November 8, 2012

TRAVELIN' MAINE(RS): 18 BELOW is well above average

George and Linda Smith

George

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IF YOU GO . . .

18 Below
ADDRESS: 18 Silver St.,
Waterville
PHONE: 861-4454
No Reservations
HOURS: Serving dinner only. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.
The restaurant has a special entrance in the back for handicapped customers.

The first thing you need to know is that 18 Below doesn't refer to the temperature. It's the location: 18 Silver St. in Waterville, below ground level. Although if it is 18 below outside, this is a very comfy place to spend some time.

When we started this travel column, we decided to give any new restaurant a couple of years before we visited. A lot can go wrong in a restaurant, and most of it goes wrong in the first year or two. In fact, if a restaurant lasts two years, it's probably going to be successful.

But so many friends recommended 18 Below to us, that we set aside our policy and visited last week, 14 months after it opened. And we discovered a very good restaurant, from the décor to the desserts.

Owner Travis Lajoy's secret to success greeted us as we entered -- his mother Donna! She's the vivacious hostess, and we thoroughly enjoyed visiting with her. She's obviously (and with good reason) proud of her son and his restaurant. She handed us off to our server, Steven, who was knowledgeable, personable and eager to take the extra steps to make our meal memorable.

I was especially impressed with the care Steve took to box up my leftovers, separating the broth from the mussels in my appetizer. You can plan on leftovers here, because portions are large.

Well, OK, I did eat all of my superb scallop entrée. These were huge caramelized scallops in a very tasty sweet pepper coulis. That sauce was delicious. And the perfectly cooked (rare) scallops came with two creative angle hair pancakes and seasonal vegetables.

Many online reviewers raved about the mussel appetizer and they were right on. These Prince Edward Island mussels -- sautéed in Shipyard Export Ale (one of my favorite brews) with shallots, garlic, tomatoes and orange wedges -- were exceptional.

Those orange wedges transformed the dish, adding surprising taste and zest. And the broth was very flavorful too. I could have drunk a glass of it! Steve thoughtfully swapped my dish of empty mussel shells twice as I worked my way through the huge number of mussels -- and I still had some to bring home.

It tells you something that after less than a year, Travis had to move from a six-burner stove to a 10-burner stove. This place is hopping. I especially loved the walls of bricks and old wood, the low lighting, the decorations -- even the Allagash barrel that serves as the hostess station. Lots of thought went into the design of 18 Below.

It's a compliment to say that this restaurant could be set down in Portland's Old Port and fit right in, offering high-quality food and a great dining experience.

The street-level lounge, called the Pearl, is gorgeous, resplendent in white, big enough for about two dozen people and perfect for a small event. It has the same hours as the restaurant and serves appetizers as well as drinks. The downstairs bar seats 36 and is available for larger events.

The restaurant seats 44 and the entire menu is available, from 4 p.m. to about 12:30 a.m., in both the restaurant and bar. They don't take reservations, so be prepared to wait for a table on busy weekend evenings. Or go early or late. But definitely, go often!

Linda

When you enter this restaurant you will probably notice the modern, edgy atmosphere right off. There is a large, open waiting area in back of the hostess station where many patrons patiently wait for a table (on weekends), in the comfortable leather seating area. And I can see why they wait -- both the food and the atmosphere here are worth it!

(Continued on page 2)

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