Take One: Town Hall American Bistro
"The chop tasted quite a bit like the grill it spent some time on, which is better than just tasting like modern pork. It recalled my father’s back-porch grilling projects, in a good way."
What makes a bistro American? How far into Parisian history can you trace the dishes of any North American kitchen that bears the bistro name? Does an American bistro, like its French counterpart, offer slow-cooked meals for weary workers, just with larger portions? Is a bistro simply any non-steakhouse restaurant with an extensive wine list?
Town Hall Bistro, the newest addition to the restaurant row on Lewiston’s Center Street, aims for the dead center of everything we might think we’re talking about when we talk about bistros. There’s a lot of wine on the list—ten whites, twenty-four reds, a half-dozen sparkling and blush specimens on my visit—with a couple of regional picks, lots of California and South America, and a quarter of all those wines available by the glass. The menu recalls home cooking, if your parents had twin fixations on pork and seafood. And the look is rustic—brown, tan, and rust-tinted.
Any photo you take inside Town Hall has an inherent vintage look, akin to smartphone shots filtered through the popular Instagram app. The leathers, metals, and stained woods are present everywhere: the long bar and small, tall tables in the lounge area, the high-back booths, and the larger tables in the dining area. I would like to think you could serve bistro fare in any aesthetic, maybe even in an IKEA. But Town Hall has a very specific, thoroughly consistent feel in mind for its drink and dinner patrons.
Town Hall touts its use of local (as in Lewiston) ingredients, including vinegars and oils from D’Avolio, sausage from Natural Link, and desserts from the Village Bake Shop, just a few doors down Center. I wonder if Town Hall utilizes the DiCamillo bakery on Center, as the bread offered was a thin slice of the whitest Italian, with a tough crust and nothing interesting on the inside. The draft list in September did include some of the best of what’s nearby and seasonal, including Southern Tier’s Pumpking, a vanilla porter, and a few Oktoberfests. Our server said a cocktail list was under development—that sounds like a fun project to crew.
As mentioned, there’s a lot of pork and seafood on the menu, and not too many options for vegetarians. The specials on one night consisted of a Creole meatloaf, an eighteen-ounce steak, a swordfish plate, and another meat entrée. The jambalaya pasta is made with gulf shrimp, chicken, and chorizo sausage, and the baked orecchiette includes crispy pork belly.
Town Hall Bistro's littleneck clams - photo by kc kratt
The table started with littleneck clams, served in a red, significantly salty broth of white wine, garlic, and spinach, colored a rich red with chorizo sausage and tomato bits and adorned with just enough buttered country bread. The clams were a fine size and consistency, the bread an entirely different species than the free stuff, and it was all gone before the server could ask about it.
The same went for the duck confit salad, which came with many, many small piles of shredded, fat-braised duck breast, and a cinnamon-pear vinaigrette that was in tune with the season. Forgive some sugar, and it’s a viable combination at work. None of that conditional nicety, however, applies to the Town Hall namesake salad. Pickled broccoli and cauliflower weren’t pickled enough, but the basil vinaigrette was just straight-up vinegar, which caused the nonpickled tomatoes and hard-boiled egg some real splash damage. My wife told the waiter, and the kitchen’s reply, filtered through an eager server, was that the salad was “going for a little extra tang.” Extraneous tang, perhaps.
The grilled pork rib chop was balanced, and the diced onion and tomato bits on top were actually pickled. The sweet potato and andouille sausage hash was my favorite taste of the entire meal, being remarkably consistent in size, soft and chewy in the same bites, and felt like something your mother might make if you were raised on a high-minded pork farm. The garlic-chipotle marinade left only a whisper of its flavor, but it thoroughly tenderized the cut, leaving a juicy bit of meat that surrendered to a light touch with a fork. The chop tasted quite a bit like the grill it spent some time on, which is better than just tasting like modern pork. It recalled my father’s back-porch grilling projects, in a good way.
Not so with the swordfish special. The side of “Sicilian potato salad,” stocked with Kalamata olives and capers, earned two or three bites from my wife for every stab at the swordfish (we both had green beans as well). Swordfish is one of those fishes they say you can grill without too much fear of overcooking, but this was tough and dry. The roasted bacon tomato butter had all of those things, just in separated components: two pats of butter among diced tomatoes, and not a lot of bacon flavor allowed into the entrée itself.
Run a Google image search for “almond cake,” one of the items read out from the dessert list one night, and it looks nothing like what arrived at the table. The Village Bake Shop’s almond cake looks a lot like its cherry chip cake, both of which were so large and so top-heavy with frosting that they snapped at their layer divides and fell sideways onto their plates. Each slice had the same plating scheme of chocolate sauce with sprinkles of almonds or white chocolate chips. It recalled awkward moments when a relative handed over a huge slice of cake that wasn’t rich so much as overly fortified.
I think Town Hall has an interesting space, accommodating and friendly service, an accessible wine and draft list, some appealing starters, and a somewhat refreshing will to avoid gourmet burgers, spice-spiked potato sides, quirky cocktails, and other modern menu fill-ins. This bistro may need more time with its menu, which could use some more simple pleasures that aren’t steaks, sausage, or cake.
Town Hall American Bistro
Open 4-11 p.m., daily
453 Center St., Lewiston
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer who lives and cooks in the Elmwood Village.