”

The decor inside 50 Local in Kennebunk was recently updated. “It’s much more comfortable now,” says general manager and co-owner Merrillee Paul. “The building itself is kind of office-y, with no real natural charm. So any charm there is, we had to build it ourselves.”

As a guiding philosophy, it works well, yielding plates like his sous-vide Statler chicken ($24). Named for the butcher’s cut comprising a drumette and boneless breast, itself named for a Boston hotel, the chicken is bathed in a generous ladling of North Spore mushroom-Marsala sauce and served with tender root vegetables and Brussels sprouts from Stone Farm in Arundel. It’s an immediately recognizable dish, just prepared with a phenomenal (yet invisible) level of technique.

Apple Cider Fritters with bourbon-vanilla glaze are among the in-house pastries made by chef de cuisine Tyler LaRoche.

LaRoche also does his own pastry. If you’re picturing a perfunctory ice cream sundae, think again. “I don’t want dessert to be just an afterthought,” he said. “If I’m going to be doing it, I want it to follow my creativity just like the rest of the menu.”

Take his custardy apple cider fritters, sticky with bourbon-vanilla glaze ($12). Served warm, with a gentle bite left in the fruit, they somehow feel both delicate and rustic. Or the dense, almost savory flourless chocolate ganache cake ($10) that LaRoche tops with a single scoop of vanilla crème anglaise ice cream. It’s a knockout.

Errors are rare at 50 Local. Yes, there are too many radish microgreens on almost every plate (not dessert, thankfully). And the fish stew ($31) needs a more lively, structured base than just the spicy pomodoro sauce with a few extra glugs of white wine – but even here, the result is still a decent plate of food that features a golden fillet of pan-seared hake and an abundance of lobster claw meat.

When everything is working in harmony, as it frequently is, what arrives at your table are dishes that are understated yet memorably elegant. It has been a week since I visited, and I’m still thinking about LaRoche’s Caesar-style salad ($13). A nest of local greens tossed in a creamy dressing electric with tart sherry vinegar and lemon juice, the salad is only half the story this plate tells. The other is a panko-breaded, deep-fried egg. When one of my dinner guests poked it with the end of his knife, sending yellow runnels of yolk coursing through the leaves, he caught his breath.

“I’m coming back next week,” he said to the table.

And that, I thought to myself, is exactly how a restaurant makes it through a Maine winter.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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