Ever since analysts identified Biddeford real estate as a hot investment, thoughtful Mainers have considered the choice between life in Portland and a more raw existence 15 miles south.
The contrast is much as Rousseau described in his Second Discourse: “The source of all differences is that the more simple man lives within himself, while social man lives outside himself, and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, reducing everything to appearances.” For Rousseau, simple physical dangers, like a bad bag of heroin or a poison Skittle, might kill you; but it was the negotiation of social obstacles and matters of status that truly cheapen our souls.
Of all the social contests that diminish our humanity, displaying and comparing taste in restaurants is the most dismal and enervating. So does the fact that Maine’s most appealing new restaurant, Custom Deluxe, has opened on Main Street in Biddeford threaten the town’s best quality: that they generally don’t give a crap? In so many things, it only takes one: just one poison Skittle (not three, duh Donald Jr.!) to ruin your day, perhaps just one of Maine’s electoral college votes to save us from a president whose lack of vigor and stamina could endanger our nation.
But Biddeford is scrappy enough to eat well at Custom Deluxe without developing new pretentions. The restaurant helps by not putting on airs itself. The space looks nice but not polished, with brick walls, a high ceiling of inlaid tin, mix and match furniture and plateware. You can see them cooking in back, but not in a self-conscious open-kitchen way. The service is terrific, but unassumingly so. The cuisine mingles ingredients and approaches from many regions, without getting all fusiony about it. It is significantly less expensive than comparable meals in Portland.
Like the real estate boom around it, Custom Deluxe’s sophistication sneaks up on you unexpectedly. It turns out a simple sounding “chicken and egg” dish resembles bibimbap, in a big bowl with sticky rice. A tart creamy sauce holds together the egg, the tender meat and peas. Fennel adds a touch of crunch and earthy flavor. A Chinese pork sausage is served, sweet and bright red, like a hot dog. Piled with cabbage, carrot and cucumber, and schmeared with mayo it, it resembles a Chilean completo. A pile of pale French fries were crisp and pillowy, and generously herbed.
Other dishes do just as nicely with provincial approaches. Blackened pollock was tender and terrific, spiced with restraint. It came piled on top a terrific turnip mash – earthy, chunky and a touch sweet. Polenta fries were light with a subtle spice. Succotash featured crunchy sweet corn and lots of butter, savory notes of fennel and miso, and burstingly juicy little tomatoes. Smashed cucumbers, served with a creamy mild farmers cheese, took on a just-pickled quality as they soaked up cider vinegar.
Rousseau’s favorite meals were in a country cottage so spare he had to pull a chair to the windowsill to put down his plate. It was there he observed that, “Man is born free, but everywhere he agrees to binding arbitration.” Thanks to Custom Deluxe, Biddefordeans now have good reason to leave their windows and go out for dinner. But in doing so, they should be wary of the social affectations and anxieties that could bind them up. Portlanders are already heading south in search of dormered capes, uncrowded surf breaks, rare warblers and rarer flickers. When they hear there is great food, things could tip. Rousseau wore a simple Turkish hat to emphasize his rejection of French style and affectation. But now such multcult worldliness strikes many as the essence of elite affectation. They seek a president who will fix it. Custom Deluxe, named for an old Chevy truck, shows how to expand horizons without losing oneself in enfeebling status games.
Custom Deluxe, 140 Main St., Biddeford | Tuesday-Thursday, 5:00pm to 9:00pm, Friday and Saturday, 5:00pm to 10:00pm | 207.494.7110