Welcome to the June 2022 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 Nathaniel Meiklejohn from The Jewel Box. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story on instagram, so stay tuned.
If the hardcore band Stormfront had made it big, no one would have ever tasted the exquisite cocktail creations of Nathaniel Meiklejohn — and that would have been a serious shame. Meiklejohn, who goes by Nan’l, was a member of the straight edge band throughout high school and continued to abstain from alcohol until he was twenty-one years old. He studied jazz guitar at the University of Maine in Augusta, but his career trajectory changed as he became more experienced in the restaurant industry.
During college, Nan’l bartended at The Liberal Cup in Hallowell and developed an appreciation for craft beer. In Portland, he bartended at Downtown Lounge on Congress Street, was the first male “cocktail waitress” at Fore Street, and spent five years at Local 188 learning how to make essential cocktails under the “legendary bar wizard,” John Myers. Although he mastered classic cocktails and the fundamentals of mixology, he felt his creativity was stifled in a restaurant setting.
An artist at heart, Nan’l found other avenues to develop his craft. In 2012, he teamed up with Joel Beauchamp and Katie and Josh Schier-Potocki from 158 Pickett Street Café (now closed) to launch a pop-up brunch series known as Pocket Brunch. The ticketed brunches were held at various locations, from restaurants and bars to sailboats and greenhouses, and featured multiple courses centered around a common theme.
Pocket Brunch encouraged Nan’l to take risks and think outside of the box. For the “Baller Brunch” at Broadturn Farm, he concocted a clear bloody mary made with horseradish-infused tomato water and poured it over a neatly chiseled ice sphere. He pushed cocktail boundaries at a dozen brunches, including one at his very own bar, The Jewel Box.
The Jewel Box debuted in September 2014 with widespread support from the community, and in 2022 earned a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for Outstanding Bar Program. His intriguing and ever-changing selection of cocktails drew clientele to a portion of Congress Street that had little going on at the time. Inspired by his former neo-victorian apartment on State Street, The Jewel Box glitters with chandeliers, brass fixtures, velvet curtains, and a floor-to-ceiling mural commissioned by local painter Elizabeth Kleene.
Despite its Victorian aesthetic, the vibe is far from stiff and pretentious. A glistening disco ball, eclectic music, and an all-inclusive atmosphere make The Jewel Box a lively and welcoming space. Continue reading to discover what Nan’l wants you to experience when you visit The Jewel Box, why he loves gin, where he goes in Portland for a great meal, and how he spends a day eating his way through Kittery.
AR: How does the experience at Jewel Box differ from your typical cocktail bar?
NM: It’s an intentional experience. I want people to focus on each other, not a TV or their phone. Bars usually cater to masculinity, and I wanted to do everything as feminine as I could. I wanted to make a bar for women and trans or underserved people. I definitely channeled both of my grandmother’s energies. I have some of their things on display — like that little deer on the top shelf.
AR: What is one of your favorite cocktails at The Jewel Box?
NM: The Shallow Grave is one of our go-to drinks. It’s definitely for adventurous types. It has Laphroaig Select single malt scotch whisky, Rothman & Winter creme de Violette, Regans’ orange bitters, housemade ginger honey syrup, and fresh-squeezed lime juice. It’s this wild mix of smokey, floral, fruity, and grayish-purple in color, like an ominous dark storm cloud.
AR: Do you have a favorite spirit?
NM: I gravitate towards gin. It has so many little secrets you can coax out with different ingredients. Every gin distillery has its proprietary blend. One of my favorites is Uncle Val’s. It’s super botanical and kind of sweet. You can just put it on the rocks and drink it. Back River Gin is made in Maine. That one is really nice; it’s super floral. Ransom is my favorite aged gin.
AR: What are your go-to restaurants in Portland?
NM: Cong Tu Bot is one of my favorites. I’ll try whatever is on special. The chicken pho is next level. They care about marginalized communities and other important issues. Vien and his partner Jessica also helped with some of the pocket brunches. I eat at Honey Paw a lot. They have several gluten-free options. I go there when I want a flavor party. I love Cong Tu Bot and Honey Paw because they’re not afraid of bold flavors.
AR: Where do you recommend going for a special occasion?
NM: I love the floor-to-ceiling aesthetics of Fore Street and the whole atmosphere there. It’s just really beautiful, and everything is so well-sourced. It’s fun to watch the chefs cook and listen to all the communication between the expo and kitchen.
AR: Where do you recommend for takeout?
NM: My staff and I order from Mi Sen a couple of days a week. It’s so good, and the staff is so sweet. I get the drunken noodle usually with tofu. The veggies in it are so fresh and crunchy. I also really like the satay chicken skewers, and the ginger noodles are amazing.
AR: Are there any restaurants you’re looking forward to trying for the first time?
NM: Generally, I don’t eat gluten, but occasionally I cheat. When I do cheat, I’m going to Leeward.
AR: What are your favorite restaurants outside of Portland?
NM: I recommend spending a day in Kittery — not the main strip, but right on the water. It’s like a little village within a one-block radius where you can get some of the best food in Maine. When I go to Kittery, I’m going to Lil’s Bakery first for a coffee and cruller. Then, I’ll go to lunch at Anju Noodle Bar. I usually go shopping at the strip mall and glassware hunting at the thrift stores. Then, I’ll have dinner at Black Birch. They always have a couple of salads on special, and I get whichever they recommend. I love their poutine and the deviled eggs. They always do something fun with them. Then, I’ll end the day with a drink at Wallingford Dram.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley Atsuko Fujimoto, Matt Ginn, Jordan Rubin, Cara Stadler, Thomas Takashi Cooke, Ilma Lopez, Bowman Brown, Brian Catapang, Kelly Nelson, Lee Farrington & Bryna Gootkind, Jake and Raquel Stevens, and Tina Cromwell.
The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the talent and hard work of food writer Angela Andre Roberts, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.