Dilettante: Mia's Restaurant of Pepperell Square, Saco

Posted Wednesday, May 4, 2011 in Culture

Dilettante: Mia's Restaurant of Pepperell Square, Saco

by Jan Brennan

Mia's at Pepperell SquareMias Interior
17 Pepperell Square, Saco
284-6427 www.miasatpepperellsquare.com
Open Monday-Saturday 5-9 p.m.

SACO – It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday in April, the start of school vacation week, and we made a spontaneous decision to grab some friends and go out for dinner. Phoning Mia's to make a reservation for a few hours hence, I was surprised to find them able to accommodate us at our chosen hour. When we arrived at 6 p.m., I was even more surprised to find the place almost empty.
I'd eaten at Mia's several times in the past few years, and found it to be  consistently excellent. Where were the customers, on what should be a restaurant's busiest night of the week?
Happily for chef/owner Steve Rogers, business did pick up later in the evening,and by 8 almost every table was filled. I'm always amazed by the relative lack of great restaurants in Saco; sure, the foodie haven of Portland is just a short drive away, but still ... pickings are slim in Saco for someone who wants to dine on something other than Miracle Mile burger-and-fries. Choices for a more upscale experience are pretty much limited to Joseph's or The Landmark in nearby Old Orchard. The popular Traditions on Saco's Main Street is a more casual, though always reliable, option.  
Mia's, in business since August 2007 at 17 Pepperell Square, seems to still be a rather undiscovered gem. I can't figure out why; with its reasonable prices, unpretentious vibe, and most importantly its first-rate food, you'd expect to find customers lining up outside the door.
We received a warm welcome from waiter extraordinaire Nick Plummer. Friendly without the overly familiar, happy-face chumminess that unfortunately seems to be the new wait-staff standard, Nick delivered great service. He provided unobtrusive attentiveness with just a bit of good-humored banter, and when I questioned some unfamiliar wines his explanations were
informed and helpful. One of two waiters working that night, he handled the almost full house with professional ease, and didn't seem to be at all put out that our party monopolized a table for the entire evening.
We started off with cocktails. Mia's, a small, one-room affair with a semi-open kitchen, doesn't have a bar, but the wait staff can make most mixed drinks. Our Manhattan, martini and old-fashioned (which Nick served, as requested, straight up, without batting an eye) were large and deliciously icy. Drinks run in the $8-9 range, and all the wines by the glass are $8 as well.

Homemade bread came with a dish of herbed olive oil loaded with chopped garlic. Yummy  though it was, I prefer butter on the soft white bread served that night, and Nick responded to my request with a dish of slightly chilled pats.
Two members of our party opted for one of the night's specials, filet mignon ($27). The all-natural meat from a California ranch was perfectly cooked medium-rare as ordered, and was melt-in-your-mouth tender. A rich square of cheesy, au gratin potatoes and the night's veg – a medley of sauteed and still crispy broccolini, green beans and carrots – nicely rounded out the meal.
Two of us ordered off the regular menu. My pan-roasted chicken was, I think, the best I've ever had. A large breast with attached wing was moist and tender, its skin brown and crisp. A balsamic-chicken reduction was a tastier substitute for traditional gravy. Along with the vegetable medley were three bacon-scallion pierogies. Being of Polish stock, I grew up on my nana's homemade pierogies; Mia's version surprised me with a dough that had an almost pizza-crust consistency. A bit odd, but they were very, very good. At $16, the meal was a  great bargain, and was big enough to doggie-bag. 
Our fourth person enjoyed four huge sea scallops, pan-seared to an attractive amber, served with English pea risotto, snap peas and truffle butter ($27).
Generous portions left us too full for dessert – but we ate some anyway. Chef Rogers' creme brulee ($7) was classic perfection; its crusty top and creamy, vanilla custard had no need to be tarted up with unexpected flavors, another often-regrettable recent trend. My husband and I each ordered the homemade ice cream ($5), which came in such a generous portion I wished we had shared a single bowl. Unable to  decide from among the day's four flavors (one being
jalapeno/bacon), I asked Nick for a combination of chocolate chip and caramel pecan. In yet another example of good service, he gave me a scoop of each, with the third scoop being half of each flavor. 

About a week later, my husband and I returned to Mia's so I could report on their appetizers, which we hadn't tried on our previous visit. Again, the place was quiet, though this was early on a weeknight, so the lack of business was not unexpected.

I started with a cup of lobster chowder, a great bargain at $6 ($8 for a bowl). What a hearty cup of soup! Potatoes, onions, celery, corn, leeks, bacon and chunks of lobster crammed the generous cup; it all left little room for the tasty broth made of cream, lobster stock and sherry. Delicious.

I moved on to the crab cakes, served with a small pile of dressed salad greens ($13). Though the small cakes are mostly tender crab, I found them a tad dry; the roasted jalapeno remoulade pooled beneath the cakes overwhelmed their delicate flavor with its heat, I felt. 

More successful were my husband's choices: pear salad and sausage ragout. The salad ($7) was a generous serving of the mixed greens topped with burgundy-vanilla poached pears (a pretty pink), small chunks of gorgonzola, and homemade spiced, whole walnuts. The honey-pear vinaigrette nicely offset the hot-chili spiciness of the nuts.

The standout of this evening was the sausage ragout ($8), a large plate of pasta that, with a salad and a nice glass of red wine, would make a wonderful little dinner of its own. Gemelli pasta, cooked perfectly al dente, had absorbed all the flavors of its white wine, cream and tomato sauce. The crumbles of housemade sausage added a wonderful bit of heat and even more depth of flavor. This dish was easily as good as any pasta I've even in Italy (and, since my daughter lives in Rome, I've eaten a lot!)  Bravo!
Being a peanut butter lover, I couldn't resist that night's peanut butter ice cream -- though this time we wisely shared a single dish. It was all I hoped for: creamy and dense, full of peanut flavor as well as peanut butter chips. I also picked up a pecan tart to bring home, and what a yummy breakfast that made the next day -- still perfectly fresh, not too sweet, and composed more of the chopped nuts than corn-syrup filling. Like the creme brulee, this classic dessert needs no modern touches. Tasty coffee rounded out our meal.

Chef Rogers previously cooked at the well-regarded Windows on the Water in Kennebunk (and Nick Plummer was a waiter there too). When he opened his own place just across the bridge from his wife's hometown of Biddeford, he named the restaurant for his infant daughter. Saco residents are lucky indeed to have this creative young chef bring a much needed boost to the local restaurant scene.

Mias Interior   

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