If things had gone differently, I would not be writing about Magnus on Water. Originally conceived as a straightforward cocktail bar with a limited selection of nibbles, this Biddeford business would never have qualified for a review had owners Brian Catapang, Julia Russell, Carmen Harris and Brittany Saliwanchik not learned that chef Ben Jackson was a free agent. Personally, I consider that a very lucky break.

During his years at Portland’s much-missed Drifters Wife, Jackson built a loyal following of diners and helped earn the restaurant what felt like an endless list of well-deserved accolades. Among them, a spot in the final five for the never-awarded 2020 James Beard Foundation: Best Chef Northeast prize. But after Drifters Wife closed for good in 2021, Jackson took time to find the appropriate next gig.

“I was doing the Beautiful Swimmer popups, and they just reached out because I was the one who had originally designed their little kitchen for them,” Jackson said. “It was when I was still at the first Drifters (Wife), so I knew a lot about how to make a really small layout work. I looked at the blueprints, told them where to put things, but I never thought it would end up being me cooking in the space doing my own thing there. I’m so glad I made good choices!”

Comfort with tight kitchen quarters wasn’t the only reason why Jackson felt like a natural fit at Magnus on Water. Throughout his work in Brooklyn and Maine, he has honed an almost tacit expertise at weaving the warp of seasonal, ingredient-driven cooking with the weft of a sophisticated beverage program.

Adding him to the team also allowed Magnus on Water access to an unexpected new pathway: becoming a full-service restaurant. “These days, I say it’s a bar/restaurant when I describe it to people. I don’t want to do a disservice to our bar program, but it has also evolved,” Russell said. “It’s comfortable to come in and experience any way you want to.”

That’s true of the eclectic space as well as the menus. Stop by the high-gloss wood bar for a a sweet-and-savory plate of lemon-dressed pea shoots, Kunik cheese and applewood-smoked croutons of Bread & Friends sourdough ($12) along with a tart, low-ABV fizzer like the rhubarb-fueled Rubix Cube cocktail ($14), and while you’re there, check out the rivulet of blue epoxy resin frozen into the bartop. Its hues and form suggest a flow that, according to Russell, “is supposed to be reminiscent of the ocean.” Yet this is not a mawkish, nautical-themed restaurant. Call them “zones” or “vignettes,” or whatever you like, but Magnus on Water’s interior offers a multitude of stylized spaces that do, indeed, feel discrete and distinct.

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At the rear, a dusky-toned lounge is papered in a Deco-esque pattern of inflorescent birds of paradise. This seems like an ideal place for a Strawberry Moon Negroni ($13), a blush-tinted cocktail whose finespun bitter edge derives not from Campari, but from dandelion roots foraged by Saliwanchik herself. “Brittany and I make the best drinks together when we have pops of inspiration, like just the name of a cocktail. The next day, we’ll talk about what it would be if it were a drink,” Catapang said. “My child, Wolf, was going to be born on a strawberry moon, and white negronis are our jam, so it made sense. It’s one of the prettiest drinks you can do.”

Then, adjacent to one of the two entrances, is a boxy, yet intimate banquette tailor-made for a chat with a group of friends and an order of simply dressed summer lettuces ($11), perked up with strips of shaved rhubarb, lovage leaves and toasted sunflower seeds tossed in Burlap & Barrel’s earthy “Silk” varietal of Aleppo pepper.

Move out onto the patio, across the geometric tiles of the threshold, under the wooden roof slats that bridge interior to exterior, and you’ll discover a terraced garden of native plants punctuated by granite slabs in reference to Biddeford’s long-dormant quarry. I sat here on a recent visit devouring a fantastic confit rabbit leg on risotto-like farro ($25) and couldn’t stop admiring how beautifully this outdoor space – a public/private renovation of a neglected city park – articulates with Mechanics Park across the street. It also adds 60 more seats to the 50-ish inside.

Luis Beltran and Roma Rodas share Sticky toffee pudding while sitting at the bar at Magnus on Water. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

As different as these spaces feel, their abundant use of organic materials and muted tones “tie Magnus into the natural landscapes around us,” according to Saliwanchik. That same ideology extends easily to Jackson’s menu. If you know anything about Jackson’s work in Maine so far, you already understand that his food comes from the same rootedness in time and place. And lest you think that Jackson is just trotting out the same dishes he was cooking in Portland, here’s a shocker: He’s making desserts now. In particular, a gorgeous buttery sticky toffee pudding ($10) drenched in caramel and drizzled in vanilla sauce. It is small, but perfectly formed.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge a truth, a post-pandemic fact that will not sit well with everyone. This kind of business with the conviction to stand by its values, from sourcing sustainable, local ingredients that Jackson shares with bar manager Catapang, to paying staff a living wage, must charge patrons accordingly.

“We want to serve dishes and drinks that are accessible to people, but which are also representative of what the actual value of ingredients is,” Saliwanchik said. “We can be highbrow, lowbrow, unique, special and thoughtful, and we have to balance the costs of all those things. The most important thing we can do as a restaurant is work with people who are really good to their teams, really good to the Earth, and good to the community.”

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Principles aren’t cheap these days. I reeled a bit at the price-to-portion ratio of my littleneck clam toast appetizer ($18) until I learned that, behind that ticket price lay the labor in river-purging Glidden Point clams for three days with the ebb and flow of the tide, pickling ramp bulbs, and slow-rendering pork fat in vinegary ramp brine to turn it into “lard” that gets whipped like butter and spread onto a slice of sourdough bread. Listen, I could have (and would have) eaten three of these, but just like everybody else, I am on a budget, even when I am being paid to dine out.

“That one’s a funny dish for me,” Jackson told me. “We were doing a big bowl of steamed clams until I really looked at it and realized that we would have to charge $40 just to make any money off of it. That didn’t sit right with me, especially coming off of a basket of fried clams I ate at Two Lights that cost me $50. So I turned the dish into a toast and cut those pristine clams back and tossed them with a ton of parsley.”

The marinated carrots at Magnus on Water. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

How then to square the laudable ethical stand Magnus on Water’s chef and owners have taken with what Saliwanchik describes as “our biggest goal, which is to provide something for everyone?” Admittedly, it’s tricky. But there are less-expensive dishes on the menu, like the wonderful marinated carrots, a $6 appetizer of local, heirloom carrots blanched in an aromatic broth and tossed with fresh dill, green garlic and handfuls of cilantro from Scarborough. Ask for a toothpick and nosh on a bowl of these as you sip on an ultra-tart cocktail made from freshly squeezed kiwi juice, yellow Chartreuse and ginger-honey syrup ($14). “It’s called ‘Camo Pants’ because I noticed that so many people in town wear camouflage pants. It’s like they’re hidden in plain sight. If you have three of them together, you achieve total invisibility,” Catapang said.

If you’re in the mood for more than a drink and a snack, Magnus on Water is still ultimately worth the price. Think about it as a less-stuffy chef’s tasting menu with cocktail pairings, if you like. That makes $160 (including tax and tip) for two people sharing three drinks and six dishes seem a whole lot less outrageous, especially when you consider that everyone on staff is being compensated fairly.

“Listen, I hope that coming out of the pandemic, people understand a little more about what happens in a restaurant and a restaurant kitchen, now that literally millions of people have lost their jobs,” Jackson said. “My two other employees and I work really hard, and I feel so lucky to be at Magnus. I’m lucky that they found me and I found them. It’s a lot bigger of a job than I thought it was going to be, but man, am I grateful to be back in the kitchen. I’m actually cooking food again and it feels good. It could have gone a lot differently. Personally, I think we’re all so very lucky.”

Diners at Magnus on Water earlier in June. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

RATING: ****
WHERE: 12 Water St., Biddeford. 207-494-9052. magnusonwater.com
SERVING: Wednesday to Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and snacks: $5-18. Larger plates: $23-25
NOISE LEVEL: MTV Unplugged
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
GLUTEN-FREE: Some dishes
RESERVATIONS: Recommended, but walk-ins welcomed
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

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BOTTOM LINE: Named after a forward-thinking 13th century saint, Magnus on Water shares its namesake’s dedication to morality. You’ll see this expressed most directly through its prices, which seem higher than similar bar-restaurants, but instead reveal the true costs of compensating staff properly and sourcing ingredients sustainably and locally. The cocktails are pretty terrific, too. Start with a session-sipper like the fizzy Rubix Cube and progress to something a little stronger, like the balanced, dandelion-infused Strawberry Moon Negroni. And as for food, it doesn’t get much better than James Beard finalist Ben Jackson’s intuitive, nearly flawlessly executed dishes. Menus change with the seasons and availability of ingredients, but if you can snag a bowl of dill-seed, bay and coriander-marinated carrots, grab them. The same goes for confit rabbit served over farro and a dollop of fresh yogurt striated with lovage-leaf purée. For dessert, no malabi in sight, just a sweet, buttery sticky toffee pudding soaked in blissful quantities of bourbon-caramel.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such): Poor ** Fair *** Good **** Excellent ***** Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously.


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 five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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