Oxford County, Maine, population 58,629, has seen some big changes since chef Alex White was growing up. It’s transformed from a sleepy rural area into a destination and an up-and-coming retreat from Portland, with a casino, two breweries, and a cool food culture, spurred in part by White’s restaurant, XVault Pub & Provisions.
The vault part of the name comes from the remnant of the former bank tenant: the stunning Mosler safe, gold and blue inner workings revealed in the open door situated behind the bar. The X is based on mathematic terminology: the variable or unknown quantity in an equation.
“Our menu is ever-changing,” said White, who is head chef and co-owner of the pub. “We switch up what we are doing a lot.”
The menu does have a few standards: the smash burger, ramen, flatbread of the week, and variations on Maine farmer New York strip steak. Serving what White calls Korean American pub cuisine, kimchi, Korean-style fermented cabbage, appears frequently on the menu. One staple dish is tacos with braised beef, kimchi, coleslaw, and sriracha mayo.
The rest of the offerings fluctuate through the seasons. Noodle dishes range from shrimp ramen spaghetti, with garlic chili shrimp and parmesan, to traditional Bolognese, with braised meat and tomatoes. Cocktails feature Maine-crafted rum and local maple syrup. Everything is handmade.
While the food is gourmet-level and the service excellent, the setting is casually comfortable. Patrons often remain in the dining room well past the 9:00 p.m. kitchen closing. A little over half of diners visit from out of town, many from other states on their way to Sunday River Ski Resort. Even though XVault has been open for seven years, it does not widely advertise and is still building its clientele. “We want to be a hole-in-the-wall you found through word-of-mouth, a hidden gem,” explained White.
A Chef’s Journey Home
White’s childhood in rural Maine was the ideal preparation for becoming a chef and restaurant owner. He was adopted into a huge Italian family that fit the gastronomic stereotype. He said, “The first and last questions of every day were, ‘what do you want to eat?’” His high school offered a half-day culinary vocational program that gave him fundamental kitchen skills and a confidence in his abilities.
After high school graduation, White was itching to be far from home, and moved for college to Miami, Florida. He left Maine, but Maine wouldn’t leave him.
White soon realized he would rather be in a kitchen than in school. He struggled to find restaurant work in Miami as a 17-year-old until he landed a position because of a Maine connection with the owner. Both had worked at Seeds of Peace, a summer camp that focused on building bridges between kids from different Middle Eastern backgrounds.
As his culinary star began to rise, White moved to Boston, where he worked as a sous chef with the Barbara Lynch Group at just 21 years old. In 2016, he was at a crossroads: with two enviable offers at Michelin star restaurants, one in California and one in Mexico City, he was tossing the coin of fate to choose his next move.
That was when Maine came calling. White had developed a relationship with dentist Myung Kim through hours of reconstructive dental work in high school. Kim had followed White’s career and sought him out for a new business venture: to return to Oxford County as the head chef at XVault, in the main floor beneath his dental practice.
“I was most definitely not planning to move back to Maine,” said White. “Then I saw the place and instantly realized it could be really fun.”
The partners have since opened TableX, a Sundays-only fine dining experience housed in the XVault building. The prix fixe tasting menu features up to 13 courses and four glasses of wine, with a focus on local ingredients.
In 2022, the opportunity to add another restaurant fell into their laps, again because of White’s childhood connections. The family of one of his best friends owned a pizzeria, and wanted to retire after 35 years in the business. After reimagining and elevating the menu, White and Kim opened Norway Pizza Xchange in a neighboring town.
White has no regrets about returning, with refined cooking skills, to his rural roots. “I thought I would be leaving Maine, but it is a very easy place to come back to and feel at home,” he said.
Kimchi Tips from Chef Alex White
Kim Chee is Korean fermented cabbage and it pops up in all kinds of dishes at XVault. White knows it has a bit of funkiness to it and uses the following techniques to introduce it to diners at the pub.
- Soften the flavor by cooking it.
- Saute it with rice or eggs, then top with American or cheddar cheese.
- Use it as a seasoning instead of a dish. Add it to braised beef for Korean tacos or to a burger with onion rings and BBQ sauce.
Thanks to reader Ben Crockett who recommended XVault for our rural restaurant series!