About a decade ago, a good friend of mine bought an abandoned hardware store with the intention of turning it into an art gallery. “All I really wanted was to renovate the hell out of it and wind up with a clean white box,” she told me once. But then, as she and her partner cleaned out the junk inside, they started to comprehend the beauty in the building’s hodgepodge architecture. So they kept it all – the uneven steps, the wonky alcoves and even the wall that they discovered was just a piece of muslin someone had skim-coated to look like plaster.
They didn’t get their antiseptic box; instead, what emerged from the sawdust was a flawed, quirky, humanized space. And the residents of the little Delaware River town where it sits fell in love with it.
I used to reminisce about my friend’s gallery every time I visited the old Drifters Wife. Tucked into a narrow storefront in Portland’s Nissen Bakery building, the original restaurant/natural wine shop was idiosyncratic and charming in many of the same ways. I loved the ramp that sloped unhurriedly along one wall, its iron handrail that may have been rescued from a patio, and even the divider screening off the retail shop that looked like it was built from salvaged planks, none of which came close to reaching the ceiling. It was gracefully imperfect.
Which is why I worried when I heard that Peter and Orenda Hale, the owners and managers of Drifters Wife, planned to move their business next-door, into the gigantic room once occupied by the boisterous, modern Italian-American restaurant, Roustabout. That space was always tricky for its former occupants. Try as they might, they could never make it feel anything less than hulking, hard-edged and brutally noisy. Like a warehouse, it felt as if it belonged more to objects than to people.
Yet with the help of designer and Washington Street neighbor Brad Bowes of Joiya Studios, the Hales found a way to suffuse their new space with humanity. They have covered a nook at the rear of the room in custom wallpaper featuring Matisse-esque, rounded doodle forms that seem to tell a story in a blobby vocabulary. Even the scale feels more human: Thanks to clever visual balancing of dark colors on top of light ones, the room appears an order of magnitude smaller than it is, like a Tardis in reverse.
And just as they did next door, the walls separating the dining room and wine shop stop well shy of the ceiling. Here though, warm wood rails punctuate geometric panels; they create a natural-feeling airiness and reduce noise significantly. Volumes are still not low, but they are more comfortable than you have any right to expect from a room this size.
Chef Ben Jackson’s menu, while perhaps 50 percent larger than it was in the previous Drifters Wife, remains small and laser-focused on seasonality – an approach that sings in harmony with the Hales’ commitment to sourcing wines made with organically grown grapes that are hand-picked and futzed-with minimally.
This also means that there is little from my recent visit that will be on the menu if you go. Don’t let that dissuade you. After nearly two years cooking with less room and fewer tools than many home cooks have in their kitchens, Jackson has expanded his repertoire of techniques and gotten better and better at execution. Training under such challenging conditions has turned him into perhaps Portland’s most self-assured chef. His new back-of-house equipment – a convection oven and six-burner gas stove in particular – only give him more options.
Three months in, it’s also clear that his priorities haven’t wavered. He has even found ways to incorporate much of what he learned next door into his cooking now. Take his soft-shell crab ($17), served with pickled ramp bulbs and a chickpea-and-garlic puree. Rather than cook the components separately, he builds all the hot elements of the dish in a single pan, from an irresistibly oozy fried egg to wilted ramp greens. “It’s a one-pan pickup,” he explained, “something I learned the necessity of when I was on my own.” It’s a stunning dish, one I can’t get out of my mind every time I see a ramp bulb.
Sure, he could do everything differently now, but Jackson feels connected to the tools that have been such an important part of his recent evolution. Rather than let them go, he still finds a way to use his old portable induction burners every night. “I hold them very close to my heart,” he said, with a laugh. Even if it’s just warming green olives served as a snack ($7) and simmering the bay-and-vanilla syrup for Drifters Wife’s signature dessert – malabi pudding made from raw cow’s milk and sprinkled with a crush of spiced cashews ($8) – those little burners will never be out of a job.
Some of Jackson’s best dishes do make use of his new equipment, like a saffron-yellow, heritage-bred chicken, served with roasted parsnips and green garlic ($34). Cooked “al mattone” (under a brick), first in a smoking hot cast-iron pan on the stovetop, then crisped in the oven, the buttery half-chicken is golden-skinned, juicy and so terrifically addictive, it should come with a PSA.
Or the simple-sounding spinach salad ($13) that Jackson enlivens with rhubarb macerated, then poached in white wine, lemon juice, sugar and salt: “white wine lemonade,” he calls it. He blends that same poaching liquid with caramelized bacon and house-made cider vinegar to produce a tart, intensely smoky, vinaigrette that’s good enough to eat on its own. From yielding rhubarb to frilly shavings of white cheddar, every layer of this salad is unexpected, yet makes perfect sense as you eat.
Jackson’s salt-massaged napa cabbage salad ($14), dressed with funky honey vinaigrette and sprinkled with Parmesan and pistachios, is just as good. So, too, the local hake ($28) that he plates, together with lentils and plump New Meadows littlenecks, on a bed of savory agretti, a relative of sea beans/samphire with longer, thinner fronds and a grassy flavor. Incorporating agretti – an ingredient that Italians snap up feverishly at precisely this time of year – is a witty, whimsical riff on the concept of seasonality. It is also one of the best hake preparations I have tasted in years.
Closer to home, it’s hard to imagine a New England springtime without fiddleheads, and they’re here as well. Jackson prepares his pan-roasted and charred, then stirred into a creamy shallot-and-morel sauce that he ladles over a thick, toasted plank of Night Moves sourdough bread ($15). It’s a dish he adapted from Brooklyn’s Marlow & Sons, where Jackson worked before moving to Maine. The dish reminded me of an upgraded Welsh rarebit – by no means a bad thing. But much of the wild, weedy flavor of the fiddleheads got lost in the rich sauce. And that may actually be the point: “I love seeing them come back around every year, but I’m not a fan of them personally,” he said. “I asked myself how I could make myself excited to eat them, and I guess it takes morel cream to make them appealing.”
When I went looking for more fiddlehead flavor, I realized that I could recover some of it with the right sip of wine. The dried fruit and tannic body of the Sao del Coster S ($14/glass), a Priorat with tons of slate underneath, cut right through the cream and left me thinking about foraging in the forest. I got much the same effect from the grippy Redentore Refosco ($10/glass), although I wound up preferring its spiciness as a complement to the chicken, especially the skin, whose grease I couldn’t resist licking from my fingers when nobody was looking.
The last time I wrote about Drifters Wife, in a four-star, tag-team review with wine writer Joe Appel in 2016, I was utterly charmed by its sweet hominess and unflagging dedication to sharing the pleasures of natural wines with Portland. This time around, I’m even more impressed. While the new space feels less cozy, it is just as inviting, even a little seductive.
In that review two years ago, we also remarked on the small number of wines by the glass at Drifters Wife. In their new location, the Hales have nearly doubled their offerings. They now pour 16 wines, including two sparkling varieties, every night. With the help of a mechanical, reverse pressure system like a Coravin or Vinomatic, they could certainly offer more, but Orenda Hales managed to convince me it’s the right decision.
“We taste throughout service …,” she said. “Essentially, what we are after is the very ephemeral nature of the wines: noticing the change and speaking to how a wine is ‘showing’ is part of the fun.”
More than that, it’s about human hands touching bottles and corks, noses and mouths enlisted in tracking a wine over the course of the night. If the wines themselves are so alluringly imperfect, why shouldn’t the tools to serve them be, too?