Welcome to the July edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Brian Catapang from Magnus on Water in Biddeford. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on instagram, so stay tuned.
Two women walk into a bar in Biddeford, Maine, and find themselves in a life-changing conversation with the bartender… No, this isn’t the first line of a joke. It’s a true story about how Brian Catapang, Carmen Harris, Julia Russell, and Brittany Saliwanchik went from strangers to friends to business partners in less than 24 hours.
Catapang was bartending at Elda when Harris and Russell stopped in for a drink. Impressed by his off-the-cuff cocktails, they asked if he had ever thought of opening his own bar. The DC-based women were interested in the rise of Biddeford’s food scene and looking for a way to get involved. Indeed, Catapang had given it some thought along with Saliwanchik, Elda’s general manager at the time. The next day, the four met for coffee and bonded over their shared vision of a cocktail bar rooted in community and hospitality. It was then and there that the team behind Magnus on Water was built.
Catapang first developed an interest in spirits when he was a brand ambassador for Wiggly Bridge Distillery in York. Fascinated by the distilling process and inspired by a liquor’s limitless possibilities, he started searching for bartending gigs to develop his own menu.
In the winter of 2017, he came across an ad on Craigslist for the opening bartending position at Elda. The description was vague and the restaurant was barely built out, but he knew the opportunity to work with Chef Bowman Brown wasn’t one to pass up. At Elda, he quickly developed his unique cocktail style, striking a balance between bold ingredients and nuanced spirits.
One year after that inspired conversation over coffee at Elements, Catapang and his team celebrated Magnus’ grand opening on January 18, 2020. The new cocktail bar and restaurant was drawing crowds to Biddeford, but the pandemic brought it to a sudden halt. After a temporary closure, Magnus reopened that summer for outdoor dining on the adjacent granite patio. Feeling limited by the challenges of the pandemic, the team made the difficult decision to close for the winter and spring of 2021.
As of June 8th, Magnus on Water has again welcomed patrons back to their spacious outdoor patio adorned with pink lawn flamingos. Unlike last year, there is full table service and non disposables. Indoor dining is available on a limited basis.
The food program is led by Ben Jackson, a 2020 James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef Northeast. The small menu is seasonally inspired, drawing from Maine’s diverse landscape and abundance. It is the perfect complement to Catapang’s intriguing and ever-changing cocktails.
Keep reading to learn more about how Catapang developed his craft, why the Crowd Surfer is one of his favorite cocktails on the menu, and where you can find him dining in Portland on his nights off.
AA: How did working with Bowman Brown influence your craft?
BC: I learned to really challenge myself and throw out the rule book. He’s continuously perfecting his dishes. It’s like the Kaizen approach where incremental improvements really add up over time. He would bring me different ingredients from the kitchen, like fermented butternut squash, and ask me if I could make it into a drink. Some of the best drinks that I’ve ever made have been crazy experiments, but not without a lot of trial and error.
AA: How would you describe your cocktail style?
BC: I’d say polished and a bit whimsical. I don’t like to use garnishes that don’t serve a purpose, even though it might make a drink look prettier. Sometimes my garnish is a spray, tincture, foam, or oil. It forces the drinker to be a bit more present and think about what they’re tasting. Ultimately, I try to make drinks that are complex yet approachable and familiar yet intriguing. When a guest is trying to figure out what they’re tasting, I consider that a win.
AA: What is one of your favorite cocktails that you’ve made?
BC: The Crowd Surfer was inspired by my love of surfing and the ocean. The drink has a margarita esque base made with fresh quality ingredients. I make it with your choice of Camarena tequila blanco or Banhez mezcal, lemon & lime juices, dry curaçao, and a touch of simple syrup. Instead of a traditional salt rim, I make a poblano and pineapple sea salt foam to top it off. The drink itself resembles a wave!
AA: How do you make the foam?
BC: I gather a five-gallon bucket of seawater from Fortunes Rocks, cook it down until it looks like wet sand, and dehydrate it until it’s just sea salt. Then, I add Ancho Reyes Verde and pineapple juice and charge it in a nitrous oxide canister. The first sip is airy and salty. It’s like when you’re swimming in the ocean and get smashed in the face with a white water wave.
AA: What are some of your favorite restaurants?
BC: I have to start in Biddeford. Palace Diner is a staple. I go there almost too often. Whether I’m there for breakfast or lunch, I always get the cheeseburger and a can of Coke. I also love Elda. I know I’m biased, but I truly believe Bowman Brown is one of the most talented chefs in Maine.
AA: What about in Portland?
BC: Sichuan Kitchen for sure. I love the Zhong dumplings, Yu-Xiang eggplant, spicy noodles with minced pork, and gong bao chicken! Everything is super flavorful and when you order takeout, the food is just as good as the day before because all the food sits in the aromatic oils and spices. I also really like Little Giant. Chef Neil uses creative and obscure ingredients. Sometimes I have no idea what I’m ordering, but that’s what I love. You can just trust him to drive.
AA: What does a typical meal out look like for you?
BC: I usually go to Izakaya Minato for a whiskey highball and a couple of small plates, like sashimi and the JFC (Japanese fried chicken). Then, I go across the street and get way too full at Cong Tu Bot. It reminds me of my childhood. My dad is Filipino and lived in Thailand for a while. He always took us to hole-in-the-wall places. Mom’s Fried Rice is great and I always get the pandan pancake no matter how full I am.
AA: Where have you been recently that really impressed you?
BC: I went to Ramona’s the other day. I had their breakfast hoagie and it was so good. Make sure you add the Calabrian chili spread. I was also very impressed with what they are doing over at Judy Gibson. The lamb tartare and gnocchi were delicious. And, Leeward. Jake and Raquel are so talented and Kate, the pastry chef, is unbelievable. I’m not a big dessert person, but everything she makes is wonderful. For savory dishes, I love the chicken liver mousse and mafaldine. The texture of the pasta is perfect and the meat sauce is so well balanced.
AA: Where do you go for a great cocktail?
BC: Hunt and Alpine is the institution. You’re going to get a really balanced drink there ten out of ten times. The Select Old-Fashioned is amazing. I’m jealous they have that barrel of Four Roses Bourbon. But honestly, when I go out I’m having a Budweiser or a Martini with a lemon twist. Woodford F&B is the bartender’s bar. Their drinks are great and you’ll always see other industry people there.
AA: Would you call yourself a “mixologist?”
BC: I prefer ‘bartender.’ Just because someone can make a fancy cocktail doesn’t make them a good bartender. It’s different. A mixologist might be able to make you the perfect negroni, but a great bartender knows how to handle their bar. They know their customers and what they drink. Mixologist is just a fancy word. A great bartender wears many hats, and they are always on stage. There’s nothing wrong with being called a bartender.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article: Palace Diner is back to serving indoors and is cash-only, Elda has reopened in their new location with a multi-course tasting menu (reservations required), Sichuan Kitchen and Ramona’s are open for takeout, Judy Gibson, Little Giant, Izakaya Minato, Hunt & Alpine, Woodford F&B and Leeward have indoor and outdoor seating, Cong Tu Bot is not currently open.