Lilee’s Public House (R.I.P.)
On a wildly inappropriately hungover weekday, I didn’t walk into Lilee’s Public House expecting greatness. As attractive and well-done as the restaurant’s exterior may be, on Maine Street in Brunswick, with its brick buildings and mostly independent shops and boutiques, there’s only so much you come to expect from so-called “pub food.” A quick glance at the menu puts Lilee’s very firmly in this category, with a whole menu page dedicated to burgers, another to buffalo wings, cheese fries, chili, nachos, and other beer-drinking staples, and then a few token hearty, stick-to-your-ribs entrees, including Shepard’s Pie and Macaroni & Cheese, thrown on for good measure. But when Whiskey-Belly needs a burger, Whiskey-Belly needs a burger, so we pushed on.
We were charmed by the restaurant’s casual, seat-yourself interior immediately. A large, inviting bar flanks one whole wall, with about ten copper-topped, rather intimately-grouped tables spread throughout the rest of the space. The day we visited for lunch, one lone waitress hummed around the room, shuttling plates efficiently from the kitchen area to the mostly business-type crowd seated in the dining room. We chose a table in the back, next to a large booth that we imagined would be perfect for our next big gathering of friends on Trivia Night, carousing and tilting pints deep into the evening (okay, until 11:00PM, the restaurant’s closing time). The sunlight filtered beautifully into the room, glinting off the reflective tables, casting a warm glow onto the jack-o-lantern made of beer labels, and onto the back corner wall of the pub’s collection of members-only foam beer cozies.
Jillian: We’ve walked and driven past Lilee’s on many already chilly nights, and I find myself looking longingly into the convivial atmosphere. It appears as a snug harbor after sunset, with amber-colored lights from many sources, including a Tiffany-style string of party lamps over the bar. Too many bodies huddled around a smallish, pint-crowded table, laughing and debating. Not the setting for your most debauched evenings, but reliably low-key fun. Thirty-something appropriate imbibing. It’s many, many beers over the course of hours as opposed to quickly downed Jager shots. I imagine the increasingly intoxicated din of a fall Friday night. We were there on a weekday afternoon, not drinking. Content, sure. But sunlit and sober. Still, the place has spirit.
We were also immediately impressed with Lilee’s extensive beer list, offering an unusual selection of regional draft pints, as well as a good assortment of bottled and “large format” bottled Belgian and German varieties. I ordered a Moat Mountain Czech Pilsner pint ($4.50) to keep me company while I examined the menu a little more closely. In addition to burgers, Lilee’s offers a wide assortment of sandwiches, which all appeared to include inventive details that put creative twists on pub classics, like the pulled pork sandwich with chopped pickles and onions, or that old standby, the grilled chicken breast sandwich, this version decidedly upgraded with roasted poblanos, cheddar cheese, and chipotle mayo.
I settled on the “Southwest Chili Burger,” ($12.00) a 6-ounce portion of Caldwell Farms ground beef, topped with Lilee’s house chili, a blend of jack and cheddar cheeses, and fire-roasted green chiles, lettuce, tomato, and onion, with a side of pineapple coleslaw. For twelve bucks, a burger needs to deliver in a big way, and the Southwest Chili Burger certainly did. The hamburger was cooked perfectly to temperature, a rosy medium rare that left plenty of juice to run off the burger and into the soft toasted bun. Topped with a lightly spicy chili, filled with more beef and tender kidney beans, buckets of melty, stringy cheese, and smoldering heat from the roasted peppers, this was a burger to put your whole face into, and was enough to make my overindulgence the night before little more than a fleeting memory. The coleslaw accompanied this burger perfectly; clearly made in-house, with lots of bright, sweet flavor coming from the pineapple.
Jillian’s burger, a seven ounce “Lamb Burger” ($13.00), topped with feta cheese & arugula pesto, was also delicious, if not a little more straightforward. Beautifully charred on the outside, and still warm and pink in the middle, the meat melted into the bun, with the sharp bite of the feta providing an intense contrast to the pleasant earthiness of the lamb. In the two bites I tried before diverting my attention back to my own burger, I didn’t notice much from the arugula pesto, but that may have been my own miscalculated, outer-edge bite. I was also quite taken with her fries, which were salty and cooked dark-brown, with the flavor of a dark russet potato chip.
Jillian: I love lamb. I think it’s the cat’s pajamas. Lilee’s lamb burger is something to go back for; even as I want to try other items from their menu, I know I won’t be able to resist this. In the first bite, I got everything I needed: gamey (not too gamey), tangy from the feta, super crazy juicy cooked-to-order medium-rare, with a very mildly peppery aurugula pesto to impart moisture and grassiness. It required no other condiment but the lettuce, tomato, and red onion slices that came on top of the bun. My only quibble (and it is a minor one) is with the cheese. I’ve had lamb burgers topped with a creamy feta sauce that drips down the sides and gets all messy that I’ve loved. This feta was a bit of a stiff upper lip, perhaps a little too square for such a rockin’ meat sandwich.
In many ways, Lilee’s delivers on the concept of a “public house” in the most literal sense, establishing a perfectly cozy, inviting place, away from your house, to meet with friends, enjoy a beer, and chat these short autumn evenings away. What we never expected, however, was that Lilee’s would offer not just an amazing beer list, but also such inventive twists on classic, comforting pub fare, serving one of the best burgers I’ve had yet in Maine. It’s a place I look forward to spending much more time in.
Note: Since this review was published, this restaurant has closed its doors.