Entering a beloved neighborhood bistro is a welcoming embrace for the senses.

Pepper-crusted ahi at David's 388 in South Portland

Oil sizzles in a pan. A pungent haze smells of garlic and butter. Furtive glances flicker from tightly clustered diners. A hostess beams in greeting.

Crossing the threshold into David’s 388 in South Portland last night was — exactly — that.

Upscale, yet relaxed, the restaurant features painted tin ceilings, speckled drop lights and flickering candles on a smattering of two-tops. At the rear, a raised marble Chef’s Counter and four leather stools overlook a compact kitchen.

Ushered through the small, packed space we settled in at the counter. More of an eater than a cook, these “sneak a peek” food bars are just my speed. I felt immediately at home. Tensions of the day eased as I sipped a glass of Pinot Noir.

Order in, I shifted my attention to the action and watched Chef de Cuisine, Bo Byrne, shake and shuffle skillets of all sizes – steam billowing with scent. His assistant chef, Katie, molded little green balls of wasabi to pair with the night’s most popular dish – pepper crusted sushi rare tuna.

Adam opted for this ahi along with crispy duck potstickers as an appetizer. I choose a caprese salad and mushroom dusted haddock.

The Ahi: Served with a Szechwan citrus dipping sauce, the Ahi itself was pink and fresh with a plump sashimi texture. Pepper dominated, but did not overwhelm. Heat (red chile, maybe?) and sesame perfectly flavored the accompanying asparagus. A pile of soba noodles was the downer of the dish. Fixed too far ahead of serving, the noodles were squishy and listless — and lay there uneaten.

The exceptional mushroom-dusted haddock.

Crispy Potstickers: In a word – tasty. Very, very tasty. Hoisin-forward in flavor, the crunchy little pockets crackled when bitten and burst with sweetness and tang. Filled with tender duck, cabbage and carrots, they sat atop arugula riddled with tiny apricot chunks. Killer combination. Our only issue – a tad too oily.

Caprese Salad: While pleasantly — and simply — flavored with balsamic and salt, the salad was the night’s disappointment. Tomatoes were kinda mealy and the mozzarella uninspired. Scants sprigs of basil did little to help. Not totally bad, mind you, just boring.

Mushroom Dusted Haddock: The night’s BIG standout. Moist, meaty haddock encased in an earthy mushroom essence draped over a bed of savory risotto. Spinach, first steamed in vegetable stock, then braised to perfection by the artistic pour of a sizzling ragout, added a bright, fresh zip.

And – OMG — the ragout: a delicious blend of white button, shitake and oyster mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, leeks and white wine — finished with healthy splash of delicate clam broth and butter at the very end. Awesome.

The Service: Excellent, friendly, prompt and laid-back. Truly perfect. Our waitress, Jane (I asked, she didn’t offer – points in her favor), served with a wonderful mixture of warmth and efficiency. Bo and Katie juggled questions from me with poise and professionalism. All three made a point to thank us for coming.

Our Opinion: Mostly lovely food and a remarkably enjoyable dining environment.  We will certainly visit this welcoming neighborhood bistro again.

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