Political scientists suggest our politics are increasingly driven by two worldviews. The “fluid” worldview sees a big beautiful world where new experiences enhance our lives. The “fixed” worldview sees a dangerous environment, where we must protect ourselves from threat and influence. These worldviews cut deep enough to create a visceral “biopolitics” determining our tastes, from the food we prefer to our support for authoritarian government and ethnic nationalism.
In such an environment, it seems provocative to open a fusion-y restaurant called Flux in a former mill town like Lisbon. Both name and menu evoke fluidity in an otherwise fixed town, which hosted a Trump rally, and voted for him by a factor of 2 to 1. And because Flux is appealing, and crowded, it lures us into a fantasy that enlightened consumption could encourage other forms of openness conducive to democracy. But all evidence cuts the other way. In recent decades ever-better food has paired with ever-diminished capacity for responsible citizenship. The problem with our polity is not bad taste, but our delusion that taste matters at all.
But taste matters when you are eating out. And that explains why Flux is flourishing, with both locals and north-of-Portland suburbanites avoiding the crowd in town. Flux does a good job retaining the warmth and comfort of a local spot, while adding notes of sophistication. Your appetizer could be tempura cauliflower kissed with Korean chili, or it could be nachos. The service, from folks in t-shirts, is notably warm. The décor is part classic diner, but dressed up with art-deco touches and some elegant wood and tile. Portions are generous and prices are reasonable (especially the wine), and they serve many of the best beers made in Maine.
While the menu has plenty of classic Americana — burgers, roast chicken, fried haddock — the chef (formerly of Walter’s) likes to work in Asian ingredients and approaches. He does it well. The tempura cauliflower, stacked strikingly, was meaty rather than mushy, and the chili glaze had a dark heat. A “far east” salad with vermicelli was more spicy than sweet, with a subtle mintiness. Duck breast was expertly grilled, served with crisp potatoes and pickled celery stalks over a sour mash. Five large scallops, generous by current standards, were perfectly seared and topped a vaguely Asian hash. The vegetarian cassoulet had perhaps cooked too long, so that a general celeriac-sour overwhelmed many of the other flavors.
So Flux brings a bit of the fluid to Lisbon Falls, while offering plenty of familiar comforts. Down the block Flux’s equally busy neighbor, Frank’s Restaurant and Pub, is a temple to the fixed — with town artifacts covering every square inch and copious nods to the building’s history as fruit seller and “Moxie store” But even amidst Frank’s classic burger and fries menu are worldly touches — sophisticated doubly-fry technique, complex sauces for dipping, and a terrific chickpea salad sandwich.
Together Flux and Frank’s are creating buzz about Lisbon food. And they suggest that these two approaches, fixed and fluid, don’t just coexist, they mingle to delicious effect. Our own worldviews overlap as well, but in the dreariest possible way. Tasteful “fluid” cosmopolitans look down on the fallacy of the fixed worldview, which can’t see that stasis is impossible, and that apparent fixity is actually decline. But beneath the fluid worldview often lurks insecurity. And our supposed openness to experience masks trend-chasing and stylish conformity, rather than a robust sense of self enhanced by rich and risky engagements with new ideas and influences.
Perhaps our “good taste” and openness is actually an ugly and shallow form of biopolitical pride, with a dash of economic elitism. We are not the first to fall for it. Heidegger favored becoming over being. Then he joined the fascists. New experiences and ideas that would actually transform our lives and our democracy are so foreign we can scarcely conceive of them. In the hard times to come, the only certainty is that we will all end up clinging to something. The fixed folks just have a head start.
Flux | 12 Main Street, Lisbon Falls | 207-407-4109 | Entrees $12-22