When Brant Dadaleares, owner and chef of the Gross Confection Bar in Portland, said the server station at the center of his debut restaurant’s exposed-brick dining room was built into a vault, I wasn’t sure what to believe. While I was certain he was telling the truth, I didn’t know what he meant by “vault.”

My confusion might sound strange, but by that point I had already learned that Dadaleares — a veteran of some of Southern Maine’s most respected restaurants, including Fore Street, Central Provisions and Arrows — loves to play with words, concepts and their meanings. Take the sardonic name he gave to his dessert-only restaurant: Gross.

By deploying the term ironically on social media, using it to characterize his own imaginative, frequently exquisite sweets, he challenges our understanding of the word.

Have we been wrong all along? Can “gross” actually be used in a positive sense, especially as a description of a business intended to lure in diners for a drink and something sweet after finishing a meal elsewhere?

“That name is just complete sarcasm,” he said. “And when a friend of mine asked me why I’d name the place ‘Gross,’ I asked him, ‘Are you ever gonna forget it? No? DING!’ ”

Chef and owner Brant Dadaleares plates the playfully named coconut macaroon dessert. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Dadaleares’ impious attitude toward labels plays out across his menu, where abstract-looking mounds and assemblages of components are given jarringly conventional-sounding names. Take the coconut macaroon ($7), one of the smaller, single-serving dishes on a list he calls, “The Taste.”

You’d be forgiven for expecting a cookie. I did. Instead the dessert arrives as a free-form jumble of brown butter powder, dried-apricot jam, glistening blobs of passion fruit gel, dark Valhrona chocolate ganache, and interspersed throughout, roughly broken chunks of a chewy, caramelized, desiccated-coconut cookie. Each marvelous spoonful forces you to question everything you ever knew about macaroons.

So too, his fantastic grapefruit-Campari cake ($6), where an aerated, bittersweet sponge cake has been rent into irregular clusters, and adorned with crumbly honeycomb candy, sticky, syrup-confited grapefruit zest and broken shards of Earl Grey shortbread. Taken together, the dish brings to mind undersea debris that has settled lazily onto a coral reef.

Plating is not always so elegant and organic. Indeed, several dishes, like the otherwise delightful, savory-sweet brown butter panna cotta ($7) — a loose collection of wobbly cream, cubes of aromatic yuzu gel and puffed wild rice that has been tossed in caramel powder — look like they were accidentally dropped onto the plate from a height.

But frequently such haphazard presentation just creates another disconnect that reinforces streamlined, well-balanced flavors. The Bizarro-World version of an eclair ($6) looks disarmingly decoupled from classic French pastry, with its single tongue of craquelin-topped choux teetering atop a scoop of rhubarb sorbet, ready to topple into droplets of strawberry-rose fluid gel, coconut cream and a tart rhubarb compote. Touch it with your spoon, and that’s exactly what it does. But after the first bite you won’t care.

Just don’t call Dadaleares’ style “deconstructed.”

“For me, it’s all about textures and variants of flavors, acidity, fat,” he said. “I start with a base of flavors and think of different combinations of things that go well together. I’ll write down ‘lemon, basil, coconut’ and then a cooking procedure that will work with it. It’s not deconstructed, more like composing ingredient-first.”

Once all the elements of a dish are juxtaposed correctly, Dadaleares is able to make the leap to a name, something conceptually adjacent, although perhaps unrecognizable until you stick a spoon in.

“I wanted to make this unexpected,” Dadaleares said, “but not so avant-garde that people didn’t want to eat here.”

The menu does feature dishes that appear (mostly) as you might predict. A warm steamed bun ($13) is just that: a white, yeasted Chinese bao that Dadeleares learned to prepare during a stint at Eventide. Bite in, and warm ginger-infused chocolate ganache courses out, dribbling into the orange marmalade glaze, and very likely down your chin.

Or Gross’ version of a no-bake cheesecake ($6): It might be served in a glass, but with a buttery Speculoos crumble and tea-like tonka-bean custard, it looks immediately familiar, even if the flavors share more in common with a cardamom-forward Indian dessert than a 1980s dinner-party classic.

Mistakes, although rare, are minor and easily corrected. In the malted crumb brulee ($11), one of the larger-format dishes in a section of the menu called “The Set List,” bacon imparts so much smoke flavor that it smothers the malt in the custard and the nuttiness of a gummy peanut-butter cremeux.

Similarly, the phenomenally rich, ultra-dense (and gluten-free) chocolate budino ($8) features brown-butter powder and shavings of creamy Norwegian gjetost cheese that together tilt the balance of flavors just a notch too far toward the savory. On my recent visit I overheard a man at a neighboring table ask his date, “Are you sure this is a dessert?”

It should tell you everything you need to know that they still finished it.

The Mr. Allen cocktail. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Cocktails, under bar manager Jaren Rivas (Tipo, Top of the East), also seem to be undergoing one final iteration of revisions. The best of these are barely sweet, like the melon-esque Mr. Allen ($11), a togarashi pepper-topped, cachaca-based sipper; or the Coup d’Etat ($12), a complex, rum-and-amaro drink that pairs especially well with chocolate desserts.

“That’s my favorite,” my server said, right before dislodging the oversized wooden serving board hanging over the edge of the two-top next to mine. “Yikes!” she cried, then ducked into what I thought was an old brick elevator shaft before returning with apologies and extra napkins.

A week later, when I inquired about the extensive renovations to the wide-berthed, subterranean rooms that Gross Confection Bar now occupies, I discovered my error.

Over the better part of a year, Dadaleares removed drop ceilings, bolt-on shelving and nearly two tons of debris from a space that, for nearly four decades, served as a Christmas ornament shop. But the 1883 John Calvin Stevens building was originally built as a bank.

What I suspected was an elevator shaft was literally what Dadaleares claimed it was — no metaphorical description or euphemism involved.

Sometimes a vault is just a vault.

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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