Of the admittedly few key players responsible for having brought authentic, non-Americanized Chinese cooking to Maine, chef-turned-restaurateur Cara Stadler is certainly the most visible.
Her flagship restaurant — the excellent Tao Yuan in Brunswick — has deservedly gained a litany of positive press from national pubs over the years, and the 2014 opening of Bao Bao Dumpling House solidified her presence in Portland while introducing locals and tourists alike to sumptuous thread-cut hake dumplings and heady bowls of Zhajiangmian noodles.
It is a pleasant surprise, then, that Lio — Stadler’s newest venture — executes profoundly well despite having very little in common with the cooking found at her other two restaurants. Lio bills itself as “Modern European Cuisine,” with a focus on wine and food pairings. With an extensive list of wines by the glass (half pours are also available) ranging from quaffable Mosel whites to giant Napa Valley Cabernet, designing a customized flight to accompany one’s meal is a fun, accessible process. For anyone looking to expand their knowledge on regions and grapes, there’s no better place in Portland to become a regular.
The space itself is as metropolitan in feel as can be found in the area, with extremely tall ceilings and high-top seating that snakes around the room, creating a labyrinthian appearance that is almost shocking at first glance. Upon further inspection, however, the narrow, alley-like pathways created by this layout allow servers to float effortlessly from party to party without missing a beat or running into each other. Just about every seat in the house offers clear sightlines into the gorgeously designed open kitchen, brimming with fresh stainless steel and a palpable energy that makes the otherwise cavernous room feel at once lively and intimate.
Whether you have a taste for wine or not, the food at Lio makes Stadler’s new opening a must-try. Grilled shishito peppers in a funky bronzini aioli with dukkah, trout roe and herbs is the perfect start to practically any meal, with just enough smoke and textural pop to warrant a second order for the table. Torched sockeye salmon — served with haricots verts, deep-fried duck egg, pickled green almonds, herbs and vinaigrette — is a snarky take on the classic salade niçoise that I would happily eat for lunch on the daily if money was no object. A standout dish of lacinato kale with lamb belly, caper and golden raisin purée pistachio, dill and goat milk yogurt showed me an entirely new way to approach cooking and serving the dinosaur green — exactly what I look for in a restaurant.
Not to be missed at Lio, either, are the house-made pastas and thoughtfully constructed desserts. A dish of pappardelle with duck confit, artichoke, tarragon, Kalamata panko and lemon would make an excellent solo dinner. Follow it up with a dessert of Moscato Zabaglione — an Italian take on the French sabayon with poached peach, blueberry basil sorbet and elderflower — and you’ll be hard-pressed to find something to complain about.
Lio may have just opened, but perhaps due to well over a year in germination, there are few initial signs of floundering or trying to find its footing. Stadler’s lateral movement from Asian flavors to modern European cooking shows her versatility as a chef and conceptualist, making this one of the more exciting new openings of 2018.
I rarely get that “can’t wait to return” feeling immediately following a meal — it happened after both my first and second visits to Lio. Take that as you will.
Lio | 3 Spring St, Portland | Wed-Sun 5 pm-cl | www.lio-maine.com