At Trattoria Athena, you sit by the kitchen, you sit near the windows, or you sit at the bar. Despite the cozy space, each table feels private and insular, while remaining a part of the whole. And you want to be part of this place. It transports. And at the same time, you are just exactly here, where you should be. On a one-way street in Brunswick, within the chalkboard-and map-and wine-lined walls of a tiny dining establishment, where friends meet unexpectedly and on purpose. We were lucky enough to be invited out with a group this past weekend and found ourselves tucking in to a reclaimed wood table for six at seven o’clock on Saturday night. The place was full of happy hushed voices, rosy-warm inside as the temperature dropped without, as it does in Maine at the end of September.
The menu is Greek-Italian, local and seasonal. It struck me as an authentic choice, rather than a zeitgeist thing. It’s how this food is meant to be. Red wine was poured into stemless glasses before I had a chance to question it. All I know is that it was spicy and delicious. We started with a trio of spreads ($10): taramasalata – fish roe, bread puree – tzatziki – Greek yogurt, cucumber, dill – and htipiti – feta, grilled hot pepper, served with crusty bread. I had never had htipiti before and was pleasantly suprised by the bite, balanced by tangy cheese. Bright, creamy tzatziki and lovely taramasalata were the best I’ve had since I used to haunt Sahadi’s on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn every Saturday. Enhanced joy was becoming evident around our table. The kind that comes from good food and wine being shared.
The blackboard behind me was covered with copious notes concerning specials. But I had previously prepared by menu browsing online and already settled on the short ribs ($24). Rich and meaty, more akin to a slow cooked Sunday pot roast than any other preparation of beef, this dish is soul-warming, if one-note. In a fit of spontaneity, Malcolm ordered a pasta from the daily board. A work of beauty composed of duck egg and white truffle oil, corzetti pasta with butter poached lobster, white wine, shallots, sungolds, and corn ($24). I had three or four bites and still could not begin to discern the multiplicity of flavor combinations possible. Each taste was a new world of sensual delight. Marvelous! This was the dish of the night; their pasta is not to be missed.
Around us, others ordered meatballs aromatic with cumin, a salad covered in figs, a bowl of fresh ribbon pasta ready to be turned unctuous from an orange egg yolk balanced at its center, and ravioli filled with goat cheese. A feast for the senses, selflessly shared in forkfulls drifting perilously over plates. We sensibly decided to order a smattering of desserts. Such musical and evocative names for sweet bites. They provided a coda and closure to a rustically elegant meal: Tiramisu, Baklava, Ekmek, as well as a deep chocolate hazelnut torte and a special that evening, deep fried ricotta spheres with orange zest and dripping with honey. Everything was extraordinary, but the gooey baklava and complex ricotta were, in my opinion, outstanding.
I love how each dish was carefully prepared, not at all fussy but unaccidental, complex and completely done. The service was unobtrusive but knowledgeable, and even though it is a small restaurant it is not loud or crowded. We both independently felt this was one of the single best meals we’ve had in Maine and agreed we would be going back as soon as possible. Trattoria Athena seems settled and unassuming; it neither strives to be what it cannot nor makes a showoffy performance of the business of making food. It’s the kind of place we like most because of this. It’s just going out to dinner, after all.