“Here you go. This is really yummy,” our server says to my guest as she hands over his crimson Port Royal Punch cocktail ($12). Then, with a smile, “I’ll come back in a couple of minutes so you can tell me that I’m right.”

When she does, my guest fibs to her politely. The drink contains little rum and is too sweet, very likely from the triple whammy of pineapple juice, orange juice and house-made grenadine. “You know, if she hadn’t insisted on how delicious it was, it probably wouldn’t have been as much of a disappointment,” he says to me quietly after she leaves.

But “telling, not showing” seems to be the m.o. at Odd Duck FSE, a bistro-steakhouse that opened this January in Brunswick. It belies an insecurity that isn’t totally warranted — there’s a good restaurant here if you can look past the spin doctoring.

Over-explanation commences with the name of the restaurant. First, there’s “FSE,” appended to it like an obscure academic credential. I couldn’t work out what the letters meant until I spoke on the phone with three Odd Duck staffers. “It stands for food, spirits and entertainment,” general manager Richard Ferraro told me. The first two make obvious sense, but the third? Could it be the glossy black piano that sat unused during my recent Saturday visit?

Perhaps at this stage, that last designation is mostly aspirational. The closest to entertainment I could find was a contemporary jazz playlist blaring into the already clamorous dining room. “There are definitely things we aren’t doing that we want to do in the future, probably in the ballroom event space upstairs: a murder mystery, a burlesque show, Brunswick’s Got Talent,” executive chef Ashley DeSilva said.

Then there’s the notion of oddness. You don’t even have to speak to anyone in the restaurant before you spot “embrace your subtle weirdness” (an excerpt from the Odd Duck’s mission statement) stenciled over the entrance to the kitchen.

Just as with the abstract “E” for “entertainment,” peculiarity isn’t yet much in evidence at Odd Duck.

Take the décor. When Ferraro told me that the building recently housed a biofuels business and a bookstore, I thought I understood – the owners hadn’t had time to fix up the space, so they just made do with what they had. Perfectly reasonable.

But then I learned about the restoration of the unstable third-floor ballroom, a soup-to-nuts buildout of the kitchen and a full-scale renovation of the split-level, 80-seat dining room. As recently as last year, the building was a blank canvas of studs and drywall. And somehow, it still wound up dull, with glue-on black rubber base molding, drab walls and gray carpet tiles that make the space look like a rented corporate building in a suburban office park. The whole enterprise feels ad hoc, like one of the battling businesses in the “Restaurant Wars” episode of every season of “Top Chef.”

Attempts to introduce a little oddness into the menu also fizzle, like the slice of singed, unripe peach inserted like a blackened poker chip into the smoked peach margarita ($13) or adding extremely savory Bayley Hazen bleu cheese to a potato gratin ($7) already chockablock with other salty cheeses.

So too, the steamed Chinese bao dough used in the pork belly steamed buns ($9). More like a sticky, jaundiced dumpling than a fluffy white wrapper for tart “banh mi” slaw, slow-roasted pork belly and a spicy-sweet, Korean-style glaze, the bao lets down what is otherwise a lovely, fiery appetizer.

The bread plate at Odd Duck FSE. A delicious, if misplaced, rhubarb cake had been replaced by blueberry cake when our photographer shot this photo. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Or sweet rhubarb cake served as one of the many components on chef de cuisine Elizabeth DiFranco’s excellent pre-appetizer bread plate. The cake itself is a wonderfully dense, fruity treat and deserves a spot on the menu … the dessert menu.

I wish I understood Odd Duck’s gimmicky and unnecessary quirk-propaganda. The restaurant is (as servers and staff will tell you, when pressed) just a steakhouse and bistro. That ought to be enough because, by those standards, it’s actually a pretty good one.

The best evidence of this is the 6-ounce filet mignon ($36). Sourced from nearby Archer Angus and charcoal-grilled simply with salt, pepper and a basting of butter, this steak is among the best-prepared pieces of beef I have eaten so far this year.

Topsham residents Timothy and Courtney Land dine at Odd Duck FSE. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

And while I think the Marjolaine cake ($11) probably dried out a bit after being kept too long in the walk-in, it is a prime example of DiFranco’s baking talents. A riff on a layered Fernand Point classic from the 1960s, DiFranco’s version juxtaposes fudgy chocolate “blackout” cake, milk chocolate buttercream, custardy caramel cheesecake and pulverized hazelnut praline with a jiggly dollop of excellent chocolate mousse.

I’m also a big fan of the potato bun she bakes to frame the Odd Duck Burger ($19). Inside, DeSilva’s hybrid patty is made from a fine grind of equal parts duck and pork belly. When grilled, it has a tight, pleasing, almost pâté-like consistency. The sandwich tilts dangerously toward the greasy, especially when you add a few slices of house-cured bacon and a slathering of amarena cherry aioli, but the extra fat balances out the lean duck splendidly.

There’s also a bit more richness than normal in the dressing for the Odd Caesar ($9/$13), although here it comes from whisking colossal duck-egg yolks with Worcestershire, olive oil and lemon juice. With anchovy and pecorino to finish the salad, it’s a mild – but successful – departure from tradition. But nothing you’d really notice unless you were paying close attention. It certainly isn’t, as our server described it, “weird.”

You get the sense that the staff and owners of Odd Duck are aiming for a Steve-Martin-level of “wild and crazy guy” wackiness. But what they achieve is more Steve from Accounting who listens to REO Speedwagon and keeps a worn copy of “Born to Pun” at his desk.

But really, as long as you can get the fundamentals right, there ought to be no shame in embracing your subtle tameness.

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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