BIDDEFORD — When Fish & Whistle first opened on Main Street in June, chef-owners Jason Eckerson and Kate Hamm said they hoped to create a casual neighborhood restaurant locals could enjoy.
Biddeford is restaurant-rich, its culinary reputation on the rise nationwide, thanks in part to glowing major-media attention. But like others around town, Eckerson and Hamm saw great options here for quick-service and take-out food, as well as upscale fine-dining, but not enough casual family restaurants where locals could grab reasonably priced, thoughtfully prepared lunch or dinner.
They said recently they felt their goal was becoming a reality. Over a strong summer of business, locals had made up the bulk of their clientele. After my latest meal there at the start of this month, I wondered why foodie tourists hadn’t also beaten a path to this little gem.
The young duo sure know their way around a kitchen. Eckert is a former sous chef at Portland’s Eventide Oyster Co., and Hamm is a James Beard-nominated pastry chef and gifted baker.
The chefs devised a streamlined but alluring menu for Fish & Whistle, including fish and chips ($14 for 6-ounce portion, $22 for 12 ounces) and sandwiches (each $13) featuring fried fish, fried chicken and even fried tempeh for vegetarians (with a vegan option available). Simple, apt sides come a la carte, like vibrant, tangy slaw ($5) and a delightful salad ($8) with tender, crisp butter lettuce coated in lush, herby Green Goddess dressing. For dessert, you can choose from Hamm’s soft-serve ice creams ($4) or try the summer pudding ($8).
At Fish & Whistle, the chefs’ expertise elevates their approachable food in ways both profound and subtle. For the fish and chips, a signature dish, Eckerson uses pollock or hake – still white, moist and flaky, but not overfished like cod and haddock. His yeast batter fries up super-crunchy and deeply golden, nailing the textural sweet spot: more substantial than an airy tempura batter, but lighter and less overwhelming than doughy beer batters.
At my most recent lunch there, I ordered Fish & Whistle’s other top-selling main dish, the Squidwich ($13). Eckert’s fried Maine squid is tender with a light, crisp coating, set atop succulent butter lettuce and dressed with creamy house tartar sauce. The specials board included a marinara variation for the sandwich as well, for a calamari-style flavor profile.
Sandwich buns at Fish & Whistle are no mere afterthought. Hamm bakes them using the Japanese milk bread style, and her pillowy, deep-brown and gloriously glossy bread makes both the ideal complement and foil to Eckert’s crisp-fried protein inside.
Eckert uses local potatoes for his hand-cut fries ($5), which he tosses with salt and malt vinegar. The fries come with a side of Duke’s mayonnaise, a Southern staple mayo (Eckert is originally from Virginia) with more tang than Hellmann’s, making it the perfect dipper for his vinegar-dressed fries.
I ordered a cup of sea salt vanilla ice cream topped with caramelized bread crumbs ($5). Hamm uses light, crispy panko crumbs for this outstanding topping, first toasting them in a pan with some butter, then sprinkling in some sugar and salt, cooking until the sugar browns.
The caramelized crumbs lend delectable crunch to the subtly salted, not-overly-sweet ice cream. Like the rest of the menu, dessert here shines with simply, unfussy elegance.
Fish & Whistle is open for lunch and dinner from noon to 8 pm, Thursday through Sunday. I’ve not yet had to wait for a seat, and my food arrives 10-15 minutes after ordering.
But that may change next season, if tourists catch on. Until then, I plan to make Fish & Whistle a regular stop.
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