Keenan Davis, the bar manager at Five Fifty-Five in Portland, occasionally likes to surprise the restaurant’s clientele with something they’re not expecting. So about a month ago he started working on the “Midnight Sour,” a play on an old-school whiskey sour that’s a blend of cognac, rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, Benedictine, egg white, lemon and cuttlefish ink in simple syrup.

Wait, cuttlefish ink? Yes, and both the taste and appearance of the black-colored cocktail have shocked Davis’ customers, who usually prefer classic martinis and Manhattans. The taste is surprising because the brain warns the taste buds to expect something different, and maybe a little overwhelming, Davis says, but the drink still tastes like a whiskey cocktail.

“I think they expect a color to it, but they don’t expect it to be so black. They say ‘Oh my god, what is that?’ ” said Davis, who developed the black cocktail after watching the kitchen staff create a salmon dish with a squid ink-mustard emulsion. (The cuttlefish and squid are cousins, and both produce black ink.) Davis hoped to sell five Midnight Sours a week. He sold five on the first night.

Chaval’s black Spanish tortilla, made with squid ink. Photo courtesy of Chaval.

Black foods, trendy nationally, are showing up more regularly in Maine. Squid ink has long been used in places like Italy and Spain to color pastas and rice. Black steamed buns, tortillas, brioche, focaccia and aiolis are turning up on plates looking scorched as if the chef has had a bad day.

“How do we know if we burnt the bread or not? It’s already black,” goes a running joke among the kitchen staff at Chaval, according to chef/co-owner Damian Sansonetti.

Activated charcoal, once used more prolifically by bartenders around Halloween, is now featured in cocktails year round. The only hint that Provender Kitchen & Bar customers in Ellsworth get about the flavor of the charcoal-colored cocktail on its current menu is in the name: Orange is the New Black, a blend of vodka, coconut milk, lime juice, clementine shrub, egg white and activated charcoal. “It’s black, but it tastes like oranges,” says chef/owner Daron Goldstein, calling the drink “weird, but refreshing at the same time.”

Chefs, tapping into another trend – cooking with fire – are also charring vegetables, to blacken them but also to coax out more flavor and to dig up diners’ memories of food cooked over campfires. The interplay of bitter and sweet wakens something familiar and elemental on the palate, says Guy Hernandez, chef/co-owner of Lolita on Portland’s Munjoy Hill, where charred scallions are a snack on the menu. Hernandez loves the bitterness that comes with a good outer char, which he says is balanced by the caramelization of vegetables that grow sweeter as they roast over an open fire.

At Mami, burgers are served on squid ink brioche buns. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

HUE’S THE BOSS

Chefs and bartenders give a lot of reasons for experimenting with black foods. Chef Austin Miller’s “Big Mami” burger, which comes on a squid ink brioche bun at his Portland restaurant Mami, was inspired by the black burger battle between Burger King and McDonald’s in Japan that started five years ago. Burger King’s Kuro burger came with bread and cheese blackened by bamboo charcoal, and a sauce made from squid ink. McDonald’s version had a squid ink black bun that many complained was really more of a light ash color.

Miller’s black brioche buns, which he makes two to three times a week with squid ink, are jet black. “It’s like an umami bun,” he said. “It has a light, oceany, briny flavor, and it goes well with beef.”

Some fans of Mami order the burger repeatedly, he said, but it’s not for everyone.

“There are definitely people who are turned off by it, or won’t order it,” he said. That hesitation, he added, should diminish as people get used to seeing black foods on local menus. Miller says he is seeing them around Portland “more now than I ever did before.”

Other restaurants are trying black foods because, not surprisingly, they attract a lot of attention. At Blyth & Burrows, a Portland cocktail bar that also serves small plates, the squid ink-stained steamed bun used with the poke bao provides a stark contrast to the pink tuna tucked inside. The Cannonfire, a flaming cocktail made with lots of rum and activated charcoal that debuted at Halloween, was “a bar trick,” owner Joshua Miranda said, “kind of a trendy thing that we wanted to be ahead of the curve on.”

And it was “grammable,” as Miranda put it.

“Nowadays people take pictures of everything before they eat it, and it seemed to be a popular share on social media,” he said. “You get more attention from grammable drinks than you do from advertising, I think.” The squid ink bun still appears on the Blyth & Burrows menu, off and on. While the cocktail was well received, Miranda removed it recently because of concerns over the effects of activated charcoal on the absorption of medication. (New York, where activated charcoal has been added to ice cream and lattes, banned its use in food and drink last year.) He said the bar would probably try developing another black cocktail this summer, maybe with squid ink.

Miller’s black burger has also become an Instagram star. “I see it online a lot,” he said. “It stands out so much. It’s literally the only burger in town that’s like this.”

Goldstein said how a cocktail or dish will look on social media is “definitely a forethought because we get a lot of traction off our social media pages.” Ellsworth isn’t Portland, he said, so a black cocktail is not something his diners see all the time.

Squid ink paella at Chaval on Wednesday, March 20, 2019. Chef Damian Sansonetti features the paella as a special. Press Herald photo by Brianna Soukup

“When you put something like that up on social media, they tend to want to try it right away,” he said.

Goldstein is less concerned about the potential medical impacts of activated charcoal because it’s a “natural product” that he buys at a local health food store. Activated charcoal is commonly sold in health food stores because users believe it helps remove toxins from the body.

WELCOME TO THE DARK SIDE

While black cocktails are mostly a result of playful bartenders trying to set a mood, chefs want flavor as well as visual pop from their black foods. Squid ink, Hernandez said, “smells like a tidal pool. It has that flavor, but not in a bad way.” Rather, he said, it is like a pool of warm saltwater that has a way of enveloping the senses. Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez, co-owners of Piccolo and Chaval in Portland, have put black foods on their menus for years because they are a part of traditional Italian and Spanish cuisine. Squid ink, Sansonetti said, gives “a nice salinity to things.”

The Midnight Sour, a blend of cognac, rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, Benedictine, egg white, lemon, and cuttlefish ink in simple syrup. Photo courtesy of Five Fifty-Five

“It is a very versatile ingredient,'” he said. “It works great with seafood, it works great with vegetables. It works great with meat.”

“We have pretty much put squid ink in everything,” Lopez said.

At Piccolo, squid ink has been paired with multiple pasta shapes, and squid ink foccacia comes out of the oven. A squid ink spaghetti is topped with sea urchin. “Visually, it’s striking,” Sansonetti said, “but all those flavors go together.”

At Chaval, squid ink is used to make black rice for paella, and it’s also in the fideos – lightly toasted Spanish vermicelli noodles cooked in a squid ink broth and served with chorizo, piquillo pepper and lobster aioli. Fideos fans “look a little goth afterward because they have a little black around their lip,” Sansonetti said.

Chef Damian Sansonetti makes squid ink paella at Chaval on Wednesday, March 20, 2019. Press Herald photo by Brianna Soukup

Squid ink also turns the restaurant’s popular Spanish tortilla, made with potatoes, onion and garlic, strikingly black.

Both Sansonetti and Hernandez, from Lolita, have used squid ink in aiolis, as well.

“The way you can manipulate it on a plate or incorporate it on a dish, it doesn’t look like anything else,” Sansonetti said.

When Sansonetti wants a subtler effect, he uses what he calls “veg charcoal” – charred vegetables, such as leeks or spring onions, that add color and flavor to a dish.

“You get a nice, deep earthy flavor out of it,” he said. “You will get some color, too. Rub it on fish, or put it in a sauce. You see the color, but it’s not like if you added a big spoonful of squid ink.”

Charred vegetables are a byproduct of the rising popularity of wood-fired cooking in restaurants, says Hernandez, who cooks on a wood-fired grill at Lolita. For chefs, he said, cooking with smoke and fire, and ash and char, “is very elemental.” There is less control of the heat, and it takes more skill.

“You can’t turn the knob up and down if it’s too hot,” he said. “You have to manage that fire.”

Charred Brussels sprouts and blistered shishito peppers are on menus all around Portland. At Fore Street, a turnspit-roasted organic Maine chicken is served with charred cornbread rusk and toasted black cumin sweet butter. Chef Justin Walker – once known for the squid ink chicken wings he made when he was chef at Earth at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport – chars an entire head of cauliflower in his wood-fired oven at Walkers Maine in Cape Neddick. He further flavors the tender, roasted cauliflower with nigella seeds (which happen to be black), honey, thyme and crispy garlic.

For customers, eating charred food is “like having a cookout,” Hernandez said, recalling childhood memories of s’mores, burnt hot dogs, and marshmallows that have been set on fire. “We are attracted to that.”

The adult version of that blackened marshmallow that’s all white and fluffy inside? Hernandez likes charring a beet until it looks like a black rock, then cracking it open to reveal the red interior.

“The visual is amazing,” Hernandez said.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad


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