Fine-dining veterans put their stamp on a beloved casual spot.
Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy are not from Maine, yet the two tremendously talented chefs epitomize Maine character in many ways. Though both have experience at some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country, they are unpretentious and prudent. And they work diligently to deliver thoughtful, approachable food, with a lot of heart and a ton of technique. Leavy left a career in advertising to attend culinary school and landed at Bouley in New York. Deuben came to Maine to work at Hugo’s, left briefly to cook at Chicago’s Alinea, and returned to a job at Miyake. The two crossed paths several times before deciding to team up and make a name for themselves.
That name was Small Axe, and it wasn’t a restaurant, but a food truck. “We had to carve out a niche for ourselves. We didn’t have the funds for a restaurant, but we could afford a truck,” says Leavy. I used to seek out Small Axe, often finding it parked near Tandem Coffee in the Bayside neighborhood. I craved the breakfast bowl of hash browns, veggies, ricotta, and egg because it was interesting, fresh, and above all really delicious. “The concept for the truck was the same as it is now for the restaurant,” Leavy continues. “Use local ingredients, treat them with care, and pay attention to the details.” The two used their time at Small Axe to experiment, playing with ideas that took advantage of their combined backgrounds. Some of the results, like the beloved smoked pork belly sandwich with hoisin and kimchi and the fried fish sandwich, became so popular that they made the transition to the East Ender menu. “We always knew the truck was the first step,” says Deuben. “But it took two years to find the right space in the right area.” When the two-story restaurant on Middle Street became available, everything happened very quickly. With exposed brick, dark wood booths, and white paneling, the place is not flashy, but comfortable and inviting in a well-worn, familiar way—an apt reflection of the chefs and their food.
Smart and deliberate, the pair keeps their eyes on the big picture. “It’s all about technique and the best ingredients,” says Deuben. “We use what we’ve learned, then keep evolving.” Of the two, he is more improvisational and Leavy is the planner, an avid reader of cookbooks and more methodical. “We lob questions at each other all day, figuring out ways to make things happen,” he says. Leavy adds, “It’s kind of a fun game we play, asking what else we can do with this.” They’re constantly searching for ways to cross-utilize menu items, not just to eliminate waste and keep costs down, but because it’s a fun experiment. For example, chicken wings are mixed with vadouvan spices (a French-style curry) and whey from house-made yogurt, then poached. The residual liquid produces a deeply flavored stock that is turned into consommé for use in other dishes. “It allows us to be playful, and it feels good when we don’t waste product,” Leavy says. “We have a kitchen-focused mentality, but as owners, we have to consider
operational costs too.” In this way, the East Ender menu is a constant work in progress. The smoked burger is a holdover from the Small Axe days, but now diners can make it their own, adding pork belly chili, shishito peppers, or bacon jam. A beet salad has morphed into braised beets with goat cheese and an unusual Celtic vinegar, steeped with exotic spices. Happily, the ultra-crisp, beer-battered onion rings remain. Brunch has become a runaway hit, featuring Deuben’s phenomenal hash browns and Leavy’s baked goods, including ethereal biscuits, doughnuts, and even a startlingly delicious ham and cheese sticky bun. Developing daily specials is a favorite exercise for both chefs, often using new and seasonal products. “It’s fun to create on the fly,” Leavy says, “and allows us to offer more variety.”
Leavy’s wife, Janet Webber, serves as general manager and oversees the bar. She brings a similar depth of experience and passion to the job, having been the wine buyer at Hugo’s. The wine offerings are a good value and reflection of the food, but Webber says East Ender draws more of a cocktail and beer crowd. The drinks menu features twists on classic cocktails, like the Brooklyn—a version of the Manhattan made with dry rather than sweet vermouth— and a rosemary-infused Aperol spritz. Another list, “Temperance,” presents equally creative mocktails. Happy hour is a good time to pair a drink with a bar snack, maybe chicken-fried bacon or chili cheese fries, for a taste of the East Ender experience.
Having recently celebrated their second anniversary at East Ender, Leavy and Deuben are hitting their stride. They’ve created the kind of place that welcomes those in search of a low-key but confident dining experience, embracing the Maine sensibility in all aspects.